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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Here we are in 2008, and the pendulum of sexual misunderstanding has
swung both ways now, in a few generations. Once, homosexuality was
despised. Now, increasingly, homosexuality is advocated as an
enlightened preference. Propagating the human species is not a priority
in what is perceived as an era of over-population. Besides, we have
test tube babies today, and cloning people is probably already being
practiced behind closed laboratory doors.
What has remained the same in the past 40 years, however, is that people regard sex, in whatever form it takes, as the main priority of life. The pharmacies can't keep enough Viagra on the shelves.
"Tea and Sympathy," is only 'dated' for those people who don't realize that both the play, and the film, deal with the subject of love. Love is not sex. Sex is not love. You can have love without sex. You can have sex without love.
Perhaps, in some future era of civilization, if we don't blow ourselves up first, the time will come when caring so much for another person that you are willing to sacrifice your future for him, or for her, is more than a Quixotic fantasy. Actually, this has been the cultural ideal on and off for centuries. Ancient Greece and Rome glorified sex and demeaned marriage, as our role models seem to do; and their orgy palaces fell into ruins in the dust of time. Later, in the Middle Ages, the troubadours sang of romantic, idealized love. By the 1600's, as the incredible book "Don Quixote" humorously demonstrates, chivalry was already dead, a laughing-stock, totally divorced from reality. In Victorian and Edwardian England, sexuality became schizophrenic - incredible debauchery existed side-by-side with the kind of love story personified in the lives of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, on Wimpole Street.
The two World Wars of the 20th-century despoiled and degraded many lives, on a wide scale never before seen in history. The film goddesses of the Silver Screen could play a whore one week, and a nun the next. Schizophrenia continued to reign, alive-and-well.
But now, we are immersed in a pornographic dream.
From that standpoint, of course "Tea and Sympathy" is dated. Some commentators here on the film even go so far as to entirely make up scenes which never occur in the movie, right out of the whole cloth of their own fantasies. No, in the last scene Laura never unbuttons her cardigan; and Tom never fondles her breast. More proof that people claim to see things that don't exist simply because they expect to see them. Even 'eyewitnesses' to major news events often don't really know what they're talking about.
If this is a cult film for homosexuals, it is because they see what they want to see in the movie, and not what exists. Clearly, Tom Lee is smitten with Laura long before the film starts, just as his first love was a blond schoolteacher when he was only twelve. Laura's line to his roommate: "Maybe Tom is deeply in love" could only apply to Tom's feelings toward herself.
What is to be learned from Maxwell Anderson's sensitive writing, as well as from Tennessee Williams' best work, is that love is the main thing, and that we choose those whom we love because they meet our psychological and emotional needs, and many times we are not even consciously aware what those needs really are. Reynolds, for example, although he was certainly ambivalent in his sexuality, still truly wanted a good woman to be his wife, which is why he married Laura and fully loved her in his own way; but he also needed patient help right from the start, whereas Laura was slow to realize his dilemma and, being admittedly a selfish woman at times, nursed her own hurts as their relationship deteriorated, quite apart from Tom's involvement at all. Her husband ended up a broken man, not because he was a frustrated, repressed homosexual, but because he had failed the love of his life and couldn't trust himself not to do the same again with another mate.
In "Tea and Sympathy", and in reactions to the film for the past decades, we see how the norms of society can entrap all of us, at both ends of the spectrum.
There's no denying that this movie is achingly poignant in parts; but many
scenes are spoiled somewhat by Deborah Kerr's performance, which
unfortunately in many scenes can be described as over-wrought and
to the point where one begins to feel a little uncomfortable when drama
descends/deteriorates into melodrama. More, a criticism of the director
rather than Miss Kerr, who in other films is a refined, composed,
unaffected, and totally credible actress.
John Kerr gives a stand-out performance of a tormented youth suffering relentless and merciless jibes from his school peers at the college where he boards; the angst and self-doubt aggravated by an insensitive and demanding father who has no empathy and tolerance with a son who is 'different'. For the most part, this film does touch an emotional chord, especially towards the end of the film.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Tea And Sympathy offers a rare chance to see the three Broadway leads
of Robert Anderson's play repeat their roles. Although they didn't
finish the 712 performance run, Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, and Leif
Erickson all do a fine job on the screen. Tea And Sympathy actually won
two Tony Awards for Anthony Perkins and Mary Fickett who replaced both
the Kerrs in the Broadway run.
It goes without saying that if the film were done today, it would be a lot more frank about the characters. John Kerr would be more definitely bisexual and Leif Erickson would have his issues more openly discussed.
John Kerr is a sensitive kid who doesn't quite fit into the gender roles that back in the Fifties were pretty rigid. At the boys prep school he attends, the other kids call him 'sister boy' and tease him pretty bad. The only one who notices his plight with any degree of concern is Deborah Kerr who lives in his dormitory with her husband Leif Erickson.
