Saturday, June 22, 2013

SEPARATE TABLES 1983

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
Though aware of the 1958 film adaptation of Separate Tables by reputation, I only just this month got around to actually seeing it. Alas, in spite of its pedigree, cast, awards, and overall fine performances (excluding the jarringly ineffectual duo of Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth. He, doing all of his acting with his teeth; she, going for superficial but coming off as merely artificial), I was underwhelmed. A handsome production to be sure, but strangely inert.
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.
Irene Worth as Mrs. Maud Railton-Bell
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.)
Claire Bloom as Miss Cooper
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.
All of these characters share the common, pitiable trait of fighting to maintain a sense of dignity while struggling to cope with regret, loss, disillusionment, age, fear, and most acutely, loneliness. Within the crippling confines of staid, British social conventions - such as the doggedly adhered-to tradition of hotel guests dining at separate tables in spite of sometimes years-long associations - Separate Tables provides a most moving dramatization of the contradictious nature (frail, yet resilient) of the human soul.

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.
PERFORMANCES:
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.
Having carved an early career out of playing self-involved and shallow characters, Christie is in fine form and well-trod territory as the vainglorious Anne in "Table by the Window." But what I love is how, after playing variations on this type for years now, she's still able to find bits of invention that are wholly astonishing. A favorite: In a moment of defensive desperation when her character confesses to her accusing husband, "You see, I've still got a little pride left !" Christie conveys in a split second, with just vocal emphasis and the look in her eyes, the kind of wounded dignity a person clings to moments before having to relinquish everything to the fear of being alone. It's a brilliant moment.
But without a doubt, my highest praise is reserved for Julie Christie in "Table Number Seven." I've never seen her in the role of the mousy underdog before, and witnessing a severely deglamorized Christie - who always registers such strength and intelligence - losing herself within a character of tissue-thin self esteem and naked vulnerability, is rather glorious. She floored me completely and the double-barreled impact of both roles is both mesmerizing and unforgettable.  

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.
Sibyl: "What's the matter with me? There must be something the matter with me...I'd so like to be ordinary."
Miss. Cooper: "I've never met an ordinary person. The one thing I've learnt in five years is that the word 'normal' applied to any human creature is utterly meaningless."
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.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS:
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

13 comments:

  1. What a wonderful cast! I too was underwhelmed by the 1958 version, but to see Christie and Bates together, along with the rest of this stellar cast, would shed an entirely new light on the proceedings.

    Not that I am a big Rattigan fan - (What a huge, huge disappointment The Prince and the Showgirl is, not because both Sir Larry and MM aren't fantastic, which they are, but the script is as dull as flat champagne.) - but this 1983 cast seems very promising. I LOVE Claire Bloom and Irene Worth...and am a huge Julie Christie and Alan Bates fan.

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    1. You would certainly like this version. The difference from the 1958 film is so marked as to make this one feel like an different story.
      I am with you on "The Prince and the Showgirl." I find it thoroughly charmless. You are on the money in describing it as flat. I am a big fan of Rattigan's "The Browning Version", especially the 1994 Albert Finney adaptation.
      I hope this version of "Separate Tables" gets a DVD release. Irene Worth and Claire Bloom are spectacularly good.

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  2. Marvellous stuff - I also recently re-saw this and got a vhs cassette edition (which I have now copied to dvd), its even better than I remembered. I too like Julie Christie and Alan Bates and Claire Bloom and they are all terrific here - as per my own blog report:
    http://osullivan60.blogspot.co.uk/2013/05/separate-tables-for-return-of-soldier.html

    It is a fascinating contrast too with the popular 1958 film where Kerr is terrific but I never liked Niven's bogus major, while Lancaster and Hayworth just don't fit in to this essentially british milieu. That film dovetailed both acts into one narrative, thus trimming some of the text and inserting other bits (like where Sybil comforts Mrs Shankhill, which could not happen in the original text). The 1983 version is more of a plea for tolerance too for people who are "different", we also see more of Miss Cooper, the manager, and there is more of the young husband (Brian Deacon) arguing with Mrs Railton Bell. Interestingly in this correct version of the play in 2 acts, the young couple of the first act now have a baby who gets all the wife's attention and she sides with Mrs Railton Bell whereas he doesn't. Irene Worth here makes a splendid suburban bully in her tweeds and twinsets, unlike the icy malice of Gladys Cooper in the '58 film. So, lots of different contrasts, its is good though to have a good record of the play with all these players in their prime. Bates and Christie in their 4th outing together have seldom been better, as directed by John Schlesinger.

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    1. Sorry, I had not seen your mention of my blog post on it, before I posted my reply!

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    2. I enjoyed your post on this film very much. I was surprised to find that you wrote about it just a month or so ago. And here I hadn't even heard of it until my friend brought it up!
      I guess I'll never know how I might have felt about the 1958 version had I am with you in finding that some of the changes in the structure and the handing over of bits of dialog to other characters winds up cutting the heart and poignancy out of Rattigan's play.
      (Hated them having Lancaster be the first to speak to the disgraced Major in the film. By not having one of the lesser hotel guests speak first, it feels like a simple act of human decency was turned into a Hollywood-style act of Yankee heroism.) Thanks for commenting and stopping by, Michael!

