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During 1954-55, playwright Terence Rattigan was the toast of the town in London and Broadway due to Separate Tables, two interlinked one-act plays set in the Beauregard Private Hotel near Bournemouth. The first of these plays concerned an alcoholic writer and his encounter with his former wife who is partially responsible for his current demoralized state. The second was about a dubious Army major charged with molesting girls in a nearby movie theatre, but finding redemption through the love of a sympathetic spinster living in the same accomodations. The plays were originally directed by Peter Glenville on the stage, but what held them together was a theatrical device whereby one actor and actress (Eric Portman and Margaret Leighton) would double as the principal characters in each play, while around them the supporting cast (as hotel guests) remained the same throughout the evening.
That crucial linking device was abandoned, however, when Separate Tables (1958) was bought for the screen by the Hecht-Hill-Lancaster company. The original plan was to film the plays with Laurence Olivier (he would also direct) and Vivien Leigh doubling the leading roles. Then the film company decided a more 'bankable' star was needed for the box office, at which point it was suggested that Burt Lancaster, one of the co-producers, step in to play the drunken journalist. Olivier immediately clashed with Lancaster over the interpretation of the John Malcolm role and, with his wife, pulled out of the project altogether (one version goes that Olivier campaigned for Spencer Tracy in the role). It was then decided that Rita Hayworth, the fiancee of Lancaster's partner and fellow producer (James Hill), should play the fashion model. However, Lancaster and Hayworth decided not to play the characters in the second story and David Niven and Deborah Kerr were cast instead. This had the inevitable effect of making the first half of the play appear tailored for American audiences while the second half was distinctly British. It was at this late date when director Delbert Mann was brought aboard.
"My first instinct," Mann recalled in The Other Side of the Moon: The Life of David Niven by Sheridan Morley, "was that I was quite the wrong kind of director, and I'd never even been to Bournemouth or experienced that totally British small-hotel life; but Harold Hecht sent me there to research it, and within half a day I'd found prototypes of all the characters that Terry had written about, all living there in retirement homes - the old schoolmaster, the little lady who played the horses, the retired Army man....Our main problem was getting a screenplay which would turn the two original plays into just one narrative line, and we had about five attempts with different writers, including Terry himself, before we finally got it right. Even then I still had great reservations about David: the role of the major was so different from anything I'd seen him do before."
Mann needn't have worried; Niven won the Oscar for Best Actor in Separate Tables. His performance, which was a complete departure from his screen image as a debonair sophisticate, proved he was capable of more serious roles yet he didn't capitalize on it, sticking instead to mostly romantic comedies and action thrillers the remainder of his career. As for the other six Oscar nominations the movie received, including one for Best Picture, Separate Tables only won in the Best Supporting Actress category. Wendy Hiller took home an Academy Award for her portrayal of the hotel proprietress, Miss Cooper, but Deborah Kerr lost in the Best Actress category to Susan Hayward for I Want to Live(1958). And the Best Picture Oscar for 1958 went to Gigi.
Director: Delbert Mann
Producer: Harold Hecht
Screenplay: John Gay, John Michael Hayes (uncredited), Terence Rattigan (also play)
Cinematography: Charles Lang Jr.
Editor: Charles Ennis, Marjorie Fowler
Art Direction: Edward Carrere
Music: David Raksin
Cast: Deborah Kerr (Sibyl Railton-Bell), Rita Hayworth (Ann Shankland), David Niven (Major Pollack), Wendy Hiller (Pat Cooper), Burt Lancaster (John Malcolm), Gladys Cooper (Mrs. Railton-Bell).
BW-100m. Letterboxed. Closed Captioning.
by Jeff Stafford