#KickingtheCanon by Sam Thomas-Redfern Film

Tea and Sympathy | Vincente Minnelli

May 25, 2020

**What follows is the inaugural KtC entry for the recently added 1950s canon. Make sure to check out all of the 1950s inclusions (and the rest of the canon in its current entirety).


Minnelli’s melodramas, always receding behind his much more popular musicals and comedies, are films that belie their very label; they avoid all the fluff and bombast commonly associated with melodrama in favour of a psychological depth and rigour that neatly places said films in dialogue with many of Minnelli’s others. As James Naremore concludes, a distinctive tone, along with a seemingly personal relationship between neurosis and artistic imagination, arises “out of the central character’s frustrated effort to transform the real world with the imaginary one, thus sublimating desire into art.” In truth, this characterization may not literally apply to Tea and Sympathy, but it still perfectly captures the essence of the film’s narrative, and delineates Minnelli’s most cherished dialectic with a lucid understanding of the artist himself. Tea and Sympathy was originally a 1953 stage play, considered to be unfilmable contemporaneously on the basis that the Motion Picture Production Code had banned the representation of homosexuality in cinema. Three years later, though, came Minnelli’s adaptation — which was scripted by the author of the play, Robert Anderson. The sexuality of Tea and Sympathy’s main character, Tom (John Kerr), is never explicitly mentioned, and needn’t be; in fact, in so making it implicit, we are treated to Minnelli’s most poignant way of defining his character’s identity. Tom’s story is about the troubles he faces at his boy’s prep school, in conflict with its patriarchal culture of sports, roughhousing, and chasing after girls. His love for the arts and apparent effeminacy become a source of derision for the other boys, leading to the disappointment of his father and the resentment of his housemaster, who sees an inability to act in a way that befits a man. 

The sexuality of Tea and Sympathy’s main character, Tom (John Kerr), is never explicitly mentioned, and needn’t be; in fact, in so making it implicit, we are treated to Minnelli’s most poignant way of defining his character’s identity.

Minnelli’s usual fastidious care for his costumes and camerawork become a part of the text here: social interactions are carefully mediated by the prescriptive customs and codes of conduct that situate Tom as an anomaly, stuck between the identity pushed on him by the men in his life, and his own desire for self-expression. This rejection of difference by the “regular fellas” proves itself deleterious for Tom who, in his attempt to become the same and live up to the expectations of his father, negates his own qualities and in doing so finds himself languishing in a quagmire of self-hatred. Minnelli illustrates all of this with some of the most intense sequences of his filmography: the pyjama fight, rendered as a hellish mixture of military regimentation and fraternity hazing, and the final act of recognition set in an ethereal sylvan glade. The housemaster’s wife, Laura (Deborah Kerr), is the character through which Tom finally comes to be recognized by, and vice versa. In recognizing his masculinity, regardless of the absence of the qualities traditionally defined as being masculine, Laura enables Tom to become a man unto himself, and, in the process, realizes that she, likewise, has only now come to be recognized by Tom. The completion of the dialectic is thus the destruction of the film’s title: tea and sympathy are supposed to be offered to the boys by Laura acting as an “interested bystander,” yet her involvement has settled the psychological turmoil of one of the boys in a way that could never be done by the men, defined by their inability to self-reflect. In its conclusion — a liberatory coda — the film jumps ahead ten years to show the results of this lack of self-awareness in the housemaster; with his wife having now left him, he sits shrouded in darkness, his garden bereft of the flowers once cultivated by her. Laura’s final message to Tom thus serves to make the causes of these events clear, in a burst of bitterness and joy: that it is only through others that one may come to truly know their desires and, in term, bring them to actualization. 

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.

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