With major motion pictures looking more like overproduced TV shows: Man of Steel, Star Trek Into Darkness, Fast and Furious: God Only Knows How Many, and binge-watch television programming providing the most satisfying films around— my personal faves being: Sherlock, Downton Abbey, 2008’s In Treatment—I suspect it’s only a matter of time before I completely jettison the cinephile conceit of this blog and concentrate exclusively on television movies. As it’s widely believed today’s Golden Age of film is taking place not on our movie screens but on the HD flatscreens in our living rooms (a great article on the topic can be found here at Joe’s View), I’ll seize upon the current zeitgeist as an opportunity to highlight a 1983 cable TV adaptation of a play that takes advantage of the intimacy-enhancing attributes of the diminished-screen medium, to produce a work a great deal truer to its source material than the Oscar-winning 1958 motion adaptation.
Terence Rattigan’s two-act play, Separate Tables debuted on Broadway in 1956 after having enjoyed a successful run in London’s West End since 1954. Four years later, Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, and Deborah Kerr starred in a significantly reworked film version that garnered seven Oscar nominations (including Best Picture) with awards going to Niven and co-star, Wendy Hiller.
|Rita Hayworth and Burt Lancaster in the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables|
But to be fair, I suppose the true source of my dissatisfaction with the Lancaster movie lies in my having been exposed, just two weeks prior, to the vastly superior 1983 HBO television adaptation of Separate Tables directed by John Schlesinger (Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust and Sunday, Bloody Sunday) and starring—be still my heart — Julie Christie and Alan Bates. Heretofore unknown by me (how was THAT possible?), this film is simply an extraordinary acting showcase for all concerned, and something of a minor miracle. It's such a feast of stunning performances and heart-wrenching emotion (far more faithful to Rattigan's play) that the rather cool film version can't help but pale in comparison.
|Julie Christie as Anne Shankland|
|Julie Christie as Sibyl Railton-Bell|
|Alan Bates as John Malcolm Ramsden|
|Alan Bates as Major David Angus Pollock|
Filmed in Bristol, England following the $24 million dollar mega-flop of Honky Tonk Freeway (1981), a movie that signaled the end of John Schlesinger's glory days as the go-to expatriate director of big-budget hits. The excellence of Separate Tables would appear to signal a kind of career resurgence for John Schlesinger, but instead marks the last glimmer of brilliance in a steady professional decline for the director that extended from his last hit feature film - the 1976 thriller, Marathon Man - to his death in 2003. There’s no guessing what lay behind the mediocrity of most of Schlesinger's post-1983 films, but something about returning to his homeland, working with a nearly all-British cast, and being reunited with two actors whose careers he's largely responsible for having ignited (Julie Christie: Darling - 1965, Alan Bates: A Kind of Loving - 1962), brings out the Schlesinger of old. Always a gifted actor's director with an eye for the broken spirit behind the artifice of calm, Separate Tables is top-form John Schlesinger, and a triumph on every level. I was hoping for a good movie, but I wasn't expecting a TV-film I hadn't even known existed before this year would turn out to be one of the finest films of John Schlesinger’s very distinguished career.In “Table by the Window,” Julie Christie (looking quite the stunner in an elaborate 50s hairdo that succeeds where several of her high-profile period dramas of the 60s hadn't…getting Christie to abandon her trademark bangs) plays an aging fashion model “accidentally” reunited with ex-husband, Alan Bates, a disgraced Labor politician drowning his regrets in drink and a one-sided love affair with the hotel’s compassionate proprietress, Claire Bloom. “Table Number Seven” has Christie as a childlike, repressed spinster dominated by her mother (the splendid Irene Worth) and infatuated with a posturing military Major (Bates) harboring a dark secret.
The entirety of Separate
Tables occurs within the dining room and lounge of The Beauregard Hotel, a modest residence hotel in the resort
town of Bournemouth, on the south coast of England. Concerning itself with the
lives and interactions of the hotel’s sundry inhabitants - most of them elderly, nearly all of them
alone - Act I: “Table by the Window” takes place in December, 1954; Act II: “Table
Number Seven” occurs some 18 months later. As is the custom with most theatrical
productions of Separate Tables, the lead roles in Acts I & II, while different
characters, are played by the same actors. Thus, not only are we blessed with
the reteaming of frequent movie co-stars Julie Christie and Alan Bates (Far from the Madding Crowd, The Go-Between, Return of the Soldier), but we're granted
the exceptionally rare treat of seeing these awe-inspiring actors in dual roles. (This device was abandoned in
the film version, which cast different actors in each role and compresses the
events of a year and a half into one overwrought couple of days.)
