getTV Rita Hayworth Blogathon: Separate Tables
Without the use of special effects, violence, or even a slick, polished plot, Delbert Mann’s Separate Tables remains one of the most riveting films I’ve ever seen. The 1958 masterpiece weaves together the desperate lives of the lonely, repressed residents of an English seaside hotel. The film offers its audience an intimate portrait of what it means to be a human being; quietly desperate for recognition even while surrounded by the people you call your neighbors. The film is told through a series of vignettes, offering the viewer a peak into the lives of these insular creatures of the hotel and featuring an exceptionally terrific ensemble cast of David Niven, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, Gladys Cooper, Wendy Hiller and our women of the evening, Rita Hayworth.
In the film, Hayworth plays Ann Shankland, a beautiful but lonely cover girl who has come to the seaside hotel in Bournemouth to reconnect with her ex-husband, played by Burt Lancaster. Theirs is a simple but common narrative; a narrative of two broken souls so desperately in love, yet so terribly wrong for each other. From their shared scenes, we gather that their marriage was a whirlwind of delirious highs and maddening lows. Both characters seem to bring out the best and worst of each other, culminating in a prison sentence for abuse, and divorce with each character seemingly almost equal to blame.
What I love about Hayworth’s performance in this film is how multi-layered it is. When we first meet Ann, it’s through the eyes of the hotel residents. She is beautiful, cosmopolitan, young and seemingly dismissive of everyone in the hotel. The very model of, well, Model behavior. As the audience, we are meant to believe she is a cool, calm creature of ice and beauty. Like the rest of the residents at the Bournemouth, Ann offers surface airs of politeness, while remaining cold and distant from those she speaks with. All that changes, however, when her ex-husband John (Lancaster) enters the picture.
In their first scene together, we get their basic story. They loved, they fought, things turned violent and John went to jail. And during this scene, Ann has most of the control – control over herself, control over John and control over the situation. She, for the most part, remains the ice queen she was when she entered the picture and takes charge of the conversation. Just like with the residents of the hotel, Ann offers nothing but calculated politeness, urging him to give the information she wants – information about his life. Sure, she gives some information about her current life, but it’s clear she only wants to get a rise out of her old husband. She preys on his emotions and, understanding what makes him tick, conceals her true intentions under a guise of false charms and geniality. But right at the end of the scene, right after she gets the information she wants – that John is currently engaged to a women he loves – we see a slight shift in her icy demeanor, a glimmer of disappointment that she keeps repressed, despite its clear efforts to bubble up to the surface.
And it’s this bubbling repression that makes her performance so great, because for the rest of the film, we see those repressed emotions and that carefully-built facade crack until it crumbles. In her next big scene with Lancaster, things play out much the same way. She’s quiet and precise in her manipulation of John, pulling his strings until he rants and raves about their failed marriage and complicated history. However, as the scene progresses, some genuine emotions shine through. She admits to loneliness, softens her speech and still very much appears to be in-love with John despite that fact that he attempted to kill her during one of the most heated moments of their relationship. So, they retreat to her room – number 12.
Just as it seems that the two are going to reconcile their relationship, the dynamic shifts. John, still in love with Ann but dedicated to his new fiancee, calls her bluff. It wasn’t just love that brought her back, but the fact that he — her personal emotional play-thing for years — was engaged to someone else and she could lose him forever. And just like that, her masks falls away. The ice queen becomes the desperate beggar, pleading with John to stay with her – so obviously desperate for his passionate but volatile attention. Gone are the airs of an upper east side fashion model with her false smiles and empty manners. Instead we see the final layer, the very core of Ann’s being – a lonely, sad woman despite the one thing that makes her actually feel, even if the feeling isn’t entirely positive. And with that reveal of her true self, Hayworth gives one of her best performances.
“This post is part of the “getTV Rita Hayworth Blogathon” hosted by Classic Movie Hub and running during the entire month of October. Please visit getTVschedule to see a full list of Rita Hayworth films airing on the channel this month, and please be sure to visit Classic Movie Hub for a full list of other Blogathon entries.”
–Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub