Screened Out, Pt. 2: Tea and Sympathy

The first movie I want to talk about is Tea and Sympathy (1956), starring the luminous Deborah Kerr. In interest of time, I’ll quote the plot synopsis from the description on the Screened Out site:

A movie which caused a considerable stir with the Production Code office and the ever-feared Catholic Legion of Decency, Tea and Sympathy (1956), based on a landmark Broadway play, now seems too tame to be deserving of such outrage. As director Vincente Minnelli wrote, “the drama told of a young man at a boys’ school who’s falsely accused of being homosexual because of his off-beat interests in tennis, “classical” music, and poetry, instead of baseball and dormitory bull sessions.” After witnessing the cruel taunting of the other boys, the schoolmaster’s wife Laura takes pity on the sensitive student Tom and tries to help him, ultimately offering herself to him in an ending that features one of the most famous last lines of American theater: “Years from now, when you talk about this – and you will – be kind.”

First of all, if Deborah Kerr had made me that offer, I would definitely have been kind. She’s beautiful, as always, in this movie and her Laura seduces the viewer as much as she does poor Tom Lee (played by John Kerr, perhaps better known for his role as Cable in South Pacific).

It’s a well-made movie (better than many featured in the series), and while dated in some ways, it’s horribly current in others. The way the other boys view Tom with suspicion, call him “Sisterboy,” harass and ostracize him is all too familiar. Even sadder is the way they separate himself from him, in order not to be guilty by association, so that his friend and roommate Al feels the need to distance himself physically. Even his father does it, showing visible shame for his son when he sees how the other boys treat him, and desperately trying to fix it by insisting Tom get a crewcut (although that’s not as disturbing as his roommate’s “fix” of having him have sex with the town slut).

The most interesting reaction to me was from Laura’s husband, the robustly masculine Bill. The character is played by Lief Erickson, who doesn’t get the same attention as the two starring Kerrs, but who, imo, does a brilliant job bringing complexity to a smaller role. We see Bill arm wrestling with the boys, displaying his strength and dominance over the other males in an almost animal way. With his deep voice and barrel chest, he is the picture of brawny manly manliness. But we also hear Laura speak longing of their honeymoon in Italy, where we get the sense that Bill was not shooting bear and drinking shots. It appears that the traits Laura is drawn to in young Tom–his love of music, his sensitivity, his openness to physical affection–she once also saw in the burly Bill.

That could explain Bill’s almost fearful and also jealous reaction to Tom. He knows there is a Tom inside of him, no matter how much he hides it with his over-the-top masculinity. It’s significant that in the end, when the adult Tom comes across Bill after Laura has left him, he is sitting alone listening to classical music.

The movie is excellent in portraying the fragility of masculinity. For all the emphasis on strong manliness, the movie shows that the definition of manliness is based on shaky terms and grounded in profound fear.

Early on in the film, one of the boys reads an “Are you manly?” quiz in a magazine. Bill, of course, with his love of hunting and beautiful girls, passes with flying colors. His success is juxtaposed with Tom Lee who is caught a short distance away talking and sewing with the faculty wives. This scene starts off the film by showing how shallow the determination of manliness is. Tom excels in tennis, but his athleticism is not enough, as other boys complain about the way he uses his hands when he plays, although Al does defend him saying he does that because it makes him win.

The film further undercuts the definition as Tom, desperate to shake his reputation, seeks help in being more manly. Al tries to help by working on his walk, but as the two practice, it becomes clear how silly it all is. Getting a crewcut or changing his walk isn’t going to make Tom appear more “masculine,” and they both know it. This works both ways. For one, it shows that all the traits one points to, like walk, to determine masculinity really don’t mean anything. But at the same time, it’s clear that even with a more manly walk, there’s still something about Tom that doesn’t fit expectations. It can’t be isolated into just the hair or just the walk or just the love of music, but it’s an overall impression. So at the same time that it undercuts these signs it also reinforces that there is something that makes Tom different.

