Tea and Sympathy (1956): Minnelli’s Melodrama Starring Deborah Kerr

Robert Andersons controversial drama, Tea and Sympathy, told of a young man named Tom at a boys’ school who’s accused of being homosexual because of his interests in tennis, music, and poetry, instead of the more masculine sports and dormitory bull sessions. Tom’s housemaster, a latent homosexual himself, is married to Laura (Deborah Kerr), a woman who shares these interests with the boy. In a generous gesture, she gives herself to him to prove that he’s a real man and not a “pervert,” as his father and classmates charge.

Minnelli’s movie reflected the anxieties that prevailed in American culture of the 1950s. Written during the height of the McCarthy era, Tea and Sympathy channeled liberal anxieties away from the political arena into the more personal one. In the play, homosexuality substituted for communism, or was equated with Communism as one more form of social and deviance. Anderson created an allegory about innocent, conscientious people, accused of being different, if not utterly deviant. The boy was basically normal, just slightly different from the other boys.

On Broadway, praised for his candor and meanings, Elia Kazan’s production featured the most notorious curtain line since “A Streetcar Named Desire.” In that scene, when Laura, played by Deborah Kerr, says, while unbuttoning her blouse: Years from now, when you talk about this and you will–be kind.

“Tea and Sympathy” was inconceivable without Deborah Kerr, a major box-off draw and the ideal protagonist, having played the role for years both on Broadway and on tour. As was evident in Kerr’s other screen roles, as an actress, Kerr projected the era’s definitive portraits of sensitive, conflicted and tormented women, a trend that began with her being cast-against type in From Here to Eternity, a role that was initially offered to Joan Crawford.

Minnelli also decided to cast lesser-known actors from the stage production, such as Leif Erickson, as Kerr’s coarse, latently homosexual husband, and John Kerr as the sensitive kid. Kerr proved cooperative in Minnelli’s The Cobweb, and Metro still hoped that he might become a youth star in the mold of James Dean.

Producer Pandro Berman and Minnelli had enjoyed great rapport in their previous collaborations. Berman knew that, with the exception of George Cukor, no Hollywood director was more suitable for comprehending and depicting on screen the boy’s neurosis and predicament. After all, Minnelli himself was effeminate, an aesthete who embodied values that collided with Hollywood’s more macho code.

Anderson turned the whole text into one long flashback, recalled by Tom as he reflects on his past during a tenth class reunion. While encountering his former schoolmaster, now a lonely man, the latter hands him a note from Laura. In that letter, she debunks Tom’s nostalgic account of their affair in his first novel. In reality, Laura wrote, the affair shattered her husband’s life and damaged her self-respect, forcing her to go into anonymity and seclusion.

Curiously, the visceral thrills of Minnelli’s more flamboyant pictures are missing from “Tea and Sympathy.” Minnelli couldn’t find a satisfying way to open up the stagy melodrama. Occasionally, he draws contrasts between Laura’s indoor comforting home and Toms outdoor harassment by the boys.

In its intensity, but not visual impact, only one sequence, the school’s homecoming bonfire, brings to mind the Halloween sequence in Meet Me in St. Louis. Minnelli turns Tom’s humiliating failure with the town trollop, which was alluded to but not shown on stage, into the film’s cathartic moment, goading a reluctant Tom with masochistic agony.

“Tea and Sympathy” opened at Radio City Musical Hall to good reviews, and Minnelli was praised for his “quiet and compassionate” treatment. Nonetheless, of all Minnelli’s 1950s melodramas, “Tea and Sympathy” is the most outdated and artistically is disappointing, perhaps because the movie was so grounded in that particular decade’s anxieties, the fear of lives being ruined by unjust accusations, the fear of nonconformity by individuals who don’t fit in with the lonely, mass crowd. Unlike the play, in the film, Tom is not effeminate or homosexual, just too shy, awkward, and sensitive, all suspect attributes of men in the 1950s moral climate that still embraced complete sexual segregation.

Nonetheless, discerning viewers could still feel Minnelli’s relish in exposing the macho bullies who make Tom’s life miserable. Toms schoolmates are depicted as masculine-hysterics, roughhousing and bare-chested packs, noisy, messy, and immature.

