Very few remember and even fewer have seen Separate Tables, the 1958 parlor drama with Burt Lancaster, Rita Hayworth, David Niven, Deborah Kerr and Wendy Hiller. And yet this constipated, dialogue-driven film, directed by Delbert Mann (Marty) and based on a pair of one-act plays by Terence Rattigan, was nominated for seven Oscars (Best Picture, Best Actress (Kerr), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Black and White), and Best Dramatic or Comedy Score) and won two (Niven for Best Actor, Hiller for Best Supporting Actress).

Separate Tables is exactly the kind of solemn, stiff-necked talkfest that was often regarded as Oscar bait in the mid-to-late ’50s. Decorum and public appearances undermined by dark secrets and notions of perverse sexuality, etc. Shudder! Erections and dampenings that dare not speak their name, or words to that effect.

Talk about “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” etc. Two years before Separate Tables appeared a creepy, low-budget sci-fi thriller called Invasion of the Body Snatchers opened and was promptly ignored by the highbrows. Four years earlier (in ’54) The Creature From The Black Lagoon was greeted with similar indifference if not disdain. Today a pair of direct descendants, Get Out and The Shape of Water, are Best Picture nominees, and there’s a better-than-even (though admittedly dwindling) chance that Shape will take the Big Prize.

Yesterday I received a hilarious, spot-on essay by the great David Thomson — about Separate Tables initially, but also about how the appeal and some of the “Academy inflation” of this 60-year-old film are echoed in I, Tonya and Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Consider this excerpt especially: “About fifteen minutes into I Tonya, on being bowled over by the vicious hangdog look of Allison Janney’s mother, the toxic lines slipping like smoke from the fag on her lips, I was ready to give her the supporting actress Oscar on the spot. Twenty minutes later I was bored with her because she was still doing the same bitter schtick. She’s an act, a show-stopper, the sort of hag who would get a round of applause as she appears on-stage, severing any prospect of dramatic truth.

“It’s not that Janney is less than skilled, or hasn’t paid her dues for decades. She’s a clever old pro so give her the Oscar. But let’s abandon the myth that she is presenting a real ‘deplorable’ instead of saying, ‘Aren’t deplorables a riot?'”

Here’s the whole brilliant piece (the first 17 paragraphs about Separate Tables, and the rest about Janney and Margot Robbie in I, Tonya and McDormand in Three Billboards):

“I found myself watching Separate Tables on Turner Classic Movies. There it was, offered with the seemingly unassailable claim that it had been nominated for Best Picture in 1958 along with six other nominations. It even had two wins, and I remembered that one of them was for David Niven playing a bogus Major. I had seen the film in 1958 and flinched at it even then (the bogus business was all fusspot), in a year that included Vertigo, Touch of Evil, Bonjour Tristesse, Man of the West, The Tarnished Angels and many others that still seem of value.

“None of that list got nominated for Best Picture. The lucky five that year were Gigi (the winner), Auntie Mame, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Defiant Ones, and somehow Separate Tables. It was hard in ‘58 to know who was going to see Gigi — no one who was seventeen. But who had voted for that ornate, smarmy adoration of ‘little girls’ (‘they grow up in the most delightful ways’, Maurice Chevalier promised) that seemed to have been made without a trace of the picture’s putative author, Colette?

“I realize this was sixty years ago, long gone so let it go, and it’s easy to poke holes in the decisions of the Academy. Still, 1958 was a real year, its participants felt it was as up-to-date as anyone had been so far: Iraq became a republic; the microchip was invented; Nikita Khruschev was premier of the USSR; the submarine Nautilus passed under the South Pole; a Chinese famine began that would kill over 30 million people; a nuclear test was conducted in outer space; Miles Davis released ‘Milestones‘; a plane crashed trying to take off from Munich airport and the Manchester United soccer team was torn apart; regular transAtlantic air travel began; the Champs’ ‘Tequila‘ was a hit record for six weeks. Once that had subsided, Sheb Wooley did ‘Purple People Eater‘.”

Wells insertion: And don’t forget that 1958 was the year when Cary Grant first began experimenting with LSD.

Back to Thomson: “It was a cool, hip, modern moment and on the cusp if the hits kept coming. Just like us now. Kids had sex for the first time. The hula hoop was created. And Separate Tables was nominated for Best Picture?

“It’s easy to let this mocking fun run forever. But don’t we have to do our best to see that movies do or do not have a bearing on history? The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries also made their way around the world. Such upstarts as Polanski, Truffaut, Godard and Resnais were about to destroy the genteel mindset of the Academy and the Beauregard Hotel in Bournemouth and beyond.

Separate Tables was an evening at the theatre for 1954 in which two one-act plays were put in balance. The Beauregard was a residential hotel in Bournemouth — not a place for tourists or holidaymakers — but a well-appointed grave for gentry fallen on harder times, or for what became known as ‘desperate, lonely people’. And I do not minimize those bleak lives in 1958, in Bournemouth or wherever. Or even now.

“The tables were in the dining room of the hotel where the residents took their penitential meals, largely in silence and suspicion — don’t ask about the cuisine. The communal arrangement was a source of humiliation: these crushed proud people had to observe their own decline.

