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Revisiting Tea and Sympathy: Sexual Paranoia in Fifties America



By Christopher Sharrett.

Vincente Minnelli’s melodrama Tea and Sympathy, finally released on DVDby Warner Archive, deserves revaluation, given its neglect during its long absence from the home video market. Although there have been intelligent comments on the film by Vito Russo (1981: 112) and David Gerstner (2009), it has long been viewed as naïve, or not sufficiently contentious since its topic supposedly isn’t really homosexuality, but rather the masculine image in the postwar era (bringing attendant allegations of disingenuousness or obscurantism), a charge easily answered, ironically, by the outrageously reactionary denouement imposed by the Production Code. In his recent biography of Minnelli, Emanuel Levy judges the film “a severely flawed picture,” because of the Code and Minnelli’s decisions (2009: 287). Considering all of the resistances facing it, Tea and Sympathy is a remarkable portrait of repression as basic to postwar American life, the importance of channeling homosexual feelings into violence, and the hatred of women inherent in masculinist culture.

Tom Lee (John Kerr) is a student at the Chilton School (a synthesis of Choate and Tilton), an exclusive all-male preparatory school somewhere in New England. He is tormented by other students for his effeminate manner and lack of interest in girls and roughhouse sports. The film opens with Tom’s visit to Chilton at a ten-year reunion, where, at the film’s final moments, he reads a letter written years earlier by Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr) the kindly wife of Tom’s bullying former housemaster Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson). In the letter, Laura refers obliquely to the sexual intercourse that she had with Tom in an attempt to “prove” to him that he wasn’t gay, or that girls do indeed like him, or, most negatively, to “cure” Tom of his gay impulses. She confessed the illicit sex to Bill, causing divorce and Laura’s exile to oblivion (the Code’s idea of proper punishment). Laura’s motivation is perhaps one of the keys to the film. She is obviously inclined to comfort Tom, to offer the tea and sympathy of the title. But there is a strong hint that her sex act with Tom flows from deep discontent with her marriage, and even the very presence in her life of men like husband Bill. But the notion that Tom can be “saved” contains the typical pathologizing of gayness still very much with us, a current of thought that the film challenges. The Code thus asserts the issue it wants to suppress. Yet normative views are subverted throughout the film by Minnelli’s intelligence and sly humor, for all the efforts of the Code and the Catholic Legion of Decency virtually to destroy the stage play by Robert Anderson that is the film’s source. The play itself has its own problems, which may be compounded by some statements by Anderson about his interest in merely taking on non-conformity, a noble enough idea, but clearly his ambitions go in a much more focused direction.

The masculine image is indeed crucial to the film, but Minnelli conjoins it to a perceptive study of gender identity and sexual orientation in one of the cinema’s most subversive accounts of the awfulness of normative sexuality under patriarchal capitalist assumptions. Most remarkable is Minnelli’s ability to show the awfulness within the everyday, and to make us reflect on what was (is?) taken for granted as “acceptable” conduct for the two sexes. Central to the film is an analysis of the viciousness of those who support heteronormative rules, their unyielding efforts to enforce these rules, and a corresponding sense of defensiveness on the part of the enforcers—the notion that all the men of the film fight like hell to suppress their own gayness. The key male “enforcers”, especially Bill Reynolds, display a theatrical, constantly posturing hypermasculinity. This masks overwhelming sexual paranoia; Bill attacks in Tom that which he fears most in himself, and encourages his sadistic young charges to do the same. Tom becomes a scapegoat, designated “sister boy” because he decorates his room with curtains, plays mawkish love songs on his guitar, wears a woman’s dress for the role of Lady Teazle in The School for Scandal, and is caught sewing with a group of faculty wives during a student/faculty beach picnic. The picnic scene is crucial, since it focuses on male attitudes toward the female, the separation of the sexes, and the notion of the “effeminate.”

