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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Imagine that there was a time where homosexuality was actually referred
to as sister's boy. That's what we find in this interesting 1956 film.
John Kerr, who passed away this month at 81, was always at his best in his rather brief career, when he was vulnerable and subject to the taunts of other. We would see this again the following year when Kerr starred in Rogers and Hammerstein's "South Pacific."
Unable to fit in with the school he is attending, he finds solace in the hands of the schoolmaster's wife, so ably played by Deborah Kerr, at her usual whining best.
Look for Norma Crane here as the chain-smoking prostitute. Crane, born Anna-Bella Zuckerman, in real life was quite a versatile actress. 15 years after this film, she would play Golda, Tevye's wife in that magnificent 1971 film-"Fiddler on the Roof."
As for "Tea and Sympathy," it's still another example of how homosexuality was viewed by a society.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Time has been less than kind to this movie which must appear as something of a cross between satire and parody to an audience today. In 1953 on Broadway Robert Anderson's play - featuring the three principals from the film, Deborah Kerr, John Kerr and Leif Ericson - was a sensitive treatment of a still sensitive subject and even in 1956 Anderson was forced to sanitize his screen adaptation; in the play Tom albeit naively has been swimming in the nude with a Music teacher who subsequently lost his job, a much sounder - though still slightly suspect - basis for marking him queer, and his nickname was 'Grace', based on nothing more sinister than his favourable comments about a Grace Moore movie. Here, Anderson substitutes the slightly bizarre 'Sister Boy' for Grace. Perhaps the worst sin of all is the framing device whereby Tom attends a Class Reunion as a grown man and then thinks back to his time as a tormented schoolboy, but worse is to come; in the play Anderson came up with one of the all-time Great curtain lines: In a mixture of compassion, admiration and a need to make Tom realise that he is NOT gay she offers herself to him with the lines 'years from now, when you talk about this ... and you will, be kind'. Minnelli includes both scene and line - albeit switching the location from indoors to outdoors - but then instead of FADE OUT he returns to the present with Tom calling in to see Kerr's house-master husband who gives him a letter that Laura has mailed from wherever she is. The letter serves to tell us that Tom is now married (so he CAN'T be gay, right) and has written a book about his time at the school and his relationship with Laura. Totally unnecessary and making what once must have been a half-decent film even more risible.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
There's some touching and unintentionally amusing material here.
Deborah Kerr is the sensitive mistress of a boarding house for a couple
of college kids, and the wife of bluff Lief Erickson, headmaster. One
of the kids who lives upstairs is John Kerr. She's not only nurturant,
she's gorgeous too, despite the lurid period make up.
Kerr is the odd kid out. He doesn't walk like a man. He was taught to sew by his maid after his mother's death. He has long hair instead of the ubiquitous crew cuts. He doesn't know any girls. He doesn't know how to dance. He has no interest in making a fortune after he graduates. He listens to classical music and wants to become a folk singer. He reads "poetry" off by himself. He wins at tennis but not by forceful drives but by chops and slices. At one point, his father, Edward Andrews, visits the campus and asks his old friend Erickson how Kerr is making out. Erickson lowers his face and forces himself to reveal all: "He was found on the beach with the faculty wives -- SEWING." Deborah Kerr observes all this and can't keep herself from interfering, although the rules declare that she must do nothing more than provide "tea and sympathy" to the boys on Sundays.
D. Kerr goes much farther than that to help the wounded J. Kerr. She begs J. Kerr's empathic but helpless room mate to give him lessons on masculinity. She argues with her husband over the rough treatment, begs him to see that it stops. He's compelled to refuse. Maybe some rough treatment will make a man of J. Kerr.
Well, all of this is mighty dated. First of all, J. Kerr is not merely "out of step" with the others, which is all the movie script implies. He's a homosexual dressed in the moral code of the time. Second of all, all those buzz-cut jock types playing grabass on the beach and bragging about their conquests are stand-ins for the attitudes that some felt the nations of the Free World should take towards the Collectivists behind the Iron Curtain. Treat 'em rough and maybe it will teach 'em a lesson. Most forcefully, and most generally, this is a critique of the very real enforced conformity of the 1950s which the Beatniks finally challenged publicly.
The stereotypes abound. Not in real life. I doubt that in the 1950s, or maybe EVER, was the gender structure of campus life ever so bifurcated, except maybe in some isolated and selective settings. The stereotypes represent, not verisimilitude, but the intention of the screenwriter, Robert Anderson, to simplify our vision of life so that our choices are made more easily. In this case, both of the Kerrs are right and everyone else is wrong. There now. Wasn't that easy?
