by Brian Fanelli
Released 60 years ago, Separate Tables, directed by Delbert Mann, feels ahead of its time, especially in the context of the #MeToo Movement, the Women’s March, and the recent criticism of toxic masculinity. The 1958 film features female characters that thwarted the conventions of the time and a male character who embellishes his personal history to fit into a rigid gender construct.
The film is set in the Beauregard Hotel and generally revolves around four main characters, Major Pollack (David Niven), whose dark secret is one of the main plot points, Sibyl Railton-Bell (Deborah Kerr), who struggles to break free of her domineering mother, John Malcolm (Burt Lancaster), an alcoholic writer, and Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth), a wealthy fashionista who comes to the hotel to rekindle an old romance with Malcolm.
Sibyl and Major Pollack are the first characters introduced, and he is the only character that she connects to, much to the disgust of her mother, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper). After talking with Major Pollack, Sibyl is warned by her mother not to be seen talking with him because she is becoming a source of gossip. In other words, her mother puts the idea in her head that people may think she is a slut. When Sibyl frets about it, her mother tells her not to “get into one of her states.” Several times, Mrs. Railton-Bell uses the idea of madness and hysteria to silence Sibyl and keep her in line. This technique draws parallels to Shirley Jackson’s short fiction and novels, especially 1959’s The Haunting of Hill House, in which female protagonist Eleanor’s sanity is questioned. This idea is also addressed in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which the female narrator is kept housebound by her husband John, the story’s all-encompassing authority who wields the idea of madness and hysteria the same way that Mrs. Railton-Bell does. At one point, Sibyl pleads with her mother to be allowed to work and says, “If only I could do something.” Her mother counters that she is not a strong woman, her nervous system is weak, and she can’t work because she’ll have hysterical fits. Ultimately, Sibyl stands up to her mother and finally tells her no during the last scene, thus she finds her voice and independence.
Mrs. Railton-Bell is also the film’s antagonist because she tries to get Major Pollack booted from the hotel after she reads in a newspaper that he was arrested after approaching women in a movie theater. She calls a meeting with the hotel guests and is adamant that he be kicked out. However, several other characters, including John Malcolm, first want to hear his side of the story. The meeting that Mrs. Railton-Bell calls reminded me of the #MeToo Movement. On the one hand, I don’t condone the actions of Major Pollack or the men who have been accused by the movement and lost their jobs as a result, but on the other hand, sometimes we do need to hear both sides of the story.
What truly makes Major Pollack a monster/outsider and triggers his behavior in the cinema is the fact that he can’t fit into the rigid constructs of masculinity. There are hints early in the film that he’s not who he says he is and that his military career may have some embellishments. Eventually, he confesses to Sibyl that women have always terrified him and he’s never been able to approach them in the ways that men are taught to approach women, to seize what they want. He says, “You'll never guess this, I know, but ever since school I've always been scared to death of women... of everyone, in a way, I suppose, but mostly of women. I had a bad time at school… Boys hate other boys to be timid and shy, and they gave it to me good and proper. My father despised me, too. He was a Sergeant major in the Scots Guards. He made me join the Army, but I was always a bitter disappointment to him. He died before I got my commission. I got that by a wangle, too. It wasn't very difficult at the beginning of the war. But it meant everything to me, just the same: being saluted, being called ‘sir’. I thought, ‘I'm someone now, a real person. Perhaps some woman might even...’ But it didn't work. It never has worked. I'm made in a certain way and I can't change it.”
Only when Major Pollack comes clean and gives up trying to fit into some rigid notion of manhood can he find happiness and acceptance, including from the other hotel residents, other than Mrs. Railton-Bell. He also connects with Sibyl because she too is an outsider, someone who doesn’t quite fit into her mother’s ideas of womanhood or high society.
There are several other characters that push against the conventions of the time period. Another hotel resident, Jean (Audrey Dalton), initially refuses to marry her boyfriend, Charles (Rod Taylor), despite the glares she draws from Mrs. Railton-Bell. She says to Charles at one point, “Conventions? Marriage? I don’t want to end up like them.” The film’s conclusion is somewhat disappointing only in the sense that Jean suddenly wants to marry Charles, and in their last scene together, they discuss how many kids they’ll have. It is unclear why she suddenly changes her mind.
Ann Shankland draws negative attention from Mrs. Railton-Bell and her followers because of her independence. When she is first introduced, she enters the frame by exiting a car she drove herself, while the hotel residents watch through the window and gossip about her. She then checks into the hotel by herself, adorned with furs, white gloves, and pearls. Her independence is obvious, but her character evolves as the film progresses, and after a confrontation with John Malcolm, the superficial/fashion icon aspects of her personality are stripped away. We first see her on screen in expensive furs and jewelry, but by the last scene, when she is seated at a table with John, surrounded by the other hotel residents, her dress is plain and more subdued. The jewelry, for the most part, is left off. She also reveals her insecurities to him, namely that she is afraid of being alone and dying alone. By revealing this, she becomes a more complete, stronger character, one who does not hide behind a fake veneer.
Most of the female characters in Separate Tables refused to adhere to the gender stereotypes of the time. They were not afraid of their sexuality and having a voice. The film is a good precursor to the third-wave feminist movement that would come in the 1960s and 1970s, and the ways that it explores toxic masculinity make it a relevant film for 2018, 60 years after its release.
A Note About The Author:
Brian Fanelli’s most recent book is Waiting for the Dead to Speak (NYQ Books). His work has been published by The Los Angeles Times, World Literature Today, The Paterson Literary Review, Verse Daily, Main Street Rag, and elsewhere. Brian has an M.F.A. from Wilkes University and a Ph.D. from Binghamton University. Currently, he teaches at Lackawanna College.