Over the years, Tea and Sympathy (and the memory of its original Broadway production) seem to have fallen from the dizzying heights of groundbreaking success to a benchmark for campy classicism. Well, maybe that’s not quite true, but the fact remains that this film is not nearly as well regarded as it deserves to be.
Told in flashback, the film begins by introducing us to the seventeen-year-old Tom Lee, a new senior at a boys prep school. He enjoys theatre and gardening, and even has hopes of becoming a folk singer. To the other boys at his school though, Tom is seen as effeminate and different; he is taunted by his peers, and even his housemaster Bill Reynolds refuses to speak up. Only Laura, the beautiful and kind wife of Reynolds takes notice of the young boy. As Laura’s concern grows into affection, she becomes more than just an onlooker in his life, administering more than just the required dose of tea and sympathy.
Even before seeing this movie, I had always believed the character of Laura Reynolds to be the definitive Deborah Kerr role. On paper, the part seemed perfect for her, and watching it for the first time, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. Kerr brings such a poignant sensitivity to this role; towards Tom, she is gentle and wonderfully understanding. The ideas of Laura’s unhappy past and deep-rooted emotional uncertainty also simmer quietly under this brilliant performance, making it all the more touching and memorable.
As Tom Lee, John Kerr’s portrayal is charming in a clunky, vulnerable kind of way. Stumbling down the path to adulthood, I never really thought of him as a closeted homosexual as many others viewers seem to do. To me, it was always obvious that Tom was in love with Laura, and had been for quite some time. While there are homophobic undertones, the film, and the play too, are more about identity and being different in a frighteningly conformist society. Deborah Kerr, in a letter to Minnelli, puts it perfectly:
“It really is a play about persecution of the individual, and compassion and pity and love of one human being for another in a crisis”.
I have read a number of reviews in which the writers have commented on the apparent ‘staginess’ of the film, referring both to the direction and the acting of the leads. Moreover, Tea and Sympathy has often been quoted as a ‘watered-down adaptation’ and a ‘product of the Code’. While I do believe these statements to be true to an extent, I also think it would be wrong to dismiss the film or write it off as such.
Firstly, the question of theatricality and the film’s seemingly conspicuous proscenium arch. Personally, I don’t really see it. More than ever, Minnelli’s meticulous direction helps to enhance the original play. In particular, two scenes come to mind as being particularly remarkable.
The first of these scenes begins with a surprise visit from Tom’s father, Herb. He and Bill discuss the boy and his ‘peculiarities’ and Laura listens from inside the kitchen. The whole shot is framed exquisitely; the two men in the garden are seen from a window, and Laura stands in the foreground.The rectangular window, a symbol for convention and heterosexuality, represents the society which shuns Tom. It is only Laura, a sympathetic and gentle character, who cares and shields him from the unpleasant real world.
Just after Herb leaves, Bill Reynolds goes on to tell his wife about the whole ‘pyjamas bonfire’ affair taking place that night; an age-old tradition where the older boys rip off the clothes of the new students. As all the other younger boys get pounced on, a group of seniors surround Tom, forming a circle and ‘protecting’ him from harm. In some ways, it is exactly the opposite of what we usually see when a ring is created. This image, our hero trying to break free and just become a ‘regular guy’, whatever that may be, is a truly heartbreaking and powerful one.
Following the luminous, almost dream-like sequence in which Laura offers herself to Tom and utters that unbelievably quotable line “Years from now when you talk about this – and you will – be kind,” we return to the present day. This borderline ruinous framing device that features grown-up Tom happily married and Laura ‘punished’ for her bad deeds, feels tacked-on (which it was) and moralistic (which it had to be).
Nevertheless, I see this film for what it was at the time and definitely still is: a beautifully sensitive representation from one of the most talented directors in Hollywood. It is far from the archetypal lush and empty MGM picture, but instead quite a daring film, questioning many aspects of the rigid set of American ideals that governed the 1950s.