At times the script becomes almost hilarious, a self parody. The boys alternately shun and humiliate J. Kerr. They call him "Sissy Boy." But D. Kerr knows better. If he has grave doubts about his own masculinity, she solves the problem by seducing him in a furry glade. Thus, she "cures" him of his homosexual disease.
What I'd have loved in that tender scene is to see it go beyond the point at which the beautiful and liminally sexual D. Kerr slips off her sweater, gently clasps J. Kerr's face to her bosom, and says, "When you talk about this in later years -- and you will -- be kind." First of all, I'd like to have seen a little more eagerness on the part of the neglected, love-starved wife, more than just the desire to help someone else. After all, she thinks he's an ithyphallic eighteen-year-old stud-in-waiting.
I'd have loved to see a graphic sexual scene in which J. Kerr turns out to be completely impotent despite the most ardent ministrations of D. Kerr. I'd have liked seeing J. Kerr disgusted throughout the ordeal. And finally he should have stood up, buttoned his clothes, and spat out an insult, "Keep your filthy hands off me from now on, you witch. If you want to talk to me in the future, I'll be at Shelley's making focaccio. And -- by the way -- that DRESS you're wearing is a complete CATASTROPHE."
Her husband, playing rough house with the boys out on the gridiron, should suffer an injury that causes him to lose one of his testicles. J. Kerr's room mate, the one bulging with muscles, the one with a neck the width of a utility pole, should be found in the bathroom stall with a muscle man magazine in his lap. The captain of the football squad needs have his closet full of ladies' shoes revealed.
That would have provided a perfect ending to a movie that now, from our current enlightened, sophisticated, liberated, and thoroughly corrupt perspective, we can recognize for the comic enterprise that it is.
This powerful drama is based upon a hit Broadway play by Robert Anderson, which ran for 712 performances between 1953-1955, directed for the stage by Elia Kazan. The three leads in the play are the same ones who star in this film, namely Deborah Kerr as the wife of the house master at a boy's boarding school in New England, Leif Erickson as her husband, and John Kerr (no relation) as the 18 year-old boy. Vincente Minelli, who directed this film, therefore inherited a cast who had 'been in rehearsal' for two years for their parts! They could not be more brilliant and effective, and this is one of Deborah Kerr's performances to rank with her appearance in FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), which immediately preceded the three years she was to devote to this role, both on stage and on film. This film also launched the young John Kerr (who died this month aged 81) into such prominence that he got his lead role as the Lieutenant (or, as Bloody Mary calls him, 'Lootellum') in the film SOUTH PACIFIC (1958), where he became a 'national treasure' as 'that nice young boy who is so charming', and became beloved by the very Middle America which had been so shocked by this film only two years earlier. Although the social mores and context of this story are inevitably dated, this is a very intense and profound drama, with a great deal of effective satire in it as well. Although this story was successful in the sophisticated ambiance of New York City, when the film was released, there was shock and dismay throughout Middle America. After all, this was the first time a major Hollywood film had ever seriously dealt with the subject of a romantic relationship between a schoolboy (albeit that he was safely described as being 18, and hence was no child) and the wife of a schoolmaster. This was considered so shocking outside of the metropolitan communities of the two coasts that the film was massively controversial, and many were the matrons who condemned it for immorality and for destroying the moral fabric of the nation. The film treats this subject with the greatest possible sensitivity, and there are no scenes of anything more explicit than gentle kissing. One is left to imagine the things which are now shown in closeup in every movie as a matter of course, namely what I call 'the rutting scenes'. (Why is it that nowadays everything must be explicit, and subtlety is a forgotten art? In films now, it is not sufficient for people to copulate, they must be seen to copulate. Prurience has been elevated to the pseudo-status of a cinematic virtue and a commercial requirement. Just as many actresses who refuse botox cannot get parts, actresses who refuse to take their clothes off and grunt and groan in closeup also cannot get parts. And if they refuse to 'show their tits', then they might as well resign from SAG and retire. This is, of course, an example of extreme social decadence and a sign that Hollywood cinema has lost its capacity for imagination.) In this film, Deborah Kerr manages an American accent as well as usual, though her tremulous voice throbbing with emotion is unchanged from her English roles, and is marvellously moving and effective. She grew up in the obscure town of Weston-super-Mare in Somerset (which also gave birth much later to that bizarre person, John Cleese), and that is a strange place mingling the surreal with the stupefyingly mundane, a true place to flee from, and which is sufficient to make any girl's voice