Deborah was married once before to a young man killed in the war and John reawakens something of her feelings. In the end she gives her all to John.
Sadly Leif Erickson's performance is sadly overlooked when discussing Tea And Sympathy. He comes across at first as the usual jock lout, but it goes quite a bit deeper than that. The Code did not permit a more open performance, but Erickson's is one of the best examples of a self hating latent gay man I've ever seen on film. Notice the only time he really comes alive is when he's with his boys doing all the imbecilic rite of passage things that are encouraged in society back then and in some cases still are. In the end Deborah realizes that she really doesn't mean anything to Erickson, although the tacked on ending is something of a cop out.
Another performance that stands out is that of Edward Andrews who is John Kerr's father. He and Erickson unite in the fact that they want young Kerr to butch it up and start taking up more masculine endeavors.
In these days of the suicides of young gay youth hitting the national media, with government finally taking notice of the problem, Tea And Sympathy takes on a frightening relevance. The characters from the Fifties will be immediately recognized by many today, most especially the young who are going through exactly what John Kerr is.
This film came to audiences at a rather schizophrenic time, things were
changing, but not that much. Roles were assimilated, but not too
drastically. People were questioning things, as long as it wasn't
Women were still patronized, there were still clear role boundaries (witness the scene where Tom is knitting and catches derision for spending ten minutes in a sewing circle.) Not sure why that was a crime of the century, but whatever.
Deborah Kerr is tender and memorable as an unhappy wife to the school master at a prep school who realizes her marriage is a sham. She realizes this when she sympathizes with a student and resident at her home, a confused young man who simply is shy and has doubts about his future. There are some nuances regarding sexuality, but in all honesty that was a side-story, from what I inferred.
The message I take away from this film is not simply about ostracism and hatred; Minnelli as director also addresses female emotion, the reasons why Kerr empathizes with the young man, and how he eventually moves on. In the long rung, it is life affirming, although rather opaque in its message.
Discrimination and hatred take many forms, and sometimes the subtler forms are most repellent. Highly recommended. 8/10.
1st watched 9/25/1999 - 8 out of 10 (Dir-Vincente Minnelli): Excellent story that keeps you interested till the end in this seemingly controversial film for it's day."Not regular" and "sister-boy" is used rather than homosexual in the accusing of young John Kerr's character, but we understand what's being talked about.A movie that may have been a little ahead of it's time but portrayed the current attitude towards those men who were a little different and their misconception of them.
"Tea and Sympathy," along with "An American in Paris," turned me on to the
true genius of Vincente Minnelli as a director. It deals with a serious
topic -- how we all deal with diversity, and in this case, someone's
sexuality -- by wrapping it in a poignant, spellbinding script, coupled
Oscar-worthy acting by Deborah Kerr and John Kerr. I didn't feel the issue
was being forced on me -- I was truly being entertained. Three gripping
scenes in particular stick out in my mind -- if you haven't seen the
I won't ruin it for you, but you'll know which ones I mean after you see
It is all the more impressive that this movie was made in restrictive, conservative 1956 America. It is a five star classic -- and I consider myself a pretty strict judge of movies. I have maybe seen only 6 or 7 movies in my short lifetime which I consider to be true 5-star quality -- that is, by my definition, a unique, groundbreaking, historic cinematic achievement which has withstood the test of time -- out of scores of possibilities. I have added "Tea and Sympathy" to that short list.
At his prep school reunion, sensitive writer John Kerr (as Tom Robinson
Lee) recalls the mutual attraction he shared with "lonely" headmaster's
wife Deborah Kerr (as Laura). In flashback, shy Mr. Kerr asks motherly
Ms. Kerr (they share the same surname but are not related, in real
life) to escort him to a dance, although he can't dance. At the beach,
Kerr reveals he like to sew and cook, which changes the focus from this
being a story about a boy and his teacher's wife to the reforming of a
suspected homosexual. This also explains the earlier scene revealing
Kerr would be playing a girl in the all-boys' school play...
At the beach, Kerr sits with the women and sews while the other guys play rough games in the sand. Kerr also reveals he likes to cook. He finds a quiet place to change in the locker room while the other lads whoop it up. All of this results in Kerr acquiring the unwelcome nickname "Sister Boy". Brawny roommate Darryl Hickman (as Al Thompson) tries to teach Kerr how to walk like a man. Worried father Edward Andrews (as Herb) wants Kerr to get a crew cut. Headmaster Leif Erikson (as Bill Reynolds) hops the ritual pulling off of Kerr's pajamas will make him a regular guy. Worst of all, Kerr wants to be a folk singer...
