Author’s note: Review originally published June 10, 2013
Starring – Deborah Kerr, John Kerr
Directed by Vincente Minnelli
Tea and Sympathy came out (no pun intended) (ok maybe a little) in 1956. Since I wasn’t born until 1972, I didn’t know about this film for a while. But the summer of 1990 and Ted Turner’s takeover of just about every film made between 1930-1969, led me to the discovery of Tea and Sympathy on one of his channels late one night. Now originally, I was only interested in the movie because I had a bit of a crush on Deborah Kerr (of course I had no idea at the time that was what my feelings for her were), so anything with Deborah Kerr that I found out was on TV, I made sure to watch. But this movie had a very strange effect on my psyche. I was fascinated by the plot because it was about a teenage boy who everyone at the all-boys school he attended, suspected he was gay. The word gay/homosexual/queer was never uttered in the film. The film censorship board in place at the time the film was released had a strict policy against having anything homosexual in films. So the creators of the film (based on the play of the same name, which used the word homosexual throughout the play since they could) instead could only get away with using words like “sister boy.” I was still, as a naive teenager, able to figure out that everyone thought he was gay, even without anyone actually using the word gay.
I later realized that the film’s gay theme is what fascinated me so. In 1990, there were about 3 gay movies that either existed or I had access to, this was one of them. And I watched it over and over, not knowing I was trying to understand myself.
The thing is Tom isn’t interested in girls in general, not because he’s gay, but because he’s interested in only one woman in particular, Deborah Kerr, who is married to one of the school’s professors. Deborah Kerr knows of the other boys harassing Tom and feels bad for him, having been previously married to a “coward” who died in World War II. Although, I got the impression her first husband was called a “coward” by his military mates because he was in fact gay. Deborah Kerr realizes that Tom is in love with her, but to get the bullies off his back, he decides to lose his virginity to the town’s “easy” girl. Deborah Kerr tries to stop Tom by giving him a little tea and sympathy, but he leaves anyway on his way to prove to the bullies he is a “real man.” But Tom doesn’t go through with it and tries instead to kill himself. He doesn’t succeed and so he then disappears for a few hours until Deborah Kerr finds him, hiding in the woods. She decides to give Tom what he has wanted all along, her.
“Years from now when you talk about this,” Deborah Kerr tells Tom before making love to him, “and you will, be kind.”
Oh, how I use to fantasize Deborah Kerr would one day say those words to me. Of course by 1990, Deborah Kerr was in her late sixties and I was only 17, but it was a fantasy after all. The last time I saw her in public was at the Academy Awards in 1994 where she received an honorary Oscar. She was still quite beautiful for a woman of 73. Sadly, Deborah Kerr passed away in 2007, but I will always remember her and this movie that helped to lead me on my long path to discovering myself and my sexuality.
Update 9/1/2017: I watched Tea and Sympathy again yesterday and I was so touched by this film, once again, I decided to re-post this review. This really is just a beautiful movie and they don’t make movies like this anymore, sadly. And I still wish Deborah Kerr had said those beautiful words to me, but that’s okay, I got a wife who says some beautiful words to me now, and she even looks a little bit like Deborah Kerr, so my wish kind of ended up coming true after all. 🙂