Sometimes you watch a film without expectation and find yourself more than merely invested but moved by the intimate and honest nature of the film itself. It can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life, to sit back and become pulled into the very fabric of a film, the very ‘being’ it processes. That happened for me last night, while I was watching ‘Tea and Sympathy’, a little known gem from director Vincente Minnelli. In fact, until last night I hadn’t ever heard of the movie. As a fan of Deborah Kerr, I was interested in seeing it, but I had no idea what I was about to watch and had zero expectation walking in.
‘Tea and Sympathy’ may be one of the most powerful portraits of bullying, loneliness, tolerance and sexual identity ever put to film.
Some will balk at this. Some will say that the film is dated and that its presentation of homosexuality is stilted or false, but one also has to remember the time in which a film like this was being made. In the 50’s, it was extremely taboo to tackle these themes. In fact, it is still to a small degree considered taboo today. It was very hard to express sympathy or tolerance for those struggling with their own personal feelings and identity because there was very little tolerance to be found. That is why a film like ‘Tea and Sympathy’ is so important and so powerful. It may not address certain issues with definite clarity (it never once mentions the word homosexual or even gay) and yet in doing such it actually speaks to a larger audience. It makes the core theme of bullying a more universal subject, and in doing so it becomes a more powerful and more effective film.
The core story is that of seventeen year-old Tom Lee. Attending a prep school and living in a boarding house co-habited by his headmaster, Mr. Reynolds, Tom is having a very hard time fitting in. He isn’t interested in the many activities of his peers. He doesn’t want to play sports of climb mountains. Instead, he dreams of being a folk singer and indulges in the company of women, mostly the headmaster’s wife Laura. Because of this, Tom is constantly teased by his peers. They label him ‘Sister Boy’, questioning his sexuality and manliness and treating him like an outcast. They harass and terrorize him whenever possible.
But Laura’s life isn’t so glamorous either. Her husband, headmaster Bill, is a guarded man who treats her more like an object or property and less like a wife. He shuns her affections and spends his free time entertaining his students, taking them on hikes and trips and inviting them to the house. He spends no alone time with Laura and seems to be uninterested in her sexually. Seeking affection, and desiring to give someone affection herself, Laura finds herself gravitating towards Tom, who is in desperate need of some sympathy.
The film is a very bold look at the destructive nature of bullying and preconceived notions of what an individual is supposed to be. As we look at the people around Tom and the way the react to him, we can see those same actions taking place today, which makes a film like this relevant to modern society. In a world where bullying is becoming an even bigger problem, it is interesting to see a film made in the 50’s tackling, with such brazen honesty, the downward spiral associated with the act. As Tom’s world collapses under his own frustrated depressions, we are crushed by his reality.
The scene where he attempts suicide is a tragic reminder that these issues are far from ‘a thing of the past’.
Some have taken issue with the way that homosexuality is handled here, stating that the issue is merely skirted around and that the insinuation that ‘walking a certain way’ makes you a certain way is insulting. I don’t see it this way. For me, the film works brilliantly within the unfair constraints and censorship of the time working against it. There were certain aspects of the stage play that apparently couldn’t be included in the film (anyone familiar with Tennessee Williams’ stage plays and film adaptations should be aware that this issue was commonplace in the 40’s and 50’s), but I feel that the film does a marvelous job of working around that fact, allowing the meat of the story to film every frame.
In not addressing the obvious directly, ‘Tea and Sympathy’ paints a wider portrait of oppression and tolerance. The fact remains that not every quiet boy who would rather sing than play football is gay, and the way that ‘Tea and Sympathy’ broaches Tom’s demeanor, his shyness and his uncomfortable, awkward advances towards women could honestly be something altogether NOT what one would expect. But it is more than just Tom’s experience being looked at here. The characters of Bill and of Tom’s roommate Al also color different aspects of manliness and sexual identity. Al is painted as a sympathizer, but he is also controlled by his fear or what others may think of him. He hesitates to do what is in his heart because he is afraid of being condemned. But it is Bill who is the real point of interest. His reluctance to embrace his wife speaks volumes for his abrupt masculinity, a mask he uses to shield himself from his internal torment over not ‘wanting to want’ what he obviously wants.
The character of Laura is an interesting one, because one can almost wade through her sweet sincerity to find a near selfishness, a need to find comfort and solace in her time of despair and in her final letter to Tom one can almost sense that she understands that her actions were damaging, despite appearing to be cleansing and healing on the outset.
I also really felt that the handling of Tom’s father was extremely profound, for it showed the power that one’s parents can have over shaping their view of one’s worth.
Vincente Minnelli does a masterful job of bringing awareness to a taboo subject, using a visual intensity to further cast that lot. I found it quite jarring that throughout the entirety of the film I barely saw young John Kerr’s face. He was always so downtrodden and outwardly oppressed, but in the climactic scene in the woods with Deborah Kerr, the light came down through the trees and highlighted his face and it was almost like Minnelli was allowing us to fully grasp the boy’s vindication.
I don’t know what else I can say. This film touched me in a way I didn’t expect, and I’m saddened that it doesn’t have a larger audience. Sure, some of the approaches may be dated, but the film is far more poignant that many give it credit for, and as a statement piece of a period behind us, it brilliantly addresses a universal problem that is still very prevalent and thus expresses concern that is still very relevant. Whether you consider Tom, Al or Bill (or all three of them) as closeted homosexuals, ‘Tea and Sympathy’ does a miraculous job of shading three very different men suffering from a very similar issue, that of self and social tolerance, and gives us a way of seeing three differing vantage points, all of them observed by a woman suffering from her own life obstacles.
At the end of the day, ‘Tea and Sympathy’ is a film about hurting and overcoming that hurt to finally accept oneself for who one truly is.