Wednesday Editor’s Pick: Tea and Sympathy (1956)

by on October 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Wed Oct 19 at 4:30, 7:00*, 9:30 at BAMcinématek [Program & Tix]
*7:00 intro by film theorist David Gerstner


The always engaging and sexy queer film theorist David Gerstner will be introducing this lily-white but still red-hot potato, Vincente Minnelli’s adaptation of Robert Anderson’s hit Broadway play about a boy who might be that way or he might just be really sensitive and like to sew and listen to folk music, you know? Or, um, you don’t?


Seeing Tea and Sympathy is like opening the door to a long-deserted room that is still touchingly livable and pretty and tender even though it hasn’t been aired in decades. And it cannot be understood unless you’re aware of all the decisions that had to be made about the lead character, Tom, played on Broadway and in the film by John Kerr, and what his sexuality is or is supposed to be. And why he might or might not need the tender ministrations of faculty wife Laura, played on stage and in the film by Deborah Kerr (no relation to John, ahem).


Laura is married to Bill Reynolds (played on stage and in the film by Leif Erickson, the ex-husband of Frances Farmer), and Bill himself is clearly a closeted, self-hating gay man in the play and less obviously so in the film, which muddies the waters. This material is nothing but muddy waters, really, but Minnelli approaches it with his starched white linen and tries to get it to make at least emotional sense.


As Gerstner wrote in his 1997 Film Quarterly essay, “The Production and Display of the Closet: Making Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy“:

According to letters and memos found in the Production Code’s files for MGM, each studio’s difficulty in making this film circulated around the utterance (implied or otherwise) of homosexuality. In fact, both points of Code contestation (homosexuality and the woman’s sexual transgression) were imbricated with homophobia and fear of the effeminization of masculinity. Through a series of public and private discourses (which are founded upon and within a historical relationship of urban male middle-class anxiety about gender and political effeminization), the making of Tea and Sympathy at MGM points to what Eve Sedgwick terms the “spectacle of the homosexual closet.” Not only is the film a marker of the spectacle of the closet, but the spectacle of the closet is generated, displayed, and reinforced precisely through the discourses of the making of the text and, more precisely, through the making of the film’s structured silence.



Minnelli’s long-time producer Pandro Berman gave an interview to the New York Times in September 1955 on the problems of adapting Tea to the screen:

The theme of the play is essentially this: what is manliness? We haven’t changed that at all. The boy is regarded by fellow students and the housemaster as an “off-horse” because he doesn’t flex his muscles and knock himself out climbing mountains or playing basketball. To them he is soft physically and becomes suspect. They conveniently pigeon-hole their standards for manliness and anyone who doesn’t conform is an oddball. We never say in the film that the boy has homosexual tendencies—I don’t believe the word homosexual was actually spoken in the play either—but any adult who has ever heard of the word and understands its meaning will clearly understand this suspicion in the film.


And that suspicion has visual tip-offs in the completed film. Gerstner again:

Minnelli’s use of an aestheticized mise-en-scene makes it possible to realize the anxiety-ridden intersections that exist between the discursive practices surrounding the making of the film (what to do about the homosexual and the transgressive woman) and the social conditions in which those discursive practices were situated (in what ways do the homo-sexual and the transgressive woman threaten American masculinity?).


The curtain line of the play has become a camp classic: “Years from now…when you talk about this…and you will…be kind,” says Laura, before offering herself to Tom to prove he’s straight. This line is quoted approvingly in the first mainstream gay love story, Making Love (1982), by Harry Hamlin’s character, who views the Minnelli movie as a kind of heartfelt back number, confused but still potent.
Here’s Gerstner on that famous last line in the play:

The oft-quoted final line (“Years from now . . . when you talk about this . . . and you will . . . be kind”,) will, however, carry two different conclusions. The play’s ending on this note does not necessarily recommend an absolute or final (heterosexual) desire. Rather, the play potentially lends itself to the idea of choosing one’s own sexual object (i.e., Tom may be with Laura at this point, but we’re given no indication of what his future choices might be).


And then there’s the film:

Tom, identified as creative and gentle (rehearsing his “feminine traits”), is not a homosexual. We can, however, see masculine anxiety and its attendant homophobia… Following the tradition of the historical aesthete (Huysmans, Firbank, Van Vechten, etc.), Minnelli practices a process of aestheticization on the mise-en-scene in order to make visible and hyperbolize the cultural anxiety of masculinity… In effect, homosexual desire is not met not only because of its (en)forced silence, but also because of the indetermination of exactly what that homosexual desire is. What can be displayed, however, is the aggressivity of the masculine figure within the homosocial grouping. The anxiety of homosocial desire between men on the screen—homophobia— becomes that which can be seen. It is, in other words, not so much a question of locating homosexual desire as it is question of illustrating homosexual panic.



