Tea and Sympathy (1956)

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Tea and Sympathy (1956) Poster

A new senior at a boy's prep school, finds himself harassed by the machismo culture of his classmates and the unfeelingly behavior by his father, only being treated with decency by his roommate and with affection by the coach's wife.


7.3/10
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17 August 2009 | matthewwave-1
Tea and Sympathy
Some of the comments here puzzle me, and really point out how people can see the same film and yet see entirely different films nonetheless.

Yes, Tea and Sympathy addresses homosexuality -- but there isn't a single bit of *actual* homosexuality in the film. It's not about actual homosexuality but about perceived homosexuality... and the fear thereof. It's completely obvious within five minutes that Tom Lee is completely in love with Laura, and there's nothing whatsoever in the film that suggests he might feel romantic or erotic attraction to men... nor is there anything whatsoever in the film that suggests that he's confused about whether or not he likes men (or men and women).

Of course, back in the fifties, most, really all, film language that dealt with homosexuality was coded. Things *stood* for homosexuality, rather than directly displaying it. So, one could be tempted to say that Tom Lee is a coded closet case. But, far too much of the script is explicitly about the external challenge of his being seen as, or feared to be, queer; while absolutely none of it is about an internal struggle with his orientation. He struggles with the perception (his own and others) of his masculinity, but nothing in the film indicates Tom himself might think he's queer.

And, again, his obvious infatuation with Laura permeates the whole film. He doesn't *stalk* her at the beginning because he needs a sympathetic ear...

And when she tries to set him up on a tea date with a girl, there's no sense that she fears Tom is queer, that she must straighten him out. But she *is* horribly concerned that they keep others from thinking it. She even has one line of dialog in which she speaks to him directly of the need to "nip this in the bud" or somesuch. Even in a 1956 film, it wouldn't make any sense to think that this woman would think a tea date would "straighten" Tom out; but it does make sense that she would believe it could be part of repairing his reputation.

The closest the film ever gets to suggesting the potential (much less the actuality) of Tom being queer is when Laura voices fears that Tom being treated "not like a man" could lead him to *become* unsure of himself as a man... If you want to infer she fears he *might* become queer because of this, there's room especially given the overall coding Hollywood demanded of such material, but, again, you've got everything else in the film to work against this interpretation. And it's an interpretation of what Tom *might* be in the future, not what he is in the timeframe of the film itself.

Furthermore, even this is only the perception of another character -- not Tom himself displaying any indication that HE fears he may one day "become" queer.

Tom's conflict revolves around his trying to navigate his way in the world as the *atypical* man he is, find his identity as a man, and be accepted as such... in a world that doesn't want to.

And it's *other* people, not Tom, who clearly (altho thru coded film language) see him as queer, or fear he might be.

And while I understand that Anderson's play was more forceful in suggesting that the housemaster was a repressed homosexual, it's *really* stretch to see it in the film version. The building blocks of the coding are there (yeah, he hangs out with the boys and roughhouses with them, and he neglects his wife), but the film also goes to considerable lengths to paint him as a "typical" man who's lost interest in his marriage once he's claimed his wife. What with that, and the context of a film in which the main character is so clearly painted as a perceived homosexual rather than as an actual one (even in potentiality), the coding is so incredibly watered down that it's really not even there at all, effectively.

Tea and Sympathy is a pretty compelling film about the definitions of masculinity and gender role enforcement and homophobia. It's really upsetting to see that homophobia and misogyny and incredible pressure to conform on screen, but it is compelling. Even if Minnelli turned out to be a horrible choice for director.

His avoidance of close-ups reveals him to be, in this case at least, what feels to me like a very selfish director. More than the topic, more than the writing, it's the performances of Kerr and Kerr that make this film. They are constantly having to fight Minnelli's apparent desire to keep them at a visual distance from us. I guess in a way it's a credit to both the stars and Minnelli himself that he could get such strong work from them despite the sparseness of close-ups that the film so desperately needed.

It's as if Minnelli thought that he was -- or should be -- directing a pageant rather than a drama. "Look, I can make even an intimate, human drama great in WIDESCREEN!!!" Except that you can't, Vincent. I don't care about you in Tea and Sympathy, Mr. Minnelli, I care about Tom and Laura. Give me the characters!

Matthew

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