Originally released 27 Sep 1956
Written by Robert Anderson based on his play
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Starring Deborah Kerr, John Kerr, Leif Erickson, Darryl Hickman, and Edward Andrews
My rating: ★★★★ stars
When you talk about this movie, and you will, be kind.
Tea and Sympathy is my favorite movie with Deborah Kerr, my favorite actress. I could gush about her performance, which is wonderfully nuanced, for a thousand words. She plays Laura Reynolds, the sympathetic wife a house master at an all-boys prep school. She develops a particular interest in one boy, Tom Lee (John Kerr, no relation). Tom, like her, is gentle and attentive. Her husband, Bill (Leif Erickson), is less so. That’s not to say that Bill is an unfeeling oaf—he can show Laura affection and attention when he gets the mind to. They’re just not suited. Laura has needs that he can’t meet. Tom meets those needs.
Most of the discussion of the film focuses on Tom’s travails among his peers and male authority figures. Laura is rarely the focus of discussion. That Tom’s story is the focus of discussion is understandable because his narrative is relevant decades later. Perhaps, it’s even more relevant than it was in 1956. Laura’s story is less relevant in an era of easy divorce. She and Bill epitomize the concept of “irreconcilable differences,” but in the 1950s there was an onus on a woman to make a marriage work regardless of the circumstances. And Laura is a failure at that. Hers, however, is a sympathetic failure. She sees in Tom a soul in need of help, and she needs to be needed. Bill does his best to show that he doesn’t need her.
The tragedy in Tea and Sympathy is the code of toxic masculinity that dominates life and the school and the behavior of the characters. Teaching Tolerance defines “toxic masculinity” as: “a narrow and repressive description of manhood, designating manhood as defined by violence, sex, status and aggression. It’s the cultural ideal of manliness, where strength is everything while emotions are a weakness; where sex and brutality are yardsticks by which men are measured, while supposedly ‘feminine’ traits—which can range from emotional vulnerability to simply not being hypersexual—are the means by which your status as ‘man’ can be taken away.” And this is precisely what happens to Tom. He is shown as being vulnerable and not being hypersexual. Other characteristics code him as feminine in this definition of manhood: he sews, he likes folk music, he wears his hair too long, his walk is too bouncy, he plays tennis with a feminine stroke. Everything he does becomes an object for suspicion and derision.
The other students call him “Sister Boy.” His gender non-conformity threatens their sense of narrowly defined masculinity. They feel comfortable about their own masculinity because they fit this code. If Tom can be a man without fitting into it, then maybe the fact that they do is meaningless in defining their manhood. So they must disparage him to maintain their sense of self. Bill, too, finds Tom’s lack of manliness unsettling. His need to prove that he’s a man prevents him from offering Laura the level of emotional support she needs. He is also imprisoned by this rigid code. Laura continually points out the absurdity of this code of masculinity, but she’s dismissed because, as a mere woman, she doesn’t understand the rites of manhood.
After some progress forward in acknowledging the limitations and destructiveness of those codes, we seem to be heading backward. I’ve seen a lot of people in our society now express longing to go back to the 1950s world where gender roles and behavior were far more structured and defined. Tea and Sympathy shows how damaging those rigidly defined codes can be.
Also damaging is the bullying that Tom receives. Bullying has become a huge topic of conversation in the last few years. Anti-bullying initiatives proliferate in schools. The bullying that other students give Tom is nasty and inventive. Young people seem to have an unlimited capacity to be cruel to one another. I’ve felt that one of the common misunderstandings of bullying is the belief that “bullies are insecure.” I’ve always found bullies to be narcissistic and entitled, and Tom’s fellow students are that. They see his weakness as a target for their amusement. They know that they can be cruel with impunity. They don’t care about consequences because there aren’t any. They torment him because they can.
The fellow students reflect “toxic bro culture,” a problem that has only been recently identified with a name, hence the modern phrasing. It refers to the collective behaviors of young men in a group that reflect privilege, entitlement, harassment, sexual objectification, and homophobia. Certainly, all these characteristics are represented in the behaviors of Tom’s schoolmates. In one scene, a group of boys torment a diner waitress with groping and lewd comments; she treats it as normal despite the difficulty it creates in doing her job. Tom’s father, played by Edward Andrews in a performance that borders on creepy, encourages Tom to join in so that he can show he’s one of the gang. The toxic behaviors of the group are normalized—accepted, even lauded.
