“Tea and Sympathy”
“Tea and Sympathy” was one of the very first Hollywood films to touch the subject of homosexuality and this was in 1956 when it was a verboten topic. It is the story of Tom Lee (John Kerr), a 17 year old sensitive boy who is not interested in sports or other activities that boys like and he is mocked by girls his age who call him “sister boy”. He was a student at Chilton, a prep school for boys where he was befriended by Laura (Deborah Kerr), the wife of headmaster Bill Reynolds (Leif Ericson) who sees that the boy suffers because of the way his schoolmates treat him and she tries to help him find himself. Chilton was the kind of school where family status was very important but Tom thought differently. He did not take part in athletic activities aside from tennis, a gentleman’s sport, and he can sew and cook. He knows about gardening and it is his desire to be a folk singer and musician. He was accepted into the drama club with the condition that he play only female parts. His only friend is his roommate who ties to understand him but realizes that he is one person against many.
Tom is aware of the embarrassment that he causes his father who worries that Tom’s behavior will affect the family name. Tom spends a lot of time with Laura who really wants to help him but things do not improve.
Director Vincent Minnelli faced the problem of adapting the Broadway play for the screen—homosexuality was a forbidden topic and no film was allowed to make references to it. Minnelli who was a closeted gay man himself used tact and sophistication by using implication instead of fact and the actors implied what they meant to say but were not allowed to. We see that what is not verbalized becomes more important that what is.
John Kerr is perfect as the sensitive boy and Deborah Kerr as Laura is brilliant. Tom Lee is a complex character as a sexually confuses hero—it is the subtlety of the performances of Kerr and Kerr that make this such a rewarding film. Minnelli did a beautiful job of directing and he delivered a beautiful film.