Their older males are also ridiculed. Tom’s father (Edward Andrews) is a coward, and Laura’s husband, Bill, too much of an extrovert. Minnelli’s disdain for Bill’s boorishness is so obvious that viewers wondered what on earth attracted a woman like Laura to such a brute in the first place. Rough sex Sheer masochism Loneliness after the death of her first husband stigma of being a young widow. The attitude of Chilton’s students is of course misogynistic.

In this climate, normalcy demanded that boys be different from men, and that men be different from women. Real “fun” for the guys resides in the victory bonfire and pajama fights, in which the seniors strip the pajamas off the new boys. Tom’s nightclothes remain intact until his roommate, Al, out of pity, saves his honor by ripping his pajamas to shreds. Minnelli regards these rituals as rigid and silly at best, and appalling manifestations of macho behavior at worst. What separates masculinity from femininity is the juxtaposition of crew cuts and team sports with Tom’s tousled hair and love for classical music.

Ultimately, Minnelli fails to liberate the film from the inherent constraints and stiff arches of the source material. Despite several outdoor scenes, the film looks as if it were shot completely on the back lot. In fact, the prep school’s main hall is the same red brick Victorian house, where the inmates of Minnelli’s The Cobweb resided.

Having played her part numerous times, Deborah Kerr strained to bring freshness to her screen interpretation, and her performance is at once too ladylike and stilted in mannerisms and inflections. For her part, looking back, Deborah Kerr thought that Minnelli was “extremely sensitive to the subject,” and that the only thing that diffused his film was his tendency to make his movies too beautiful pictorially, which might have softened and lushed it up a little.”

Novice John Kerr also fails to register much anguish on screen. Laura and Tom’s long-awaited clinch generates no sparks. While his awkwardness and insecurity were proper, Kerr suffered from a limited vocal range. Minnelli though that Kerr gave exactly the same performance in “The Cobweb” and in “Tea and Sympathy.”

One scene begins with Laura in her garden, while Tom is seen singing a love ballad from the window of his room. When they later meet at the garden, Laura says that her garden needs blue (the color of masculinity). Is she talking about he garden or about her vagina Probably both.

We get the impression that her marriage is sexually dry, perhaps even non-sexual at all. Tom later responds by giving Laura a package of blue seeds, which he places none too discreetly on the dashboard of her blue/green car. His seeds are to be planted into Laura’s garden. Significantly, she’ the one to take the usually male prerogative and becomes the sexual aggressor, or at least initiator.

The film’s other main problem is the acting. The principals felt that the long months they had performed the play gave them certain proprietary interest and expertise. The actors knew the play well, perhaps too well. Having performed hundreds of times to different kinds of audiences, they had shaded the delineations of their characters to the last, smallest detail. The actors felt they didn’t need much coaching from Minnelli.

When “Tea and Sympathy” was released, it received warm notices from the critics, mostly due to the subject matter. MGM hoped that the films controversial status would elevate its visibility and arouse the public’s interest. However, neither a success nor a failure, Tea and Sympathy made decent business at the box-office, earning $2,184,558 in domestic rentals, against a budget $1,818,688.



Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr)

Tom Robinson Lee (John Kerr)

Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson)

Herb Lee (Edward Andrews)

Al (Darryl Hickman)

Ellie Martin (Norma Krane)

Ollie (Dean Jones)

Lilly Sears (Jacqueline de Wit)

Ralph (Tom Laughlin)

Steve (Ralph Votrian)

Phil (Steven Terrell)

Ted (Kip King)

Henry (Jimmy Hayes)

Roger (Richard Tyler)

Vic (Don Burnett)




Produced by Pandro S. Berman

Assistant Director: Joel Freeman

Screenplay: Robert Anderson, based on his play produced by the Playwrights Company.

Cinematography: John Alton

Art Direction: William A. Horning, Edward Carfagno

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis; Keogh Gleason

Music: Adolphe Deutch

Editing: Ferris Webster

Costumes: Helen Rose

Color consultant: Charles K. Hagedon

Print process: Metrocolor

Recording Direction: Dr. Wesley C. Miller

Hair Stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

Makeup: William Tuttle


Running Time: 122 Minutes