tremble with suppressed expectations and a fluttering of anticipated flight. This Weston background of Deborah Kerr is little known, and I discovered it by watching many years ago a documentary film about her youth made for and shown on the regional West of England ITV station, which I believe was never shown nationally. Some people who knew her as a girl were interviewed. I believe I have it on tape somewhere. It seems that Deborah Kerr was never eager to call attention to her years in Weston, and preferred to mention having attended school in nearby Bristol, which is a small city about 20 minutes from Weston by car. This film is full of savage satire about the athletic boys who sometimes dominate boarding schools and some universities, who are known as 'jocks' (named after their jock straps which they wear when bashing each other's heads in, not to mention their crotches, at football and anything else which is violent). Such testosterone-fuelled lunatics can be extremely abusive and threatening to more sensitive boys, as we see in this film, and as must have happened to the author, Robert Anderson, to judge from his intense feelings on the subject. I was fortunate that at my boarding school, though everyone was mad about sports, 'jocks on the rampage' did not predominate, but I have visited other campuses where they did. And I can tell you there is nothing so revolting as the smell of sweaty jocks' socks at a boys' boarding school. So you have been warned! The dormitories reek of the sour, foetid odour so that one is nearly sick. You can smell it in the film, and it is enough to make the delicate Deborah Kerr even more tremulous, not to mention John Kerr who longs to flee from the nightmare of his school, but whose father is a former 'jock' who wants 'to make a man of' his son. And that leads me to this question: why is it that a boy is supposed to be a jock before he can become a man? This film attacks the world of jocks with unremitting hatred, and those of us who hate their sweaty socks can all sympathise. But I do not see this as 'a gay film'.
The 1950s was a time period of prosperity and people were more inclined to knowing their own identity. Men were men and women were women. "Tea and Sympathy" tells the story of Tom Robinson Lee, a sensitive and sweet natured boy who is the target of cruelty and scrutiny of other young boys and even by the football coach. In the film he befriends and falls in love with the football coach's wife Laura Reynolds, who sees Tom as a sweet and tender young man. The film is open about the subject of gender identity and homophobia in a time period where everything seemed to clear cut: if you are man who shows gentleness and tenderness you are immediately labeled a "sissy" or "queer". The film is pretty melodramatic, but it's heartbreaking and honest for its time. Deborah Kerr is one of my favorite actresses and so under-appreciated. She was an actress who was so gentle, elegant, and carried herself like a lady and yet she was a daring lady. She was an actress who was not afraid to take on a role in a film that would have been considered dangerous or controversial. She made her characters endearing and you fell in love with her in the process.
I recently saw this movie for the first time. I have been reading through
some of the comments and the overanalyzing runs amuck. One commentary
goes so far as to blame society for the spread of STDs by forcing young,
confused men to seek out prostitutes to prove their manhood. Yet another
excuse to dispel personal responsibility. Unbelievable!
This movie, I'm sure, was racy for it's time (1956), but in 2003 it's par for the course. To me the movie is silly and way overacted. It does, however, strike some cord. Perhaps it's the harsh reality that kids are cruel. They always have been and they always will be. Young people have suffered loneliness and anxiety at the hands of classmates since the beginning of organized education. Some of the commentaries are as if only those that may be gender confused are suffering. At the school that I attended those most likely to be ridiculed were: short, tall, skinny, fat, read-headed, had a big nose, etc.
The movie spends a great deal of time skirting the issue of homosexuality. It even comes dangerously close to child molestation, but the makers are sure to propagate that the male in question is turning 18 on the very day that he purportedly becomes a man.
I think the watcher of the movie should take it for just what it is: an overzealous attempt at tugging the hearts strings with a cast of mixed up and confused characters.
I have many reservations about this film version of the successful
Broadway play, but believe that film censorship forced changes in the
screenplay that make it much less forceful than the original play. The
play, I am told, handled the subject of homosexuality with at least a
little more candor than the film.
Here it is never really addressed honestly which is still the main fault of the whole piece. Skirting around the issue of masculine/feminine traits does nothing to give the story any moral fiber. Gays are not going to take kindly to the inference that all it takes is the understanding of a compassionate woman to change their sexual make-up or identity or self-worth. It's probably the weakest premise imaginable and the film's attitude is so hopelessly dated about sexuality that one can only snicker at it today.