"Tea and Sympathy" is, at its heart, a despicable drama. The given is that Kerr's character never really is a homosexual - or, he is "cured" by sex with a woman. We are meant to breathe a huge sign of relief, and agree with the script that finally celebrates the revelation that he is married and leads a "good life" after all. Moreover, the teenager didn't need to commit suicide. Well, bully for him. It is also noteworthy that his older woman seems to have sacrificed any chance for her own happiness by helping to bring him out of the heterosexual closet. We are left to wonder what about her sad fated husband's problems...
The flashback ends with the line, "Years from now, when you talk about this - and you will - be kind." The subsequent deflowering takes as the younger Kerr has just turned 18 (presently the consensus age of consent). Well, to "be kind," let's assume writer Robert Anderson and those who toned down his original work were well-intentioned. The production values include skillful direction by Vincente Minnelli, beautiful photography by John Alton, and fine characterizations from the cast. The story deals with gender role perceptions well. Still, "Tea and Sympathy" ends with homosexuality cured (Kerr) or closeted (Erickson).
***** Tea and Sympathy (9/27/56) Vincente Minnelli ~ John Kerr, Deborah Kerr, Leif Erickson, Darryl Hickman
Miss Kerr's cold archness, as always, makes grace Kelly or Maureen
O'Hara look like Marlene Dietrich in comparison, and the young Kerr lad
is unwatchable. I found the merest hints at the coach's homosexuality
incredibly hot and would have loved to see the play's original version
here. woof! and I don't think the son's father gets away with a fully
str8 Kinsey rating either. do his father and the coach have history? :)
And to Matthew's comment above: "His avoidance of close-ups reveals him to be, in this case at least, what feels to me like a very selfish director. "
Quite simply, Cinemascope is "not kind" to closeups.
I read the play when I was Tom Lee's age and deeply closetted, and it
had a devastating effect: "At last someone understands: just because
I'm not like the others doesn't mean I'm - heaven forbid - gay." I
thought the play was great - liberating, even.
I saw the film (on TV, with distractions) some 25 years after it was made, myself on the brink of coming out, and noted that it was much less clear that it was about homosexuality than the play had been. Tom's sexual orientation had been blurred down to the question of whether he was "a regular guy" or not. Key speeches like Laura's challenge to Bill's sexuality were missing. And Laura's letter at the end seemed just moralistic, and an obvious sop to the censors.
To see the film today, out and proud, and with the benefit of nearly 50 years of hindsight, I find myself agreeing with many of the comments above, both positive and negative. The film is hard to watch because it is so overwrought. That is easier to understand when you know that all three leads are reprising their stage roles. Even so, there is a desperate tension running right through it. With the possible exception of the faculty wives, not a single person in it is comfortable with their sexuality. The guys are, without exception, over-anxious to prove something, and Laura is frustrated. (Ellie Martin at least knows what she wants - a radio that works - and what she wants to pay to get it.) Overlaid on this, nothing can be explicit, everyone talks all the time in circumlocutions. Of course, that was the rule in films of those days, and possibly real life as well. Therein lies a contradiction that can only be resolved from outside the film and in its future, now. The film was trying to liberate people like me (and heterosexual non-conformists) while staying within the confines of a deeply closetted and homophobic film industry.
Should you see this film? As a piece of gay history, perhaps. As a commentary on a homophobic time, it is instructive, both for what it says and doesn't say. As a worthwhile drama that will involve you in its issues, no. Has it anything worthwhile to say, as someone says above, about the importance of love? If you concentrate on Deborah Kerr's performance and her predicament, perhaps, but it's like watching a beautiful butterfly struggling in a pitcher-plant.
Robert Anderson adapted his own play for the screen about a sensitive young man ostracized at his all-male school for pursuing interests not typically associated with red-blooded males circa 1950. Seems he enjoys cooking and sewing, singing folk music, and chatting with the faculty wives--all of which have alienated him from his classmates (as well as his own father!), though not the lonesome wife of the head schoolmaster, who takes a special and heartfelt interest in the lad. As played by John Kerr (reprising his stage performance), the central character is curiously presented without even the slightest hint of affectation; yes, he shows no resistance to playing a female role in the class play (requiring him to wear a flouncy dress), yet the filmmakers want us to see something in this boy which isn't standard, and John Kerr is incredibly, blandly standard (even his walk, which is mocked, is utterly ordinary). Ironically, though the film has a dated viewpoint of masculinity--the opposite of which is practically labeled 'abnormal'--the picture has a large following among gays. Though it is a serious-minded movie, one is apt to hoot in derision at the script's loftier passages. Thankfully, Deborah Kerr also reprises her stage role as Mrs. Reynolds, and she pulls out whatever honesty there is in the dialogue and actually gives it some depth and worth. The theme here is certainly an unusual one for 1956 Hollywood--and even stranger for having Vincente Minnelli direct it, he the subject of much gossip himself--but the production is plush and the story is engrossing despite the soapy undermining. **1/2 from ****
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