|Irene Worth as Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell|
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM:
I’m showing my age when I say I feel the same about good acting as young audiences today feel about noise, explosions, stunts, and special effects: I don’t need much else. Separate Tables is pretty much a filmed play. There’s essentially one big set, no superfluous “opening up” of the sort engaged in by the 1958 film, and if there’s any kind of cinematic dexterity on display at all, it’s Schlesinger’s ability to unearth so many interesting angles in such cramped quarters (although a pesky boom mic shadow makes an appearance in one scene). But with a cast as talented as the one assembled for this TV movie, all you can wish for is that the director keep the filmmaking gimmicks to a minimum and just let the actors do their stuff. And, happily, that is just what Schlesinger does. The performances in Separate Tables are the main attraction, and let me tell you, there's not a IMAX CGI experience that can match the thrill of watching gifted actors at the top of their game.
|Resident busybodies Miss. Meacham (Sylvia Barter) and Mrs. Railton-Bell (Worth) unearth some unpleasant news about one of the hotel guests.|
A welcome problem with having a favorite actor about whose work one has written enthusiastically time and time again, is the fear that you’re going to one day run out of superlatives. Well, in the case of Julie Christie, I think I've hit it. In having already posted essays on no less than six Julie Christie films to date, I had more or less paced myself for forthcoming posts on Shampoo, Heaven Can Wait, Billy Liar, and Heat and Dust. As I'm very familiar with her performances in these films, I had no concerns as to what I would be called upon to write about once the time arose. Separate Tables, on the other hand, blindsided me. Because I had heard so little about it (make that NOTHING) I suspected it was due to it being one of her lesser efforts. Wrong! Quite the contrary, in a long career of noteworthy performances that never fail to leave me deeply impressed by her beauty, skill, and sheer star quality, her work in the dual roles of Separate Tables left me fairly thunderstruck. Julie Christie's not just good in Separate Tables, she's magnificent. She gives what is for me the absolute best performance of her career. And given how over the moon I am about her already, that's really saying a a mouthful.
THE STUFF OF FANTASY:
Say what you will about the cultural tradition of “English Reserve”, but a society rooted in formality and rituals designed to conceal emotion and ensure personal distance makes for some seriously fascinating drama. What gives Separate Tables its profound intensity (and where this particular cast most notably excels) is that the characters so often speak in ways antithetical to how they really feel.
In less talented hands, such restraint can result in a film that feels icy and removed. But when you have a cast of actors capable of showing the concealed layers of sensitivity behind the stiff-upper-lip dialog, you get characterizations of staggering depth and complexity. It’s very poignant and often heartbreaking to see these flawed characters struggling to maintain their decorum while every fiber of their being is screaming out to be loved and understood. As I've indicated, the entire cast is flawless, but special mention has to go to Alan Bates (whose Major Pollock is nothing short of transcendent) and the always-enchanting Claire Bloom. Both give truly wondrous performances.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS:
His works often a subtle criticism of the rigidity of the upper classes and the crippling emotional effects of living in a society that encourages suppression and isolation; in Separate Tables, gay playwright Terence Rattigan (author of The Sleeping Prince, which was made into the Marilyn Monroe film, The Prince and the Showgirl) makes several deliberate pleas for acceptance and tolerance of those who don't fit in or who might be viewed as “different” by the majority populace.
There are other, equally insightful entreaties in the play for the abidance of a compassionate humanity towards those we don't understand, all of them capable of inducing a major case of waterworks when delivered by such a stellar cast.
Note: Those interested can research Separate Tables online to read more about a gay subplot that was considered for the Broadway version but ultimately jettisoned before opening.
Also, there's a great post on Separate Tables to be found on film blog, Mike's Movie Projector.
A big shout out of thanks to my good friends Jeff Marquis and Chris Tassin, two faithful readers of this blog who, upon learning of my obsession with all things Julie Christie, graciously and very generously sent me a copy of Separate Tables. It has only ever had a VHS release, never appears on television, and is as rare as hen's teeth on eBay. You might well imagine that I flipped my graying wig when I received it, and as I had such a delicious time crying my eyes out watching it, I will forever be in their debt.
Jeff and Chris are the comic geniuses behind Punchy Players, a series of hilariously loopy viral videos that have made a smash on YouTube. If you're a classic film fan (and what would you doing here is you weren't?), you owe it to yourself to check out these great videos HERE.
Lastly, I have to give a big hug and kiss of thanks to my sweetheart (whom I'll spare by not mentioning his name). For without him I would never have seen the long-out of print 1958 version of Separate Tables. After watching the Schlesinger version, he knew the film geek in me was chomping at the bit to see how it compared to the award-winning original. I was nevertheless content to wait and see if it would turn up on TCM sometime, when, out of the blue, my hon dug up a rare DVD copy online and surprised me with it! That just about knocked me out.
As Separate Tables is a film about the importance of friendship and the indispensability of love, I dedicate this post to my good friends, and my true love. Thanks so much, guys!
Copyright © Ken Anderson