“The two one-acts fixed on two couples: the divorced Martins, in anguish with each other; and Major Pollock and his unlikely feeling for Miss Railton-Bell, complicated by the fact that Pollock was not a Major with the chipper military record he claimed. Instead, he had just been convicted for harassing young women in local cinemas. We’d have to call it molestation, even if Niven had used his trusty mustache and cravat.

“The point of the play had been that two actors would showcase their versatility by playing the leads in both plays: the people were drab but the acting was show-off. So in London, Margaret Leighton was Miss Railton-Bell and the ex-wife; while the ex-husband and Major Pollock were Eric Portman. That production was directed by Peter Glenville; it was a critical success; and it ran for 762 performances. In 1956, the same cast took the play to New York and Leighton won the Tony. (She beat Florence Eldridge in Long Day’s Journey Into Night. You had to be there.)

“When the film came along, the pressure of ‘realism’ insisted on four lead actors, so the divorced couple went from being a Labour politician and his former wife to whatever we can persuade ourselves Burt Lancaster and Rita Hayworth might have been. The balance of the theatrical original was cast to the winds. There was no longer room for the skills of the actors. Instead, the implausibility and self-pity of the characters was exposed.

“One can imagine an audience looking at the characters wistfully in ’58, as if to say, ‘There but for the grace of God…’ without realizing that grace had let them down already. The residents at the Beauregard mirrored the upper middle class in retreat from necessary change and disruption in Britain. In some other room Jimmy Porter was roaring about cultural disaster — and in yet others Harold Pinter’s people were beginning to conspire. If only director Delbert Mann had had the wit to add some cheeky maid at the Beauregard working out with her hula hoop to ‘Tequila’.

“How Lancaster and Hayworth fit in this provincial hotel is beyond narrative explanation. They cannot help but be American and starry at a level disdained by the other actors, one of whom was Wendy Hiller as the hotel manager who is alleged to be in love with Lancaster’s character. She hated the film and Lancaster’s treatment of her, so she stayed withdrawn, and as a weird result she won the supporting actress Oscar. But Hecht, Hill, Lancaster produced the film, so Burt was there as a placeholder.

“There is even a moment where he pushes his ex-wife’s face into the light and tells her she is losing her beauty. That cruelty was so hard on Rita Hayworth one marvels that advisers let her take the role. Maybe she had no advice by then. She was close to forty, and only there because the Hill on the production, James Hill, was her fifth husband for a few years.

“Lancaster had wanted Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh for the ex-married couple, but those canny pros slipped out of the firing line.

“Director Delbert Mann (just a few years off Marty and The Bachelor Party) had trouble getting Hayworth to act adequately, and he had problems lighting her so that the audience could believe she had been a beauty — without feeling the cruelty in the expose.

“Mann said he was nervous of having Rita look awkward next to Deborah Kerr’s allegedly brilliant rendering of the child-like spinster Sibyl Railton-Bell. Kerr was actually nominated (for the third time in a row after The King and I and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison), but she is painful to watch because she had not the least idea of or patience with Sibyl. The actress had worked out every pinched gesture, and the result is mechanical instead of moving. If Leighton succeeded on stage perhaps she found a pose or a stance that shaped the material.

“In close-up realism, without irony or aplomb, Kerr looks stranded or working too hard. She could be an accomplished actress, but she was restricted by the seeming intelligence of her ladylike distance. The British style was to have actresses seem in charge, or wittily subdued They seldom broke down or yielded to impulse or instinct. Kerr had played the wanton in From Here to Eternity through clever suggestion, but she never went as far as desperate. Even in The Innocents, she is a prim, imprisoned lady thrilled as a rat of innuendo runs across her room. But Sibyl is close to infantile, coarsened by stupidity, so Kerr exaggerates her awkwardness. She’s like a man playing a silly woman on Monty Python.

“When Sibyl finds courage at the end, it’s as if she’s been kidding and now she’ll make a decent chap out of Pollock. Those two wrecks are going to be all right. The Bournemouth bourgeoisie can relax.

“In the same way, Niven labors at the liar in Pollock and never admits that fraudulent streak in himself. He was a lazy actor, as if gravity was ungentlemanly. If you look at Kerr and Niven playing together the same year in Bonjour Tristesse you see them flower as decadent sophisticates. They needed to be their own complacent selves. Niven’s urbane cad for Preminger is more interesting than his abject disgrace in Separate Tables because the actor’s insouciant energy — his need for class — has been freed.

“Is this just history, or do we still suffer from the same Academy inflation? Of course, we seem smarter than 1958, but that cracked year felt so grown up, and maybe we are in a fools’ paradise still. Isn’t it a natural habitat?

“I’m guessing that the two actress awards this time will go to Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, and to Allison Janney in I, Tonya. in I Tonya. And why not? Isn’t Oscaritis still undermining the authenticity of so many characters?

