Title: Tea and Sympathy
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Screenwriter: Robert Anderson
Music: Adolph Deutsch
Cinematography: John Alton
Vincente Minnelli’s “message” movie TEA AND SYMPATHY is excellently crafted with Golden Hollywood poise, rehashed for the celluloid by Robert Anderson from his own stage play, it reunites the original play’s three leads, Deborah Kerr, John Kerr (no, they’re not related) and Lief Erickson. In spite of its antediluvian views on masculinity, the film appositely re-surfaces as a searing melodrama zinging at today’s intolerant world, where egregious persecution is wantonly inflicted on minorities and non-conformists.
Tommy Lee (John Kerr) is a 17-year-old prep school student, he is ostracised by his jock classmates who coin him a sobriquet “sister boy”, why? Because of his curly hair, his gait, his sewing skill, his inclination of classical music over sport and roughhouse (he excels in tennis though), he reads Voltaire’s CANDIDE and the fact that he has never bragged about girls. All these facile symptoms can be nimbly dismissed as specious by a more rational mind (even in its time), like Tommy’s roommate Al (Hickman), who always stands up for him but the real helping hand comes from Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr), wife of Tommy’s macho coach Bill (Erickson), who is transparently not in line with his wife’s sympathy over Tom. The title refers to the common “interested bystander” stance which Laura is advised to take being a woman in her position – “doesn’t go beyond giving him tea and sympathy on Sunday afternoons”.
Bearing mockeries and mobbing from his peers, contempt and grudge from coach Bill and mounting pressures from his father Herb (Andrews), Tommy starts to unravel in spite of Laura’s intransigent support and growing affection, in a last-resort attempt to prove his manhood, he arranges a rendezvous with the local loose girl Ellie (Crane, a chain-smoking waitress depicted with a broad and vulgar stroke), Laura overhears it and in her last-resort attempt to pre-empt a disastrous wind-up, she puts on her fancy blue dress and manoeuvres a tête-à-tête to procrastinate Tommy’s action, during which she discloses the death of her late first husband, who died young just because he was trying to prove something that he needn’t proving, so as to convince Tommy that he shouldn’t follow the same old road to ruin. Here, Laura’s motivation has been cogently vindicated, she has been a victim of the bigotry and prejudice of the rank masculine and patriarch society, so how can she just sits and doles out her tea and sympathy?
Nevertheless, Laura doesn’t stop the disaster since she backs off from Tommy’s desperate advances which later she regrets, also because obviously, the story needs something more dramatic to grab the attention and up the ante, yet, the movie is cleverly introduced through the lyrical recollections of Tommy a decade later in a classmate reunion, so Minelli assures audience in the very beginning that Tommy comes safe and sound out of his trials and tribulations unjustly cast upon him. In the beautifully arranged woodland scene, as if in a dreamlike fairy land, Laura comforts a distraught Tommy who has survived a suicidal attempt, with her kiss, the purest and tenderest kiss from a woman to a sensitive young man on the cusp of adulthood and whose nature is in the danger of being cruelly oppressed, even not being typecast as a nun, Ms. Kerr’s Laura continues carrying out the name star’s holy mission to save lives. There is gratitude in that kiss too, through Tommy’s predicament, Laura finally can face up the marital hurdles between her and Bill under the surface of superficial harmony and make a right decision for her own sake.
John Kerr is another young talent whose acting career failed to launch after a promising start, he fleshes out Tommy’s vulnerability, sensitivity and perplexity, but righteously opts not to emphasise on queer mannerism, in fact, he is fairly attractive as an object of desirable for girls (and boys too, of course), the trenchant irony is just self-evident when Al tries to correct Tommy’s unorthodox walk, those accusations are so inadequate and ridiculous. Fault-finding can flourish on everything and anything, which soundly advices us to nurture a discerning eye in lieu of hastily jumping on the bandwagon. Character players Leif Erickson and Edward Andrews, the former lands a meaty supporting role as the narrow-minded coach, in every step, he manages to show beyond doubt that Bill is unworthy of Laura’s merits, and possibly, he is a deep-closeted homosexual himself, Erickson’s butch appearance holds sway in a ghastly dislikeable role; as for the latter, in his more nuanced brew of pleasantry and angst, Andrews comes out as a more assured propeller to push Tommy into the abyss.
In retrospect, 1956 should have been Ms. Kerr’s Oscar-reaping year, only if she were nominated for this film instead of the hyped pap THE KING AND I (1956), as much as I worship Ms. Ingrid Bergman, her Oscar-winning performance in ANASTASIA (1956) is no rival compared with Ms. Kerr’s consummate cri-de-coeur against the omnipresent scourge lurking underneath every imperfect soul. Ms. Kerr is such a pioneering “queer” icon to be reckoned with, especially in view of a less liberal era, whose legacy and glamour need to rediscovered by younger LGBTQ generations, forever dignified, you can never sense a tint of condescension in her refined presence, and her Laura Reynolds, what a courageous woman and what a tour-de-force to witness!