Deborah Kerr’s recent passing calls to mind her role in “Separate Tables” (1958), one of her six Oscar-nominated roles. The difference in her appearance in this film from her other characterization of cool, controlled, genteel, and sexy women which made her one of the most appealing actresses of her generation, is the challenge of playing Sibyl Railton-Bell and her success at such a pathetic and unflattering character.
Sibyl is emotionally brittle, shy, nervous and dominated by a manipulative and controlling mother. In this role Miss Kerr manages the unusual combination of appearing hunched over and yet lanky at the same time. She carries herself completely differently than she does in her other mannerly “English rose” type outings. Mousy doesn’t seem quite the word for Sibyl; she is quite emotionally crippled by her own bewilderment at relationships with other people and by her inability to crawl out from her mother’s condescending control.
Nearly every character at the seaside English residential hotel in “Separate Tables” is burdened by some emotional deformity. They do not live here as much as hide out here. David Niven, who won his Best Actor Academy Award for his role in this film, play-acts at being a retired army major, with his “What? What?” and “Cheery-bye” lingo represents a caricature more than a human being, as does the stuffy retired school housemaster, and Mrs. Railton-Bell and her unfortunate daughter. Dame Wendy Hiller, who won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her portrayal of the hotel’s resident owner, seems the most balanced, flesh-and-blood character in the film.
Miss Kerr’s scenes with David Niven are wonderfully complex. We first see her on a solitary evening stroll, waiting for the Major’s return like a child waiting for the return of a doting father. When her mother warns that her fascination with the Major indicates to others in the hotel that she is pursuing him romantically, Sibyl becomes self conscious and horrified, and a shadow is cast over her only friendship.
When her mother ferrets out the news that the Major has pleaded guilty to charges of “taking liberties” with woman in a local movie theater, and calls a meeting of the other residents to condemn him, Sibyl is stunned and shocked, and eventually when prodded for her opinion, breaks into hysterics. But afterwards, she finds the courage to confront him, and to shakily demand of him, “Why did you do it?” As if to say, why did you spoil everything? Now nothing can be the same.
The innocence of their friendship is lost. However, Sibyl’s innocence is still, remarkably, not lost. She is angry and resentful that he ruined their relationship by exposing his sexual repression, and exposing hers, making both a topic for conversation. Her scene with Rita Hayworth, when she comes to the realization that the Major’s remark that they are really similar in their fears is not far from the mark, and that she is hesitant to even speak the word, “…sex. There. I’ve said it,” is poignantly comic. Sibyl begins to undergo a tiny change now, when her embarrassment turns to compassion and concern and for the Major.
“I just want him to be happy,” she says helplessly, and adds, “God bless you,” when they say goodbye. From this giant step, it takes another giant step to defy her mother, but giant steps seem to come easier for Sibyl when her sympathy for the Major erases her own shyness.
Miss Kerr doesn’t have a lot of room to work with in Sibyl, whose world is so narrow and whose emotions are so brittle. This role must have been a greater challenge than her other more classy roles. It is certainly not romantic, but she shows her range than in “Separate Tables.”
For other tributes to Deborah Kerr, see The Shelf,
Laura's Miscellaneous Musings.