“About fifteen minutes into I, Tonya, on being bowled over by the vicious hangdog look of Janney’s mother, the toxic lines slipping like smoke from the fag on her lips, I was ready to give her the supporting actress Oscar on the spot. Twenty minutes later I was bored with her because she was still doing the same bitter schtick. She’s an act, a show-stopper, the sort of stagy hag who would get a round of applause as she appears on stage, severing any prospect of dramatic truth. It’s not that Janney is less than skilled, or hasn’t paid her dues for decades. She is a clever old pro so give her the Oscar. But let’s abandon the myth that she is presenting a real ‘deplorable’ instead of saying, ‘Aren’t deplorables a riot?’

“Similarly, the radiant Amazon known as Margot Robbie comes nowhere near the furtive mouse dreaming of rat heaven that was Tonya Harding. She does not attempt to inhabit the dead end of class where Harding lurked. I Tonya may pass as a show, but it comes nowhere near the throttled dreams of class that drove the real Kerrrigan-Harding confrontation. Robbie can skate (the movie is distracted by stories of all the jumps she did herself), but the film never probes the spurious extra ‘grace’ that nice girl Nancy was supposed to possess (along with her sneaky prim sexiness).

“Robbie is one of the boldest beauties on our screens, utterly removed from downcast. Her signal moment was the sexpot in the bubble bath, treating us like gawping idiots, in The Big Short, and she may never recover from it. So she has been encouraged to turn the outcast Harding into an Outlaw — that familiar escape clause in our movies. The film, and Janney’s branded awfulness caricature the ugliness of the Harding life without ever respecting the way their look and attitude were their helpless choice.

“Some American lives really aren’t fit to be on the golden screen because they would shame our stupid devotion to its codes. American movies don’t do hopeless cases any more than our commercials show dirty, cramped kitchens and bathrooms. Poor people in our movies are always auditioning as Poor but Lucky and Plucky, and Murderers, if that’s the Outlaw way out. If Luis Bunuel had done I, Tonya, or David Lynch, Tonya should kill Nancy, with a skate.

“But you know Robbie will be one of the great knock-outs on the red carpet, dressed by some modern Reynolds Woodcock with her body like a bud about to break through. Margot Robbie has made it in a way Tonya Harding never did, and the film is wrapped up in a condescension towards failure it does not understand.

“This same faith in Hollywood class over real character is a serious defect with Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It’s an effective film with several virtues, especially if one recognizes that Martin McDonagh has made a tall Irish folk tale, whimsical yet harsh, instead of a down-to-earth Midwest story.

“McDormand is someone we cherish as an actress who is unactressy — she has been around; she has been loyal to her guys, the Coens; she has done adventurous theatre work with the Wooster Group; she is as uningratiating as Olive Kitteridge, which won her an Emmy; shehas not gone out of her way to be glamorous; she does her best to do ‘honest’ work. She is self-effacing and ‘ordinary’ but those things have become as much a branded banner for integrity as Meryl Streep’s long-suffering glory.

“Her droll and touching Marge in Fargo (her first Oscar) is still taken as a vouchsafe that Hollywood can do real people. And now Mildred Hayes, the stubborn defender of due process is a sweet gift to liberal sentimentalists — enough to get her the Oscar, I think because she can seem like a red who could turn blue — as opposed to being a helpless, dangerous loner unimpressed by such trite labels.

“Her billboards (how can she afford them?) are a glorification of tweets — forlorn assertions of message in a medium that has smothered the chance of real discourse. So Mildred has grown into a kind of Mother Courage or Ma Joad, an underclass nobody yet a classy heroine, a defender of tough or lost causes, a voice that will not shut up, an opinionist to change our direction no matter that such shifts only happen in movies.

“If you examine the details of her life, Mildred is stupid, error-prone, nasty, vain, reckless and as vulnerable to violence and confusion as any of us. She is so muddled or so close to disturbed, she cannot really be clarified as ‘a character’ or a shaped, fictional being. While seeming like the salt of the earth, she may be an irredeemably sour apple.

“McDormand may feel an urging to go beyond the Hollywood conventions, but her tough persona cannot help but be emblematic. At the end of the film, she is in weary peace with her essential antagonist (the Sam Rockwell character) — will they even become a couple?

“Over forty years ago, in her film Wanda, Barbara Loden (an unhealed outcast to the death) presented a woman who declined to be a character – she stayed the sort they don’t make movies about. Twenty years before that, Deborah Kerr’s Sibyl Railton-Bell had been as much a recluse and depressive in the making until she was rescued as a cute ‘good woman’, capable of saving herself and the ruined Major.

Three Billboards has become the working man’s The Post, while no one in the daft aura of the Academy notices that movies have no impact on the way we recognize our society’s wreckage. It’s as if great acting has eclipsed the need for undistinguished citizenship. So McDormand will win and she may deliver an effective grumpy speech in defense of rugged individualism — a quality with the lasting power of the hula hoop.

“It’s easy now to see that the Beauregard Hotel in Bournemouth is a travesty of reality, only valid as a haunted house where the inmates do not realize how ghostly they are. But it will take time for us to see that McDonagh’s Ebbing, Missouri is just as contrived and as much a diversion from what is going on in America.

“We have to come to terms with the movies being our way of ignoring reality — but that reality now has crept up on us as a tumult and a horror that will not go away or yield to fiction’s tidiness.”