One of the best things about the movie is how it reveals the desperate and profound fear behind the drive to prove one’s manliness. All the supposedly masculine men in the film – Bill, Al, Mr. Lee, the other boys – may have all the appropriate surface signs of masculinity, but they seem to understand how tenuous they are. They look at Tom as if saying, “There but for the grace of a manly walk go I…” They seem to want to fix Tom not for his sake, but for themselves. If he is effeminate, and they are too close to him, it will destroy their own masculinity, their identity, and their selves. They reek of insecurity behind all the bravado.

On one level, the movie works as a wonderful expose of our rigid definitions of gender roles. I would love to see something similar on definitions of femininity because I think it works differently. Women may have more flexibility and permission to be tomboys, but as any butch lesbian could probably tell you, there is a definite line one can cross between allowable tomboyishness and gender threat.

But I think there’s another story here, and one the movie addresses fairly directly. The fear of Tom’s lack of masculinity is directly tied to fear that he is gay. From the beginning, the other boys don’t just mock his supposedly feminine traits, but also the fact that he’s never seen with girls, never talks about girls, doesn’t seem interested in girls.

This is interesting for a number of reasons. First, of course, is the inevitable connection between perceived gender traits and sexual orientation. Even now, when most people will proclaim that they aren’t necessarily connected, a film like Brokeback Mountain can still surprise people by portraying “manly” gay men. Similarly, so-called lipstick lesbians are still seen as an exception, although I think that may be less strong for women since there have been so many images of stereotypically feminine lesbians designed for straight male eyes (and penises).

But what really fascinated me was the double story line going on in the movie. The one on the surface goes something like, “Tom appears effeminate so people think Tom is gay. But he’s not! He just looks that way, but he’s straight. Isn’t it horrible that people use stereotypes to make accusations about an innocent boy that way? Just because he’s effeminate doesn’t mean he’s gay. See, he gets married eventually so everything is okay. The end.”

The movie reinforces this with the frame it built around the original play. The story in the movie is told in flashback as Tom revisits the campus years later. According to the Screened Out synopsis, this frame, which to her credit Deborah Kerr apparently hated, was added to please the censors by showing that the adulterous Laura is appropriately punished with a lonely, miserable life. (Typical puritan ethics which let viewers be titillated by watching sin as long as someone is punished for it.) But in addition to punishing the adulteress, the frame also shows us an adult and explicitly married Tom, reassuring the viewer of his heterosexuality. There’s even a blatant shot of his wedding ring in the opening scenes as if to telegraph to us that no matter what we’re about to see, we can rest easy knowing that the accusations aren’t true. We know, for example, that Tom is not thrilled to have been cast as a woman in the school play (a necessity at a boys’ school) even if his classmates tease him for his dress costume. We know that the only reason he’s seen sewing is that the women didn’t believe he could sew on a button so he was demonstrating. We know, or think we know, that he has a crush on Laura. The movie’s frame makes us watch the story through the filter of “Tom is straight,” and that colors what we see.

But viewing it through queer eyes, I can’t help but ask, “what if he’s not?” That adds a whole new dimension to the film. It makes stand out the scenes where Tom seems to be questioning his own sexuality, to not be certain or able to deny the “charges.”

It also changes the relationship with Laura. If you look at only the first plot, she is comforting, supportive, and loyal. She reassures him that she is not swayed by those stereotypes and she knows that he’s not gay. That’s comforting if he’s not. It’s crushing if he is. When I heard Laura say, “I know the awful things they’re saying aren’t true,” I flinched. It was a well-meaning comment intended to reassure but in fact painfully reasserting the “awfulness” of being gay and making her love sound conditional. If Tom is gay, hearing the one person he thinks he can trust say she knows he’s not the horrible thing they’re saying he is is the same as hearing her tell him he is a horrible thing.

The movie, while exposing the fallacy and fragility of masculine stereotypes, does so by divorcing them from the question of sexuality. The argument is that it’s not bad for a man to be effeminate because it doesn’t mean he’s gay, which is very different from saying it’s not bad for a man to be effeminate (whatever that means) because it’s not bad for a man, whether or not he’s gay, to be effeminate.

