I have a strong connection to 1958’s Auntie Mame because it’s a movie that I would watch with my father every so often as a younger lad, but often enough for its lore to remain etched into my brain. Auntie Mame is a story every way in which Separate Tables is not – thematically compelling, dramatically lighthearted and fun, funny, charming, you name it. Granted and absolutely, the two films have disparate aims. Separate Tables is Grand Hotel-esque as its characters continue to lead lives apart but plot ensemble. I found every character unlikable and stereotypical, with almost no attempt to resolve any issues, whether plot-related or personal. Two movies nominated for Best Picture during the same year, two films embedded in Cold War Culture but only one is ‘watchable.’ For all its star-power, and it commanded quite the ensemble cast, Separate Tables is an unfortunate dud in an otherwise dull year.
We need to talk about storytelling rigor and what it means for a film to be ‘unwatchable.’ First, and most likely foremost, taste is subjective. Each of us has had a conspicuous life and will continue to do so, complete with our own experiences, feelings, memories and futures; these together start to compile our taste profiles and, to each of us, what’s subjectively ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Good art accesses our taste profile and the best art does so implicitly – a small tribute to other art here or there, a historical nod, a cheeky anachronism or a running joke without actually spelling out its joke. Its themes are elastic and its structure clear, and concise (if not concise then purposefully bloated). Bad art meanders around half-baked everything and might pander to the offensive (not as a social observation) for a cheap laugh. It’s cheap and we feel cheap. We build our taste profile by compiling, either alone or among friends, the collective experiences of good and bad art.
No film exists in a vacuum and there can be no good without bad – as if we need a control of the absolute worst bit of film we can consume against which to prop up the good bits. Theory upon theory will historically compare Exhibit A as fantastic or revolutionary because Exhibit B is so trite or dull. Is it fair to then say Auntie Mame is worthy of a Best Picture nod because Separate Tables is not (even though it was)? The answer to that is unclear because second: a film is not unwatchable if people want to watch it. Clearly, Separate Tables earned a respectable size audience, earning just over $3 million domestically. Its playwright, Sir Terence Rattigan had commanded enough respect to earn himself an OBE and the attention of notable producer/actor Burt Lancaster. It earned itself seven Academy Award nominations (including Best Picture) and won two. Who watched this movie? Lots of people. Commercially, Separate Tables will remain in the annals of film lore as a respectable film with above-average acting, and will be spit in the same breath as Pulp Fiction and Z.
But here’s third and most crucial element to what makes a film ‘unwatchable:’ the distinction between critical, commercial and creative success. Return on investment and future earnings potential will allow the studio executives (and shareholders) to pat one another on the proverbial back, and to lots of stakeholders, coincidentally those who had almost nothing to do with the creative rigor of the film, the dollar sign points to victory. Yes, money is a necessity to create some of our greatest media achievements, and yes money is a fantastic motivator, but thousands of films are made on penny budgets and tell the most compelling stories, flouting the commercial (perhaps purposefully) for the creative success. For these auteurs, just the chance to make their movie or craft their story is worth the uncertainty of a return on investment and future earnings. We millennials are lucky that the democratization of technology has opened up access to bedroom filmmaking and the YouTube generation, but we also forget that with access comes a flood of new media both good and bad – and it’s our innate right and bias to assign this judgement. Remember though, because so much exists we might lose a diamond to the rough world of the Internet, buried by the next heavily promoted piece of subjective drivel and doomed to nothingness.
One has to wonder how many films from 1958 or 2008 are literally unwatchable.
Enough manifesto, though. Separate Tables’ saving grace is the collective strength of its acting – in a vacuum similar to Grand Hotel. While each of our characters is stereotypically one-dimensional, Rita Hayworth, Deborah Kerr, Burt Lancaster, David Niven, Wendy Hiller and Gladys Cooper handle the writing deftly, adding little panache but at least creating clear narrative for a point A to point B story. Outstanding, though is David Niven in his portrayal of Major David Angus Pollack, a dehumanized sex freak operating under the guise of a gentleman. Given the mood of the 50s, as they gave way to the more liberal 60s, this kind of character in a Major Hollywood Film seems anachronistic and progressive. Niven, justly earning an Oscar, adds humanity back to the Major and creating the only internal conflict that doesn’t feel contrived. Director Delbert Mann is deft in his resolution of the conflict as well.
The year 1958 in film seems uneventful, especially sandwiched in between winners The Bridge On The River Kwai and Ben-Hur. But among The Defiant Ones, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, Auntie Mame, Separate Tables and winner Gigi, loads of talent exists and has left its mark, both good and bad, on the medium of film. For me, Auntie Mame hold a subjective goodness and Separate Tables, a badness and together, both are still critical losers and beg the question: why?