Wendy Hiller in SEPARATE TABLES (1958) - Supporting Actress Sundays

Before undertaking Supporting Actress Sundays for 1958, StinkyLulu really had no inkling as to who Wendy Hiller might be. A quick glance at her credits suggested that Hiller was just another of "those" British stage actresses, the sort who occasionally slum in American movies & whose perfect yet turgid performances are as magnets to American acting trophies. And while, to a certain extent, Dame Wendy's expert turn in this film does mark her as such, Hiller's performance here is also one of "those" Supporting Actress performances: genius work introducing Lulu to a previously unnoticed/forgotten actress inhabiting a character at the story's edges. Such performances are the sort that will forever make this category StinkyLulu's very favorite, performances like that delivered by...

...Wendy Hiller in Separate Tables (1958).
approximately 21 minutes and 49 seconds
12 scenes
roughly 22% of film's total running time
(data courtesy of Raybee)

This is a film nearly lousy with beautiful leading ladies turning in reels of emphatically "serious" actressing. Deborah Kerr's aquiline elegance is frumped -- nay, gooched nearly beyond repair. (Plus Kerr's character's smitten with a strange man who molests matrons in movie houses.) Rita Hayworth's torrid curves are girdled and gilded into a proper porcelain shell. (O'course Hayworth's character's also a man-eating sex-addict. Good times.) All of which makes for much scenery-chewing mayhem amidst this painfully English scenario of quiet lives lived quietly at a residential hotel on the southern coast of post-war Britain.

Through it all, Wendy Hiller's Miss Pat Cooper -- the establishment's proprietor & the kind of hotel manager that makes one deathly frightened of mussing the towels -- just glides...elegant, serene, implacable. Nonethe, as this curious story unfolds it's clear that Hiller's Miss Cooper provides the emotional center for the narrative's odd assortment of misfits. Most of Hiller's lines are the banal patter of service work -- obligatory politenesses, scraping niceties, humble directives -- and it's something of a marvel to watch Hiller both conceal/reveal Pat Cooper through Miss Cooper's professional fa├žade. Within this apparatus of hospitality, Hiller's performance calibrates Miss Cooper's affect and expression to -- at every moment -- provide just the slightest glimpse of what Pat might be thinking or feeling.

But it's really an early scene that anchored StinkyLulu's admiration for Wendy Hiller's work in this sublimely supporting role. In this scene, Hiller grabs a private moment with Burt Lancaster's character, who has stumbled into the hotel drunk and with whom she is having a secret but clearly thrilling affair. Hiller's plainness disappears when she looks at Lancaster and an extraordinary beauty emerges: Miss Pat Cooper is clearly randy for Burt. Possibly this scene alone reveals Wendy Hiller to be truly gorgeous. (Indeed, it may be that Lulu kept looking to see that Miss Pat again for the remainder of the film.) In this early scene, Wendy Hiller reveals herself to be the kind of actress that StinkyLulu loves best of all: a woman with a great, distinctive face who can be astonishingly gorgeous or downright homely depending on the requirements of the scene. Just a handful of actresses can truly do this without the aid of a costume/makeup (think Collette, Close, Spacek) and Wendy Hiller's clearly among this rare breed.

StinkyLulu didn't expect to admire this performance so. Indeed, Lu thought Hiller's win in 1958 may have been a case of the Academy taking the British (aka "easy") way out. But Hiller seems a remarkable bird. 3 nominations out of 15 films (2 Best Actress noms, for Pygmalion/1938 and A Man For All Seasons/1966) with at least 2 potential Coulda/Shoulda/Wouldas (for Voyage of the Damned/1976 and The Elephant Man/1980) in there to mix things up even more. But, hey, that's why StinkyLulu loves Supporting Actress Sunday: these ladies are just full of surprises.

BTW -- StinkyLulu has no idea how David Niven snagged the Best Actor trophy for this. Any ideas?


Sloopy9A1 said...

I really found this information very helpful. Thank-you very much. I'm playing Miss. Cooper part in my drama class and this helped me to see my character more closely and see what kind of clothes she wore. Thanks one more time.

Party Bear said...

Thanks for the tribute to Wendy Hiller. I first saw her in the Film adaptation of Shaw's "Major Barbara", but she really shines in "Pygmalion". Check it out!

Trippy Trellis said...

My favorite supporting actress performance of all time.