Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy is one of the lesser known of the director’s melodramas, and often lost among his films of the late 1950s, which include the far more famous The Cobweb, Lust for Life, Designing Woman, Gigi and Some Came Running. Personally, I prefer it to all of these. The reason, I imagine is that it touches a few raw nerves.
For a long, long time, it topped the list of films I wanted to see. I first knew of it when Deborah Kerr got an honorary Oscar in 1993 – one film critic raved so much about it that I got curious. Then I got to see snippets of it in a couple of documentaries, which seemed very good. Finally I had my dream came true in September 2003 when the Portuguese Cinematheque showed it twice. I fell in love with it at first sight, and couldn’t help going a second time and drag some people along. I knew that another chance would be too far into the future – to be exact just over 5 years, as I caught it on Wednesday at the BFI. And I imagine the next one may be even further away as I see no prospect of a DVD release (although once upon a time there was a VHS release in the US).
Adapted from a stage play by Robert Anderson, it tells the story of a young man (played by John Kerr) being accused by his colleagues of being gay (with the blessing of one of his teachers) and bullied because of it, and the wife of said teacher (Deborah Kerr, no relation) who decides to protect him. The play, it seems, made it clear the young man is in fact gay. I never saw it (would like to, though) so I can’t comment. The film, because of John Kerr’s performance and the Hays code is slightly more ambiguous. For better or worst, I wouldn’t necessarily say it is a gay character, although that’s likely (and I am not even considering the preposterous epilogue added to the film). He can just be someone who differs from standard behaviour just enough to be considered an outsider. The reasons for being tortured by the others are so thin, so vague, that as Deborah Kerr’s character suggests, it is indeed very easy to smear a reputation. In a sense it becomes a bit more a film about bullying and McCarthyism, and less about closet homosexuality. But just a tiny bit – if I doubt the leading man’s preferences, those of his best friend (who defends him constantly and almost seems to be in love with him) and that of the teacher are clearly obvious, despite both being deep down in the closet.
This is one of a handful of films responsible for making Deborah Kerr one of my favourite actresses. And here more than in any other film her hair is so beautifully red – actually, the whole film has a pink glow which I love, although it is possible that this is a fault with both copies I saw.
And to end, this film has one of my favourite lines (which is the final line of play), a gentle request of how one would like to be remembered by our past lovers: years from when you speak about this, and you will, be kind.