The movie begs the question, would it be still be okay if Tom were gay? Would Laura still feel the same about him? Would the audience? If in the closing scene he returned as an out gay man instead of a married heterosexual, how would that change the story?

The climax of the movie is when, on the advice of Al, Tom arranges a “date” with Ellie, the town waitress who apparently welcomed many of the school’s boys into the world of active heterosexuality. Laura knows where he’s going and, for all intents and purposes, tries to seduce him first. This act, which in one reading can be seen as a loving testament of her faith in him or as a selfless giving of the gift of heterosexuality can also be seen as a desperate attempt to prove he’s straight and thus explain her attraction to him. An interesting subplot is that Laura had a first husband, a boy she married when she was young, who was also effeminate, who died in the war in an act of reckless bravery because he felt the need to prove his manhood. This history not only adds weight to the desperate importance of being perceived as masculine, but also adds another layer to Laura’s character and her attraction to Tom.

Tom eventually ends up at Ellie’s. He tries to have sex with her, can’t, and in a fit of self-loathing, attempts to kill himself. Suicide is one of about three options open for queer characters, but since the premise is that Tom isn’t gay, he’s allowed to live, as long as he can be safely married off and live for eternity as a heterosexual (after a final, adulterous encounter with Laura).

I don’t think that, even with the new ending, the film states definitively whether or not Tom is gay. We have no evidence of him being attracted to women. He practically vomits when trying to seduce Ellie. His attraction to Laura can easily be interpreted as her being the mother he never had (his ran off when he was young) and that all sexual desire in the relationship was on her part, and we know nothing of his eventual marriage to let us know whether it was a true marriage or a matrimonial closet.

If we read Tom as straight, the movie takes on one meaning and warns us of the danger of relying on stereotypes to make judgments about people. If we read Tom as possibly gay, the movie tells us that for some people, even well-meaning beautiful people who truly think they love him, that’s the worst thing he could be.

Yes, the movie is dated and old-fashioned, but there are themes and phrases that one can still hear today. If you don’t believe me, read a few message boards of your favorite young male actor or pop singer.

The next film I want to talk about is The Children’s Hour, which addresses very similar themes, but goes on to answer the question, “but what if it’s true?” I’m going to take a break, however, before getting back to that one.



  1. July 1, 2007 at 5:12 pm

    […] Screened Out, Pt. 2: Tea and Sympathy Screened Out, Pt. 2: Tea and Sympathy July 1st, 2007 at 3:33 pm (- by Gina, LGBT, Pop Culture, Movies) The first movie I want to talk about is Tea and Sympathy (1956), starring the luminous Deborah Kerr. In interest of time, I ll quote the plot synopsis […]

  2. July 4, 2007 at 1:04 am

    […] at 1:03 am (- by Jenn, LGBT rights, Are you fucking kidding me?, LGBT) In her post about the movie Tea and Sympathy Gina said: On one level, the movie works as a wonderful expose of our rigid definitions of gender […]

  3. August 13, 2007 at 2:18 pm

    […] August 13th, 2007 at 2:18 pm (- by Gina, Movies & TV, LGBT) I’ve had this review half-written for weeks now and  forgot that I never posted it.  It follows Screened Out, Pt. 2: Tea and Sympathy. […]

  4. August 13, 2012 at 10:34 pm

    You know, I never saw it as being a gay movie at all eventhough I saw the alternate “married ending.” I am straight and married with kids. I am also a very sensitive “golden retriever”-type which probably fits less than 10% of heterosexual male types. I feel very uncomfortable around most men, especially the types at the movie boarding school. I have at times been tormented and rejected by the dominant male culture, but have learned to navigate thru most issues successfully. In the movie, I was more worried about the “gang” and the “male norming” attempts by each boy (showing insecurity). I have used the example of the roommate successfully in my own life by letting understanding males in to get to know me and have found many allies. There’s more, but that’s my two cents. Doug

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