At the picnic, the men and women are neatly segregated by a small jetty; Tom climbs over it to join the women, assisting their sewing and discussing his botched attempts at cooking. The faculty wives are a bit stunned. Laura stands up for Tom, saying that husband Bill learned to sew on buttons in the Army. The shock on the women’s faces is instructive in its sense of the internalizing of patriarchal law by the female, the unwillingness to rock the boat of gender rules. The most compelling element of the scene is the segregation itself; men and women do not play together, learn together (the concept of “co-ed” is relatively recent, and even now gender integration is largely false), or do anything that would foster cooperation between the sexes. The rock jetty is as forceful a visual metaphor as one could find for this division—its only problem is that the jetty is natural, while gender segregation is cultural, but then again there may be no problem here at all. Social norms, as semiology has taught us, are presented as facts of nature.

The key moment of the picnic occurs with the male group on the other side of the jetty. Bill Reynolds enjoys horseplay with his young charges, including a game of arm wrestling that gives him plenty of opportunity for male-male physical contact. One of the students reads aloud from a magazine quiz entitled “Are You Masculine?” Bill is playfully coaxed into taking a word-association test. A student reads the word “beautiful.” Bill quickly answers “girls!,” as if it were the only option possible (the words “flowers” and “music,” possible choices mentioned in the quiz, are dismissed as if ludicrous). As the tomfoolery continues, Bill stands with his arms draped over two semi-nude students, one of numerous moments suggesting the barely-repressed homosexuality of the straight male population channeled into acceptable forms of male play. One boy remarks that “Our witness before the special subcommittee on masculinity is Mr. Reynolds,” a joking reference to HUAC and McCarthyism that the group laughs off, but Minnelli’s point is clear—the Cold War interrogations were intricately involved in the protection of both capitalism and normative sexual behavior (as became clear, in fact, with the Roy Cohn/David Schine affair, a moment when the persecutors were almost hoist by their own petard). Bill jokes about the quiz: “I think I will decline to answer on the grounds that this will tend to degrade or incriminate me.” (As is so often the case throughout the film, characters are totally unaware of the implications of their words and deeds.)

Toward the end of the beach party, Laura sees Bill, who immediately fulminates about Tom’s spending time with the women; he dismisses Laura’s attempts to defend him. His conversation with her hammers at Tom, and the fact that he has been given the name “sister boy” (Bill says he “can’t blame” the other boys for the mistreatment of Tom). In the same scene, Bill notices some travel brochures. Laura continues to have dreams of reigniting an obviously dead marriage with a vacation to Canada. Bill dismisses the idea, telling Laura he promised “to take some of the boys up to the lodge this summer” and that he “can’t disappoint them.” He finds an excuse to end his conversation with Laura to rejoin the boys at the beach. Minnelli’s direction of the scene is superb, with Bill leaning impatiently on Laura’s aquamarine convertible, an evocation of 50s kitsch and the (monied) emptiness of American culture, as Bill launches into his tirade about Tom. (Minnelli’s use of color, always remarkable, is fascinating here in its evocation of advertising art, giving the film a presentational quality somewhere between Brecht and Warhol—the images cry out “This is what you value so much?”)

Bill shows no interest whatever in his wife’s presence at the beach. He doesn’t take a moment to swim with her, nor does he show any interest in her bathing-suit clad figure. Bill’s refusal to make a romantic connection with his wife—and even to avoid her touch—occurs repeatedly. What then is the basis of the marriage? Laura had an early marriage to a sensitive young man killed in World War II (death being the logical product of patriarchy and repression), whose qualities she once spotted in Bill, who seems to have systematically attempted to remove them from his blustery, overbearing personality. He admits, during a discussion about Tom, that he too used to sit alone and “cry [his] eyes out,” making us see, perhaps too emphatically, the connection between Bill and Tom. In Bill’s case repression took, making him “become a man.” That he no longer sits alone, or expresses emotion at any level, is for Bill a sign of his growth, or so he pretends. Tom’s sensitivity is despised by Bill, who lashes out fiercely (as when he tears up a book given to Laura by Tom) at anything reminding him of Tom’s presence. Indeed, anything suggesting sensitivity is despised and assaulted by Bill (his rejection of “flowers” and “music”), despite his confession to Laura that he sat alone crying and playing phonograph records, a topic he quickly shuts down.

