Wednesday, July 22, 2009

a little tea, a little sympathy, a little latent homosexuality and a lot of homophobia

Tea and Sympathy (1956)
Directed by Vincente Minnelli

To be gay, or not to be gay. That is the question most asked about a film that seems to present a picture perfect postcard of 50s homophobia. Featured in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (which I have not seen) the film brings up questions about gender roles, peer pressure, and what society perceives as masculine vs. feminine behavior.

The plot centers on the relationship between Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr) the wife of a house master at a boy's school, and Tom Lee (John Kerr) a shy, sensitive student who is called "sister boy" because of his perceived effeminate characteristics. Tom believes that he is in love with Laura, whose job it is to be an impartial observer and friendly ear to all the boys, offering only a little tea and sympathy on sunday afternoons. Laura is lonely at the school because her husband Bill (Leif Erickson), the super macho house master, does not know how to show affection towards Laura and prefers to spend his time with his students playing sports and hiking. He sees Tom as a failure, and when Tom is treated ruthlessly by the other boys he does not put a stop to it. As a result of this behavior Tom tries to prove his manliness by sleeping with the local floozy who works at the local dive. He finds that he can't go through with it and out of shame tries to kill himself. Laura, unable to remain impartial any longer, offers herself to him and gives Tom the love that he has never received from his father, his friends, or another girl, enabling him to overcome his insecurities and become his own man.

Laura Reynolds: Years from now when you talk about this-and you will-be kind.
Aside from the fact that it is a Minnelli film, the staginess of its setting and acting style can be attributed to the fact that the film was adapted from the popular stage play which also starred Deborah Kerr, John Kerr (not related), and Leif Erickson. Despite this similarity, there were several key differences from the racier stage play and the more streamlined screen play, including a scene where Tom takes a midnight swim with a schoolteacher who is fired for potentially being a homosexual. More drastic is a tacked on ending in which Tom comes back to a school reunion and finds that Laura has left her husband because she couldn't stay with him after being with Tom. She left a letter for him, which Deborah Kerr reads in a voiceover. The viewer finds out that Tom has written a very successful book about his experiences, is happily married, and that Deborah did not get her happily ever after ending as she still feels guilty about the unhappiness she brought on her husband. Deborah Kerr was reportedly not happy about these changes, as the stage play simply ends with her famous line asking Tom to be kind (referenced above) as she unbuttons her blouse. These changes indicate that the film wanted to remove any doubt about Tom's sexuality, while the stage play was all about that doubt.

Even though it clearly is not a film that is friendly towards those who do not follow the sexually straight and narrow path, I personally am not convinced that Tom was gay, and wonder if this is another tragic instance of having to force a notion about a topic that is rarely ever treated properly, and in the early era of film practically nonexistent. The film errs in its ending, shamelessly forcing the notion that he turned out alright in the end (celebrate! he's not gay! hurrah hurrah!), but that still doesn't change the fact that he is clearly shown to be attracted to Laura from the very beginning.

To me, this does not mean that there is no veiled homosexuality in the film as it seems pretty clear that Laura's macho husband is actually the one who is gay. He spends all his time with his young male students, constantly feels the need to prove that he is a 'real man', and avoids the affection of his wife who laments that they "don't touch anymore." In my reading of it the film actually presents an approximation of my own views, that whether you love classical music and being in plays or tossing around a football this has nothing to do with one's sexuality. You can appear the essence of manliness and be secretly hiding what in 1950 (and now, you're kidding yourself if you think society is past this) was shameful, or be a quiet boy who simply doesn't know how to show his affection towards a woman. Even if it still isn't a forward film, it is correct in the final conviction that stereotyping was as wrong then as it is now.

If you like moody films that are mannered and stylized with some excellent actors (clearly I've become an instant Deborah Kerr fangirl. just add water), or are interested in depictions of homosexuality in film, this is worth a watch.

My Rating: B

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