But for Film International, Christopher Sharrett notices something interesting in the film’s tacked-on prologue and epilogue:

At the film’s opening, as Tom strolls through the crowd at the class reunion, two alumni brag: “Our class married darn well—a bunch of real pretty women.” One man shares baby pictures; another brags of his factories. Clearly, women are seen as breed sows and trophies, and associated with triumph in the capitalist world. Two women stand by themselves, one saying to the other that class reunions are “for the birds.” (This scene is important relative to understanding Tom’s sexuality and what Minnelli tries to transmit. Although we learn in the tacked-on ending forced by the Code and the Legion of Decency that Tom married, he is alone through the reunion scene that precedes and closes the extended flashback. The idea that he has no interest in heterosexual life is always evident, despite the interventions of censors.)


And here’s Sharrett on that last line:

(Laura) is merely assuming that bragging about conquests is central to male sexual satisfaction, hardly a controversial insight, but one that she wants to be spared as she anticipates her exile…and, setting the Code aside, an exile from Bill is not the worst fate in the world. After all, it frees him to return to his record albums of long ago, “regressing” into Tom (and to a secret gay life?).


“Even the most daring story can be brought to the screen,” promises the trailer, “When done with Courage, Honesty and Good Taste”:


For a window into the mindset of the time, here’s Deborah Kerr’s well-meaning but pretty-alarming-to-modern-eyes letter to Minnelli when he was considering making a film of the play:

My Dear Vincente—

Bertie told me that there was every chance that you would direct T&S, when and if it is made—and I just felt I must drop you a line and tell you how absolutely thrilled I was with the news. I had a very nice talk with Bob Anderson on Saturday night in Philadelphia—and he has some really quite interesting and unusual ideas about scripting it—and making it a “whole” thing if the Breen office are very difficult about the homosexual angle—which is I understand their objection—adultery is o.k.—impotence is o.k.—but perversion is their bête noire! But as you will see when you see the play—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. And as such can stand alone I think—without the added problem of homosexuality. But above all—it needs a sensitive and compassionate person to make it—and that is why I’m so thrilled at the prospect of your doing it. I wish we could do it in color, and incorporate all the atmospheric feeling of spring and “things about to flower” and all that romantic and artistic nonsense! Anyway—this may all be premature—there are hurdles I know—but in case they are all leaped—I want you to know how very excited I am—

With affection,


Kerr’s reasoning in this letter is familiar. It’s exactly the line Lillian Hellman took about her play The Children’s Hour, which played on Broadway two decades before Tea and Sympathy. It is not a play about lesbianism, Hellman would always stress, it is a play about a lie. Homosexuality is being used as a device to illuminate some larger evil, you see.



Here’s what Minnelli himself has to say about it in his autobiography, I Remember It Well:

In retrospect, it wasn’t a very shocking picture, but it might have set up a brouhaha at the time. Ostrich-wise, the censors refused to admit the problem of sexual identity was a common one.


Like many statements in Minnelli’s memoir, this is difficult to read. He could be referencing himself, or he could be referencing all those nameless others with sexual identity problems. Here’s playwright Bob Anderson’s letter to Minnelli on how he saw his story:

I have always seen the play basically as a love story, a love story which never would have had a happy ending except for the persecution of Tom. That is the irony of the story…that Tom is persecuted in a sense for his love for Laura, but his persecution brings about fulfillment of the love. Of course the meanings of the play are various…the chief one being that we must understand and respect the differences in people…Along with this is the whole concept of what manliness is. I attack the often movie-fostered notion that a man is only a man if he can carry Vivien Leigh up a winding staircase. I stump for essential manliness which is something internal, and consists of gentleness, consideration, and other qualities of that sort, and not just of brute strength. Another point, of course, is the tendency for any mass of individuals to gang up on anyone who differs from it…if there is nothing to persecute in the individual, they will invent something…You can always bolster your own shaky position by attacking someone more vulnerable than you are.



Sharrett for Film International takes on the film’s depiction of the ultra-conformist boarding school:

The men of Chilton have difficulties even associating with women, despite braggadocio. The beach party scene is most instructive, as Bill smirks that it’s okay for Tom to stay on the other side (“if he prefers the company of women, that’s his problem”). The idea of asserting masculinity, of showing skills at sports and the like, is associated with contempt for the female. A bunch of the “regular guys” (a term that recurs in the film) crowd into Tom’s room to get a glimpse of women passing by the residence. We don’t see them, but the point is clear: women are a subject for voyeurism, for bragging and belittlement, but not for interaction. As the boys shove their way into the room, Tom is pushed onto his bed and punched about, one boy (Tom McLaughlin, the obnoxious actor of Billy Jack fame) squirting shaving cream onto a photo of Tom’s “old man” (the moment is complicated—the act of minor vandalism is also an assault on the patriarch via an ejaculatory gesture, and an ejaculation as one boy faces another).