The men of Chilton have difficulties even associating with women, despite braggadocio. The beach party scene is most instructive, as Bill smirks that it’s okay for Tom to stay on the other side (“if he prefers the company of women, that’s his problem”). The idea of asserting masculinity, of showing skills at sports and the like, is associated with contempt for the female. A bunch of the “regular guys” (a term that recurs in the film) crowd into Tom’s room to get a glimpse of women passing by the residence. We don’t see them, but the point is clear: women are a subject for voyeurism, for bragging and belittlement, but not for interaction. As the boys shove their way into the room, Tom is pushed onto his bed and punched about, one boy (Tom McLaughlin, the obnoxious actor of Billy Jack fame) squirting shaving cream onto a photo of Tom’s “old man” (the moment is complicated—the act of minor vandalism is also an assault on the patriarch via an ejaculatory gesture, and an ejaculation as one boy faces another).

The concept of “regular guys” is repeated often, reminding one that these guys are hardly regular, according to the standards they accept. The phrase recurs in the language of Tom’s father Herb, played by Edward Andrews, notable in film history for his snotty, vaguely sinister and effete qualities that typecast him as a nosey fake (he played, for example, George Babbitt in Elmer Gantry). While he is not one of Hollywood’s “evil faggots,” he conveyed a sense of the feminine in domesticated males; this sense in turn produces an aspect of roiling resentment, something central to Herb’s relationship to Tom and former classmate Bill. Herb is upset that Tom isn’t aggressive on the tennis court, that his fans are a small group of “fairies,” and, amazingly (to our eyes today) that Tom’s hair is too long. Since the rise of the 50s rock stars, long hair on men became an obsession of the American middle class, with its connotation of feminity, “white trash,” and a general refusal to conform. Herb wants Tom to get a “crew cut,” that military-style hairdo of the postwar years that enjoyed a long run (and has, sadly, returned). This haircut would make Tom one of the “regular guys.” Tom avoids the haircut, and other helpful hints from his father, most of which point to Herb’s defensiveness. When Herb runs into his old pal Bill Reynolds, the two engage in some joshing over the good old days at Chilton. Although the men share a laugh about Herb’s paunch vs. Bill’s hard-body, overcompensated physique, the joke barely masks an aura of tension. It is clear that Herb wants Tom to be his ego ideal, a recreation of himself minus his own defensive, self-conscious qualities (masking that which he is afraid to express) which he projects onto Tom, and the topic nervously shunts aside the bonhomie enjoyed by Bill and Herb. As Bill tells Herb that his son is an “off horse,” Laura listens from the kitchen. In one of many remarkable compositions, we see the two men through the kitchen window as Laura stands in the foreground, the yellow curtains on the window extending the yellow of her dress. The visuals complement the drama: Laura tries to temper the men, even as she is overwhelmed by them.

The heart of Tom’s relationship with his father is expressed early in the film. Tom tells Laura that his parents “thought he would hold them together.” The marriage of course dissolved, for which Tom blames himself. Herb then sends Tom to a series of schools to get him out of the way; the need for an extension of the patriarchal ego goes only so far. We very quickly have the sense of the absurdity of the bourgeois family, and the torment it imposes on the young. The film shows that all the men have a stake in maintaining illusions, since illusion protects their insecurities and real desires.