It doesn't help that none of the performances are particularly memorable. Kerr merely repeats her stage performance with precision but John Kerr lacks the sort of sensitivity needed for the role of the troubled young man.
When Kerr left the Broadway play, the roles were filled by Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins. Perkins might have made a much more believable troubled youth than Kerr.
It's a handsome looking film (how could it be anything else when directed by Vincente Minnelli) but it plods along at a stagebound pace despite the fact that he's opened it up to other settings.
This is one of the best examples of a film that may have appeared ahead of its time (at time of release), but is almost unwatchable today because of its many weaknesses and dated attitudes.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is a touching, sweet, troubling and beautifully directed (Vincente Minelli) film based upon a hit Broadway play, starring the three principals. Deborah Kerr is magnificent as s headmaster's wife who tries to help the "unmanly" student who is ridiculed by his schoolmates. John Kerr is outstanding in the role, displaying fine sensitivity and beautiful range (he won Tony on Broadway). His character prefers music, reading, sewing, cooking and other activities that do not conform to the classic male (more female-oriented, or homosexual, although the latter word is not used in this film, being 1956). As the macho headmaster, Leif Erickson is suitably obnoxious. Supporting roles are ably filled by Darryl Hickman as John Kerr's understanding room-mate, Edward Andrews as his belligerent father, Tom Laughlin as a sneering student (calling Kerr "sister boy"), etc. Critics say this is watered down from the play, which I've never seen, only read about, But Minnelli was able to sneak in a few nuances as well as he could, to avert censors. One quick scene has J. Kerr, not seeing his father for awhile, trying to kiss his cheek, but Andrews backs away. D. Kerr and her husband of 1 year, Erickson, are having an argument, about him not touching her for a long time (in the play he was a closeted gay). Another illustration to that trait is when J. Kerr returns to campus after 10 years, Erickson is divorced from D. Kerr, still single, and playing classical music in his living room (not the "thing" for a macho man). The play ends after D. Kerr's famous line, but the picture continues with a gratifying epilogue. The entire script could skirt gay issues, or be a production about "conforming to the norm" and is fascinating and well told.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Homophobia provides the backdrop for this film's portrayal of a
confused, abandoned young man who is manipulated into a sexual
encounter by the headmaster's wife in order to prove his "manhood." A
chilling portrayal of the rigidness of 1950's gender roles, this movie
touts "tenderness" and "sympathy" in the form of emotional incest and
adultery. Laura (Deborah Kerr) works hard to justify her predatory
behavior by renaming her sexual attraction "affection," and explaining
to her husband that she only offered the boy "what was left over--what
you didn't want."
She reframes the adultery as an act of salvation for Tom (John Kerr), explaining that she sacrificed her marriage for his life. Obvious to the audience is the reality of a clumsy seduction of a vulnerable younger man by a needy older woman who begins to doubt her attractiveness. Weepy strings dominate the score, but the only sympathy generated should go to those who watch this psychological dysfunction in action.
It dismays me that so many people are enjoying this film. From a
cinematic and acting perspective, it certainly has merits which have
been well commented on.
But as a gay person I find this movie absolutely stomach turning, homophobic to the core. The fact that it was "enlightened" for the time, and indeed it was, just increases my discomfiture. And to see the comments of people who are still seeing this thru 1950s eyes is pretty bleak.
To put it briefly, just because you are sensitive and gentle does not mean you are gay. What a relief. Yet this movie manages to make being gay seem even more awful than ever.
Many might challenge me by pointing out that Brokeback Mountain is also about a sad homophobic time. But Brokeback was made thru the perspective of today. It is a window in the past, and puts a message, in the end, of change and hope. Furthermore it is unabashed in its depiction of same sex love, and we identify with the two men.
Tea and Sympathy is merely a homophobic product of its time - a very different thing.
Tea and Sympathy, its merits notwithstanding (and it was directed by the great Vincente Minnelli, who by the way, was a closet case of major proportions), is really something to be seen only as a museum piece, and should be of interest (if you an stand it) only to those interested in the history of cinema and gay rights.
That people who are all for men being "sensitive" as long as they are heterosexual this movie will appear timeless, undoubtedly. My message to those non-prejudiced people reading this who have not seen the film, be careful about letting any impressionable young person see Tea and Sympathy until you have carefully explained the context of the movie. I would hate to see anyone have to go back to the 50s.
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