The concept of “regular guys” is repeated often, reminding one that these guys are hardly regular, according to the standards they accept. The phrase recurs in the language of Tom’s father Herb, played by Edward Andrews, notable in film history for his snotty, vaguely sinister and effete qualities that typecast him as a nosey fake (he played, for example, George Babbitt in Elmer Gantry). While he is not one of Hollywood’s “evil faggots,” he conveyed a sense of the feminine in domesticated males; this sense in turn produces an aspect of roiling resentment, something central to Herb’s relationship to Tom and former classmate Bill. Herb is upset that Tom isn’t aggressive on the tennis court, that his fans are a small group of “fairies,” and, amazingly (to our eyes today) that Tom’s hair is too long. Since the rise of the 50s rock stars, long hair on men became an obsession of the American middle class, with its connotation of femininity, “white trash,” and a general refusal to conform. Herb wants Tom to get a “crew cut,” that military-style hairdo of the postwar years that enjoyed a long run (and has, sadly, returned). This haircut would make Tom one of the “regular guys.” Tom avoids the haircut, and other helpful hints from his father, most of which point to Herb’s defensiveness. When Herb runs into his old pal Bill Reynolds, the two engage in some joshing over the good old days at Chilton. Although the men share a laugh about Herb’s paunch vs. Bill’s hard-body, overcompensated physique, the joke barely masks an aura of tension. It is clear that Herb wants Tom to be his ego ideal, a recreation of himself minus his own defensive, self-conscious qualities (masking that which he is afraid to express) which he projects onto Tom, and the topic nervously shunts aside the bonhomie enjoyed by Bill and Herb. As Bill tells Herb that his son is an “off horse,” Laura listens from the kitchen. In one of many remarkable compositions, we see the two men through the kitchen window as Laura stands in the foreground, the yellow curtains on the window extending the yellow of her dress. The visuals complement the drama: Laura tries to temper the men, even as she is overwhelmed by them.



Anderson’s play aided the break-up of one of the signal actress-director film collaborations of the twentieth century. When Ingrid Bergman agreed to play the role of Laura in French on the Paris stage, she got her then-husband Roberto Rossellini to sign to direct her in it, as she related in her autobiography, My Story:

Tea and Sympathy is the story of a young boarding-school boy who is afraid he is homosexual. Roberto was always very disturbed by any sort of homosexuality…The whole theme was too distasteful to him. It wasn’t the writing or the writer; he just hated the general theme…He finished the play, stood up, and threw the script across the room against the wall where it scattered on the floor…


“You’re not going to do it, and I’m not going to do it.”


I suppose that two or three years earlier I might have been a submissive little Italian wife, but I don’t think so because I’ve never been submissive as far as my work is concerned.


“You can walk out on it,” I said. “I don’t usually walk out on something I’ve signed my name to, and have promised to do. Besides, I like the play.”


“Like the play! It is going to be laughed off the boards of Paris, and it will be closed in a week.”


But Bergman made a success in it:

“The house went wild. You couldn’t stop them. They were standing up and screaming, standing up and applauding, and the ‘bravos’ never stopped. Then I took my solo bow in the center of the stage, and as I bent over I turned my head and looked at Roberto. Our eyes met. We looked straight at each other. I knew then my marriage was over even though we might stay together.



The Americans had one way of looking at the material’s treatment of homosexuality, the Italian Rossellini had another way, and the French another way still. As Minnelli wrote in his memoir:

After I’d completed the picture, I saw a French production of the play starring Ingrid Bergman. There’d been great difficulty in getting it produced. Everybody said there was no story there, no conflict. “So the boy thinks he’s a homosexual,” a practical French producer told Bob Anderson, “and the wife of the headmaster gives herself to him to prove that he’s not. But what is the problem?”


Nathan Rabin for The Onion AV Club:

Simultaneously bold and a cop-out, Tea And Sympathy is a film divided against itself, a drama about a young gay man’s awkward, fumbling initiation into the adult world of sexuality that doesn’t have the courage to embrace its destiny as a groundbreaking queer film…Yet this subtext makes the film even more poignant during its many subdued scenes where John and Deborah Kerr talk around what they’re really feeling because they can’t come right out and say what’s on their minds. Like the film’s troubled protagonist, Minnelli simply made the best out of an impossible situation with this flawed, fascinating time capsule.


John Kerr, who is so touching in the film and also in Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), gave up acting in middle age to become a lawyer. Here he talks about working with Kerr in Tea and Sympathy for TCM. He remembers a psychoanalytic conference where an analyst said, “Two people with the same last name, very incestuous, very satisfying!” He also addresses the ruinous framing device, forced on the filmmakers by censorship, which makes sure to stress how Laura has suffered for her adultery.


A final word from Sharrett:

Robert Anderson said that his play was not actually about homosexuality but about the intolerance toward those who do not fit the norm. The remark tends to provide “evidence” that the work is obfuscatory, but Minnelli’s direction of Anderson’s play provides us with a “third text,” a work that can be read as condemnation of a rigidly conformist society, but also as a straightforward assault on those who joke at sexual confusion, and who view alternative sexuality as an unforgivable transgression. There is no mistaking that the greater confusion is with Laura, not Tom, and that the true monster is Bill—the adults, the rule makers, however liberal-minded, are the source of problems visited on the young.


Tea and Sympathy, usually seen as a “minor” film by Minnelli, is among his masterpieces, in part because of his genius in negotiating the roadblocks in front of him with such aplomb, but most centrally because of the courage it took for this bisexual artist to produce such an accomplished work on this hot-button topic in mid-1950s America, a truly awful era. This is a film that challenges virtually every assumption of American life.



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