The chilling bonfire/pajama party that is an annual feature of Chilton is the centerpiece of the film, the fracas that becomes a ritual punishment of Tom for not being a “regular guy,” a ritual approved by all the patriarchal figures, especially Tom’s father Herb. The scene is stunning for what it says about male violence and the containment of homosexuality. It is a not-unfamiliar fratboy ritual that showcases Eros precisely at the moment it is transformed into degradation and, implicitly, death, without the participants having a clue. At the middle of the campus a large bonfire is constructed—the association with lynching and the assault on African-Americans since the nation’s “founding” is evoked. In front of the fire gather a large number of students who are eventually turned loose to pursue pajama-clad younger boys. The object of the ritual is to rip the pajamas off of the scapegoated boys, leaving them naked (here the Code obviously restricts Minnelli) and humiliated. Tom is the prize target this particular year. What is amazing is the attempt by his tormentors actually to protect him from being stripped, the point being that the stripping is a form of initiation that will guarantee, we assume, the scapegoat acceptance into the tribe. Tom is seen as such a sissy the “protection” is actually a way of worsening the humiliation. Tom’s well-meaning roommate Al (Darryl Hickman) pushes through the mob and tears off Tom’s pajamas. In the dementia of the world portrayed, this act of violence becomes a caring, erotic act, although the dimensions of the moment are lost on most of the participants, with the possible exception of Bill Reynolds.

Bill savors not only the bonfire but the anticipation of it. He constantly finds excuses to avoid Laura’s invitation to stay for dinner, to take her somewhere, to rekindle their romance (“What are you talking about, Laura?!”). When she asks him sarcastically if he’ll find time for the bonfire party, he responds acidly: “I wouldn’t miss it.” While Laura is appalled at the idea of the event, Bill assures her that “no one ever gets hurt at these things!”, as if to conceal the real purpose of the ritual. Of all the bystanders at the bonfire/pajama orgy, Bill’s expression is the most complex and telling. As he chews on his obligatory pipe (this, along with his briefcase, brown jacket, and regulation crew cut, code him as a “regular guy,” a macho “real man” educator—he has none of the sissy schoolmaster, like the diffident young Mr. Chips), Bill’s glare is both ominous and joyful. We already know the extent of his sadism, his hatred of Tom, so the glare suggests Bill’s anticipation of Tom’s suffering, but like Brando’s neurotic Major Penderton in Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), the desire for discipline and punishment also contains sexual desire—he anticipates, it would seem, the moment when Tom will be stark naked and the completed object of the gaze.

Roommate Al is important to the film’s examination of the pervasiveness of gay repression. Al is very concerned about Tom’s predicament, and has a sit-down with Laura in an attempt to find ways to make Tom acceptable, a “regular guy.” Laura notes Al’s posture as he stands with hands on hips. He quickly straightens as Laura reminds him how easy it is to “misinterpret” body language. Al, with his butch façade and nice manner, is seen as the model boy, a good-hearted fellow who couldn’t possibly be “abnormal,” and is therefore the image that Tom should copy. An actual attempt at copying Al’s manner (his walk, his bearing) occurs when Al visits a lonely Tom in the choir room. Al seems to have his heart in the right place as he tries to explain to Tom the problems with his gait and haircut. Minnelli’s satiric humor is sly indeed when Al freezes, then walks like a robot as he self-consciously preserves his macho posture, and understands what attends his dropping it. The help offered by Al and Laura shows not just paranoid homophobia but a deep discontent with heteronormative life. Al admits to Tom that he too has “never been alone” with a woman (“alone” clearly means “have sex with”). Giving what we’ve already seen, and despite the removal of references to “queer” and the like, Al’s admission, if we see his situation as a mirror image of Tom’s (which it seems to me the film clearly intends) tells us that the problem can by no means be one of mere shyness, but rather sexual ambivalence. During the “training” scene, Al sits with his hand draped over a bust of Beethoven; then he rests the same hand on Tom’s shoulder, repeating Bill’s gesture with the boys at the beach party. But Al’s gesture is more tentative, and somewhat incomplete, as if he is too aware of what male embrace conveys. But Al, like Bill, would much rather be with the boys. When he counsels Tom on “getting a date” (with the local “tramp” Ellie Martin [Norma Crane]), it is clear that the point isn’t sexual initiation, since although Ellie would “put out,” the real issue is to have the other boys think Tom is interested, with both Al and Tom strongly conveying the sense that the whole thing is distasteful, that it is a social game aimed at gaining social acceptance, not an act involved in obtaining pleasure.

