Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables

Deborah Kerr received her fifth Oscar nomination for playing Sybil Railton-Bell, a shy spinster in the Best Picture nominee, Separate Tables. This was the fifth unsuccessful nomination for Deborah but I don't think she even had a prayer of winning that year. Susan Hayward (as I said) was almost a sure thing plus Liz Taylor and Rosalind Russell were both stronger contenders and bigger names than Deborah Kerr. I'd say that Deborah might have got ahead of Shirley MacLaine who was just becoming a major star. What if is a very interesting question of 1958. What if Susan Hayward hadn't been in contention? I'd say Elizabeth Taylor would have won because her performance was a surprisingly deep one and she was the hottest star plus she had the sentiment on her side because of the death of her husband. I guess Deborah would have lost anyway.

Separate Tables is not really talked about nowdays, unfairly, I might add as it is a pretty good movie. I wouldn't say it's my pick for Best Picture but I enjoyed it. It's a real ensemble picture, full of great, world-famous actors who give very good performances. Rita Hayworth stands out the most, I think and I feel that she might have deserved a nomination though I'm not 100% sure. David Niven gives a very good performance but I feel that Sidney Poitier or Paul Newman deserved to win more (I usually switch my vote for 1958 and 1963 between them). Wendy Hiller dismissed her own Oscar win. Although I agree with that she wasn't amazing, I still think she was the best of the weak nominees that year and she was pretty great this way, too.

Deborah Kerr (as you might know) is not one of my favorite actresses. Some go for her dignified, subtle acting style but I'm not one of those. I prefer highly emotional performances with lots of fire and music. That's me. Of course, that doesn't mean that I cannot respect certain works of Ms. Kerr, I just don't think that she's the greatest. It's fun, though, that she was born on 30th September like me (and Marion Cotillard). I know that I said it last time but I'll say it again and again.

Separate Tables is really an ensemble piece so it takes a very special performance to stand out. And as such, we cannot really talk about leading characters, in my opinion. Everyone is either leading or supporting. However, back then category placement was a matter of vanity and not competition. I guess, nowadays an actress with Deborah's role would go immediately supporting and would have an excellent chance of winning. And that's really something that I admire about the actresses of Old Hollywood. They weren't desperate enough to humiliate themselves by going supporting just to ensure the win. That is certainly very positive pride.

It takes a special performance to stand out in an ensemble movie, as I said but Deborah Kerr's work as Sybil is, unfortunately, not special at all. It's not even the best or most significant part of Separate Tables. Actually, I'm quite shocked that she was recognised over Rita Hayworth. Not because Rita was miles better (she was actually) but Deborah's role is not showy and (apart from one scene), it's very quiet and she's mostly in the background sitting without a move.

Sybil is a shy spinster who's probably in love with the major played by David Niven. Sybil has to put up with her awful, bossy and very snobbish mother (Gladys Cooper, reprising her role from Now, Voyager) and she wants to gain some freedom. However, she's too afraid to take action and things get very ugly for her. She has to be disappointed in the major and she's more and more under her mother's influence. Deborah shows Sybil as a mentally unstable, very sensitive woman who's screaming inside and wants to have a better life. It's shown very well by Deborah and I most certainly want to praise her for making Sybil such a sympathetic character. I really did want her to be happy and I think Deborah portrayed the necessary emotions really well. I was most certainly impressed by that. Also, she quite carefully developed this character and none of the changes seemed forced or unrealistic.

There's one serious problem about Deborah. She doesn't get enough spotlight and since her role is not the best of the movie, she gets stuck too much in the background. When I saw her and Rita Hayworth, it was so hard to focus on Deborah as Rita was so great and Deborah seemed a little bit dreary compared to her. However, the breakdown of Sybil was played excellently by Deborah and I was really touched by those scenes.

So I can say that I liked Deborah Kerr in Separate Tables, despite the fact that she didn't give the best performance of the ensemble an she was too much outshone by some of the fellow members of the cast. If we look at her performance out of its context, it's a pretty great one. It just pales in the context of the movie and the rest of the performers. Still, good job that works well.

I gave a 4 to Shirley, too, so I'll give it to Deborah.

What do you think?


Louis Morgan said...

I guess she was okay, but in their story David Niven really outshines her.

dinasztie said...

I preferred her to Niven, actually.

Louis Morgan said...

Well in this instance than, I completely disagree.

Anonymous said...

What an awful actress...

Anonymous said...

She was amazing, but then again everyone was just amazing in this brilliant film! I thought Hayworth also deserved a nomination but I still think Kerr did a fantastic job and of course it's easier to praise Hayworth because she has way more screentime than Kerr, I think that if like you said, pride hadn't been such an important thing, Kerr would have won in the supporting category.