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  3. I have never heard of this production either and am very impressed by the cast that was put together. Christie is unrecognizable in some of the caps above. I love that '50s look on her, a vague resemblance to Jill Ireland that I would likely never have noticed before this. When I was a kid, HBO and Showtime would occasionally have these filmed plays on and I wasn't interested in them at all. Now that I'm older, I'm sure I would appreciate them a lot. How great that they exist as a record of the acting performances contained within. Thanks for sharing. Interesting reading, as always!

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  4. Hi Poseidon!
    Yes, after seeing Christie maintain her mod 60s bangs and neutral lipstick throughout "Doctor Zhivago" and "Far from the Madding Crowd," it's wonderful to see her look so terrific in period-appropriate makeup and hairdo.
    In the second act, it literally took me a second to recognize her. I think you would love this TV play and I hope it gets a DVD release sometime.
    Ely and Edie Landau, the couple behind The American Film Theater series, produced this film. They were like the last of the great patrons of the arts to think it valuable to commit great plays to film. More's the pity for us these days.
    Hope you get to catch this sometime. Thanks for the kind words!

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  5. Wow, I haven't heard of this '83 version, but it sounds magnificent. I recall the '58 version (which can be seen on youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pmvDE-B2Fbk ) and had not been impressed, especially with Lancaster's clunky performance and his lack of chemistry w/Hayworth (I actually found myself rooting for Wendy Hiller). I think the '58 version attracted attention because of the atypical role for dapper David Niven; the Academy, true to form, gave him an Oscar for his efforts. I have to admit that, had the 58 movie been done true to the play's structure, trying to imagine Lancaster and Hayworth in the roles essayed by Niven and Kerr is beyond my feeble mental capacity!

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    1. It's really a crime this isn't on DVD. Shot on video, I'm sure the film won't look like much on HD TVs, but the incredible performances are worth the poor quality. And indeed, both Lancaster and Hayworth had more than they could handle in a single role. A dual role for the pair is unimaginable by me, as well.

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  6. I'm so glad you've unearthed a forgotten film with Julie Christie. How wonderful that it also turns out to be her best performance! It's a shame that such a good film can become so forgotten, that even a film lover like you didn't know about it.

    Was this a BBCTV- movie? Why was it not released in cinemas? Maybe it was because both Christie's and Schlesinger's film careers languished in the 1980s. This fine film could have sparked some well deserved interest for them.

    Have you read the biography about Schlesinger? I enjoyed it a lot but I can't remember what it said about the decline in his film career. It seems strange that he would direct a car chase film like "Honky Tonk Freeway" and that such an action film would flop! It seems light years away from "Separate Tables".

    You are such a skilled writer. You brought this little known film to life with your review! I hope it will get released on dvd some day. I'm also looking forward to read your review of "Heat and Dust" (one of my film favourites).
    -Wille

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    1. Hello Wille!
      I have to say, I've read biographies of John Schlesinger (the one you mention) and one of Julie Christie, and I forgot this film because in both tomes, "Separate Tables" rated barely a mention.
      It wasn't a BBC movie but for America's HBO financed by this terrific producer (Ely Landau) who brought classic films to the screen.
      I've no real-time recollection of it at all, but its unknown status is puzzling. As talented as John Schlesinger was he was plagued by doubts about his talents and was perhaps sucked into the Hollywood thinking of "You're only as good as your last picture." In reading the book it seemed as if he was unduly concerned with making "hits" and felt that by taking on behemoths like "Honky Tonk Freeway" (which, in my opinion IS a mess) prospective employers would no longer see him as the British director of small independents.
      It seemed to me that he was a real artist and ill-suited to the braggadocio world of Hollywood where people are proud of crap if it's moneymaking crap, and small films of excellence (like this) are judged by their ratings (I'm not sure how it did ratings wise. Bates and Christie won Cable awards -this was before the Emmys integrated cableTV into it- but I have a hard time imagining American households settling in for a night of British theater) and moneymaking potential.
      If you get a chance to see this or perhaps rent it from a library, I encourage you to do so. And thanks for the compliments on my writing. I'm working at it!
      PS- Glad to know you're familiar with "Heat and Dust"!

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  7. I just stumbled across your finely-written piece about Separate Tables. Thank you so much! It pains me that this fine (film? theater piece?) is still unavailable on DVD or BluRay or On-Demand. I haven't seen it for 30 years and would LOVE to welcome it back into my home.

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    1. That's very kind of you to leave a comment after stumbling upon this post. 30 years is a very long time not to have seen this wonderful TV film. Given its cast I'm rather surprised some distributor hasn't released it on DVD or that it hasn't shown up on cable in the wee small hours. Simply criminal.
      Had I any equiptment to render a copy of this, I would gladly whisk it off to you. But I'm learning things all the time an perhaps I will find a way of posting it on YouTube (copyrights providing) and you'll be the first on my list to send a link.
      Still, you're one of the lucky few to have seen it when first aired, so you at least know of its pleasures, performance wise. Thanks for commenting and stopping by my blog!

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