The female’s situation is dreadful, the element that gives the film its real force as a condemnation of patriarchy in all it manifestations. At the film’s opening, as Tom strolls through the crowd at the class reunion, two alumni brag: “Our class married darn well—a bunch of real pretty women.” One man shares baby pictures; another brags of his factories. Clearly, women are seen as breed sows and trophies, and associated with triumph in the capitalist world. Two women stand by themselves, one saying to the other that class reunions are “for the birds.” (This scene is important relative to understanding Tom’s sexuality and what Minnelli tries to transmit. Although we learn in the tacked-on ending forced by the Code and the Legion of Decency that Tom married, he is alone through the reunion scene that precedes and closes the extended flashback. The idea that he has no interest in heterosexual life is always evident, despite the interventions of censors.)

Yet for all their mistreatment and marginalization, the women are very blinkered. The beach party scene, with the women showing bewilderment at Tom’s presence, is the most obvious moment. But the film’s greatest concern centers on Laura. Clearly her problems flow from the world around her, a regime so overwhelming that she can’t see past it for all her intelligence and compassion. When she spots Tom reading a book, he tells her it’s Candida. She replies: “Uh-huh,” clearly not recognizing the work. Shaw’s satire of marriage seems lost on Laura twice over—she has little real knowledge of the implications of marriage nor of those areas of culture that condemn it. She has a faith in romantic love that stymies her attempt to rebel against Bill. In assisting Tom, Laura wants to help him “lick this thing.” Is she referring to the idea of “curing” homosexuality, reassuring Tom that he couldn’t possibly be gay, or is she attempting to stifle gossip (a fool’s errand)? The point may not be too relevant, since her need for Tom’s company shows not only a need for the sensitive male, but for a way out the door. When she tries to pull secrets of Tom’s love life from him, she wants an ear for her own disappointments—that she associates Tom with her late husband John, another “weak” man, has been established early in the film. Her affection for men like Tom raises a question that has been central to criticisms of the film: why would she marry a thick-necked bully like Bill to begin with? It is hard to imagine, despite the key dialogue moment, that Bill was ever a sensitive boy, sitting alone and “crying [his] eyes out.” Even more troublesome is the brevity of the Bill/Laura relationship—they seem to have been married for only a year. The marriage, and especially Bill, seem like dramatic conceits, making the film operate at what Robin Wood called “heightened realism,” so that the caricature of Bill and the ruinous nature of marriage stand in relief. Laura’s decision was quick and impulsive, based on a moment with Bill that hardly revealed the real person, pointing to her limited perceptions and unremitting romanticism. Laura’s line to Tom just before they have sex in a misty forest that seems out of Maxfield Parrish, has been viewed as representative of Laura’s (and the film’s) maudlin sensibility. Laura says: “Years from now, when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.” But she is merely assuming that bragging about conquests is central to male sexual satisfaction, hardly a controversial insight, but one that she wants to be spared as she anticipates her exile…and, setting the Code aside, an exile from Bill is not the worst fate in the world. After all, it frees him to return to his record albums of long ago, “regressing” into Tom (and to a secret gay life?).

The truly horrific—and questionable—portrayal of women is the “date” arranged for Tom with the soda-fountain tramp Ellie Martin. The scene in her apartment is noirish; her sexual curiosity about Tom is momentary, dissolving into cackling, abusive laughter when she finds he can’t dance, and then remembers that he is called “sister boy,” making Tom fall to his knees, gripping his head in the film’s most overwrought moment. The scene’s offensiveness is nevertheless useful, however, in helping us again see how Minnelli transcended the Code: Ellie’s meanness is not merely an issue of her “low class” status, nor is Tom’s reaction to her laughter the final instance of his “vulnerability.” We see a man being cruelly insulted because of his sexual orientation, and his lack of interest in heterosexual culture in general, even as heterosexuality is rammed down his throat for the purpose of making him a “regular guy.”