A lot of the commentary on Tea and Sympathy has dealt with Tom’s potential gayness. The film is directed by a gay man, Vincente Minnelli (although he was married to a women and reportedly had affairs with women as well as men). In the play, the inciting incident is Tom’s being caught swimming with a gay teacher. The film changes the incident to his being caught sewing with faculty wives. I like that version better, even though it is the toned-down one. The story is more interesting to me if Tom is not gay or potentially gay. The crisis is more nuanced if he betrays a gender code than if he represents a taboo sexuality. It’s not that a story about gayness and the bullying that an LGBT character receives would not be interesting; that’s an important story to tell and retell. But stories about the devastation of rigid thinking about gender and the normalization of destructive and repulsive behaviors are important too and, perhaps, more difficult to convey because they’re more subtle. I don’t think Tom was meant to be seen as gay by the audience, and it’s not cowardice to show Tom as not gay. The film is telling a different story, and that one is worth telling, particularly now as we face a national crisis of toxic masculinity and bro culture.
The play came out in 1953, another moment of national crisis. It was the same year as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, an acknowledged allegory of McCarthyism. Tea and Sympathy can also be seen as a reaction to McCarthy’s campaign of persecution. Tom’s perceived guilt of being gay is assumed by mere suspicion. Perceived improper associations become evidence against him. His father says, “You are known by the company you keep.” Even Tom’s closest friend, Al (Darryl Hickmam), is pressured by his father to abandon Tom because association with Tom can taint Al’s reputation. Hickman is very good at presenting the struggle of a young man who knows what’s right but can’t upset the order of the world he’s in.
The one performance I have a problem with is John Kerr’s. For one thing, he looks too old for the part. More importantly, his is the kind of overwrought performance that James Dean popularized with the “You’re tearing me apart!” moment in Rebel without a Cause. A subtler, more sensitive portrayal would have suited the story better.
One of the most often identified flaws in the movie is the framing story required by the rules of production at the time. It shows Tom returning to the prep school years later and reliving his time there. During those framing scenes, the film shows Tom as happily married, thus affirming his heterosexuality, and has Laura express regret for her behavior toward her husband. These scenes, however, do not greatly harm the film.
Much of the credit to the success of the film has to go to Minnelli. Although he’s known for his musicals, he directed a number of fine melodramas, including this one and Home from the Hill. He doesn’t shy from presenting emotion, and, unlike his contemporary Douglas Sirk, he doesn’t present melodrama in a cynical, detached way. Minnelli leans into the pathos and the pain, and the result is fuller, more powerful. A sensitive actress like Kerr gave him much to work with, as did his most famous leading lady, Judy Garland. They could portray intricacies of emotion for Minnelli’s camera to capture.
One of Minnelli’s most striking features throughout his films is his use of color. As a former costume and set designer for the theater, he understood the aesthetics of color and how to use it to direct viewers’ attention. By his later films, such as Tea and Sympathy, he’s graduated to a symbolic use of color. In this film, yellow, commonly associated with friendship, becomes connected with Laura. Her furniture is yellow, her dresses are yellow, her curtains are yellow, even the flowers she delivers are yellow. Her role as house master’s wife is to offer friendship, “tea and sympathy,” to the young men. Tom’s color is blue. He wears blue shirts, blue pajamas, a blue suit, and he, too, delivers flowers that are blue. Interestingly, Minnelli associates Tom with the color most closely linked with masculinity in a story where that part of his character is in question, as if underscoring that Tom, despite being sensitive, is very much a man. Near the end of the film, Laura dons a green dress, as if mixing her yellow with Tom’s blue. It’s in this dress that she first makes a romantic overture to Tom although she backs off at the last moment. In her final scene, she meets Tom in a lush, green forest. The world has become green. But Laura has abandoned her yellow for pink. She’s no longer offering friendship but presenting herself to Tom as a woman.
Tea and Sympathy is a complex film dealing with issues that underlie the fabric of society. It’s not a film that shies away from that challenge. It confronts its viewers with the pain that society imposes on anyone who fails to conform to its narrow concept of “normality.” The filmmakers masterfully balance social indictment with tender, personal drama. It’s a beautiful film that resonates more than half a century later.