Wednesday 19 March 2014

Movie Review: Tea And Sympathy (1956)

A fervent drama about the price of not conforming to society's suffocating norms, Tea And Sympathy is a potent study of bullying as ingrained into the institutional psyche.

At an upper-class all-boys high school, 18 year old Tom Lee (John Kerr) lives in a rooming house managed by Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson) and his wife Laura (Deborah Kerr). Tom is different than the other boys. Instead of partaking in typical activities like wrestling and mountain climbing, he prefers reading, listening to quiet music, and the company of older women. His gait is feminine, he actually enjoys sewing, and he refuses to get a buzz cut like all the other boys. As a result of not fitting in, Tom is labelled "sister boy", and subjected to merciless bullying.

Tom enjoys spending time with Laura, and she tries to help him by encouraging his individuality and shielding him from the bullying. She also stands up to Bill when he remains insensitive to Tom's plight. Tom's father Herb (Edward Andrews) makes an appearance but proves to be part of the problem. Despite Laura's best efforts Tom falls deeper into the clutches of an uncaring school environment that viciously mocks his uniqueness, while Laura realizes her marriage to Bill is also on extremely rocky ground.

To accommodate the cinematic restrictions of the times, the film version of Tea And Sympathy broadens Tom's predicament from being gay to being a misfit. Although Robert Anderson's script (adapting his own play) drops clear hints that Tom's effeminate tendencies are at the root cause of the bullying he has to endure, the film is equally clear that he likes the opposite sex, but is attracted to unattainable and mature women like Laura. Tom's broken home, lack of traditional parenting, and disconnected father are presented as causes for his unconventional behaviour.

Despite the reorientation, Tea And Sympathy is a devastatingly effective study of society's inability to accommodate those who differ from majority norms. Over the 122 minutes of running time, and with the film only occasionally breaking out of the confines of its stage origins, director Vincente Minnelli finds the creeping rot at the core of a seemingly idyllic academic setting. Tom's classmates, father and Mr. Reynolds are active participants in piling on the agony, knowingly or not, and eventually even his supportive roommate Al (Darryl Hickman) is pressured into shunning Tom. The film offers no reprieve, as Tom's life moves from one episode of emotional torture to the next, and all his attempts to either conform to the norms or challenge them end in failure.

Laura offers the only rock to hold onto in the swirling river of Tom's agony. Deborah Kerr, at her peak and in the same year as The King And I, delivers a remarkable performance full of courage and complex self-doubt, as she demonstrates the meaning of caring. As Laura faces her own demons of marital misery, she finds more than one reason to reach out to Tom and offer comfort, while almost openly admitting that her motives are not altogether unselfish.

John Kerr (no relation to Deborah) is also excellent in reprising his stage role and bringing Tom to life, all twisted discomfort as he tries to fit in. Leif Erickson convincingly represents the traditional 1950s husband, more comfortable wrestling with teenagers on the beach than talking with his wife.

With every door seemingly slamming in his face, Tom reaches the depths of despair, and Tea And Sympathy follows him all the way as he tries to force his way through the one remaining logical escape hatch. But Laura gets one more chance to exert her influence, and she gets to deliver the immortal line "Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind". Tom will forever struggle to fit in, but now with more than just tea and sympathy to sustain his full transition into adulthood.

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