A word about social class is relevant. Behind the film’s opening credits sits a sterling silver tea service, the emblem of the social passivity of women in general and the particular role of the “housemother” at Chilton. It also tells us who attends these schools and supervises them. Boarding schools have been recognized as dumping grounds for children of the wealthy, certainly the case with Tom. J.D. Salinger is probably recognized as the best satirist (although to my mind he is fairly mild) of boarding school life in his portrayal of Pencey Prep—actually Valley Forge Military Academy—in Catcher in the Rye. Valley Forge Military Academy used as its slogan “give us your boy and we’ll give you a man,” a sales pitch used with other wording at all such institutions. These places tend to breed pathology rather than cure it (the notion that they are “high- priced reform schools” couldn’t be more inaccurate), but their main evil is their pounding into boys (and girls at the relevant schools) the virtues of life in patriarchal capitalist society, with the object of making young people unquestioning and unflinching in enforcing its dicta.

Robert Anderson said that his play was not actually about homosexuality but about the intolerance toward those who do not fit the norm. The remark tends to provide “evidence” that the work is obfuscatory, but Minnelli’s direction of Anderson’s play provides us with a “third text,” a work that can be read as condemnation of a rigidly conformist society, but also as a straightforward assault on those who joke at sexual confusion, and who view alternative sexuality as an unforgivable transgression. There is no mistaking that the greater confusion is with Laura, not Tom, and that the true monster is Bill—the adults, the rule makers, however liberal-minded, are the source of problems visited on the young.

Minnelli is one of the Old Hollywood’s great critics of Otherness. Compare, for example, his portrait of the insane asylum (always a great metaphor for America) in The Cobweb (1954—also out on a Warner disc) to that in rubbish like The Caretakers (1963). In The Cobweb, the patients are no more neurotic—and often more interesting—than their overseers, lead by a frustrated physician (Richard Widmark) dissatisfied with married life. In The Caretakers, the sagacious “liberal” patriarchal doctor (Robert Stack) condescendingly presides over unremittingly hysterical female patients (the opening scene with Polly Bergen is instructive) and a brutish, fascistic nurse named “Lucretia” (Joan Crawford, entering her “horror hag” phase). Minnelli was clearly the genius pushing against regulations, and societal expectations, vs. the many hacks who make us think twice before romanticizing the old studios.

For those who think this film is dated and naïve, I suggest that we look around. While the LGBT movement, together with other resistance movements, have made strides in challenging patriarchal capitalist civilization, we shouldn’t have to be reminded how the U.S. has been re-militarized since the Reagan era, how the military and police are celebrated on the news, TV shows and movies, how gender roles have been reestablished (women do most of the cooking and housework), how short hair on men is the basic vogue, how the “hard body” signifies the body turned into armor, how “extreme sports” are proliferating—sports that don’t pretend (unlike football and the like) to be about anything but destroying the opponent and viewing as a given the virtues of “competition” so basic to capitalist life.

Tea and Sympathy, usually seen as a “minor” film by Minnelli, is among his masterpieces, in part because of his genius in negotiating the roadblocks in front of him with such aplomb, but most centrally because of the courage it took for this bisexual artist to produce such an accomplished work on this hot-button topic in mid-1950s America, a truly awful era. This is a film that challenges virtually every assumption of American life.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He contributes to Cineaste, Framework, Cinema Journal and other publications, and is on the editorial board of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video.

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Read also Sharrett’s ‘False Criticism: Cinema, Bourgeois Society, and the Conservative Complaint’ and ‘Drive, or the Hero in Eclipse’, and John Bredin’s ‘On Stifling Families, Diana Lynn, and a Killer Cat’.

References

Gerstner, David A. (2009), “Making Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy” in Joe McElhaney (ed.), Vincente Minnelli: The Art of Entertainment (Detroit: Wayne State University Press): 275-297.

Levy, Emanuel (2009), Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer (New York: St. Martin’s Press).

Russo, Vito (1981), The Celluloid Closet (New York: Harper and Row).

1 Comment for “Revisiting Tea and Sympathy: Sexual Paranoia in Fifties America”

  1. Great analisys of this great film,
    A pleasure to read things like this.

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