Deborah Kerr stars as a college headmaster’s wife, Laura Reynolds, in this drama revolving around one of the college students. That’s another Kerr, (John), who plays Tom Lee, a victim of classmate bullying. The situation is developed and complicated by other students, faculty, and administrators. There’s Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson), Laura’s husband. Their marriage isn’t so great, thus creating a spot at her tea table, so to speak.
Tom’s dad, Herb (Edward Andrews), is an alumni, who’s somewhat embarrassed by his son. We’ve got Al (Daryl Hickman, well-cast here) as Tom’s buddy. Also, there’s Ellie, and Lily (Norma Crane and Jacqueline deWit). Not to mention Ralph, Steve, Ed, and Henry.
We begin in 1956, the ten year reunion of Tom’s class of ’46. While going through his old stomping grounds, his flashback comes on. Tom’s singing and playing guitar, then helping Laura in her garden. She tries to teach him how to dance; he does look a bit out of place wearing his theatre costume.
He gets some raised eyebrows at the beach with Laura and Lily, as he goes on about sewing and such. Well, that’s because he’s “sister-boy” according to the dorm boys. At least Al’s on his side. Tom does swing a mean tennis racquet, though.
His dad’s looking on at his game, but doesn’t need much persuading to bug out. Tom wins, which is losing, insofar as the guys “get his goat.” At the local hangout with his dad, Ellie, a waitress there, is flirting/being harassed by the cool guys.
Dad goes to look in on the Reynolds. He minimizes Tom’s victory that day. Bill comes home, he and Herb yuck it up at first. But, shortly, they talk about Tom, specifically, the sewing-at-the-beach scene. Laura intervenes “he IS a regular fellow” she says. Looking forward to the Pajama Bonfire? Sounds like weird stuff to me.
She asks what it is–a kind of a hazing ritual, says Bill. Man, that oddball Tom, he “listens to music and reads poetry” (like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and those other oddballs, I guess). He spends his allowance on curtains? Paintings? And he’s not sloppy? The real tell-tale thing is the gown for the part he’s got in the play. Dad forces him to give up the part.
Maybe Tom can go mountain-climbing? And discover distant planets, and eat snakes…you know, like the other guys. Laura kind of shields him from the blowback from the theatre arts professor. Will he go to the dance with Joan? She wants to help him “lick this thing.”
A group of guys goes to get Tom, pjs and all. Laura sees Al there at the bonfire–“it’s all in fun,” right? Al does the pantsing honors, I guess to cut short Tom’s humiliation. Al’s dad doesn’t even want him to room with Tom anymore. Laura talks with Al, “perhaps he’s in love” she offers. She also reminds him how easily gossip can become fact in people’s minds.
Needless to say, Tom is a bit down; Al admits he doesn’t know what’s to be done; we discover that Al’s a bit self-conscious too. Al thinks he ought to ask Ellie out. Hmm, could this work? Has he ever ‘been with a girl’? No, but, surprisingly, neither has Al. Yes, but, maybe Laura is Tom’s ‘girl.’
Bill is “aloof” from her, that’s for sure. “It can’t always be a honeymoon.” How about once in a while, Bill? Tom asks Ellie out; she’s not overwhelmed, but consents. Laura goes by Ellie’s shop and gives her a flower; meanwhile, Tom’s getting ready for the date. But Laura intercepts him–whats she up to? She’s in a funk too. Weirdly, she’s celebrating her first husband’s anniversary.
“He was kind, gentle, and lonely…” Like Tom, that is. Tom’s a bit drunk, and talks about how he fell in love with his seventh-grade teacher. Laura wants to dance with him “why are you so nice to me?” He thinks she just pities him. Finally Bill stumbles in. Hey, what about Ellie?
Well, Tom finally shows up at her place. He doesn’t want to dance with her either. “Relax!” She’s more drunk than he is. “You ever been out with a girl before?” He kisses her, but it revolts him. Now she starts calling him “sister-boy”. He goes nuts–grabs a knife, but is overpowered by two other guys. Farcically, the chatter about him the next day is positive.
Even his dad is thrilled. But Bill tells Herb the real story–that Tom might well have killed himself. Laura tells Bill off for goading and humiliating Tom. She says she wishes she’d been in Ellie’s place the previous night. Bill can’t manage a real discussion with her, and splits. Laura finds a note in Tom’s room–actually two, both unfinished; one for his dad, the other for her.
She goes looking for him at his favorite haunt. She comes upon him lying on the ground in the woods. They talk about last night “I wish they’d let me kill myself!” He thinks that she was disgusted when they kissed; no, she loved it.
She wants to kiss him again–not a bad outcome, a truly romantic scene. Ok, back to 1956. He goes back to see his old room, and Bill. “May I ask about Mrs. Reynolds.” She’s left Bill. But she’d left a letter for Tom. He’s written an autobiographical book, which she alludes to in her letter.
She pretty much tells him that he was easier to “save” than Bill. This scene of just letter-reading, is much too long. We do learn that Tom’s married. The end.
The last part of the movie, after the incident with Ellie, took forever to play out. The dramatic impact suffers–it’s already long and talky–and then we have to have everything spelled out.
Nevertheless, Tea And Sympathy is remarkable for a couple of reasons. The exploration of a gay character’s story is both tough to watch because his tormenting is relentless (it’s alternatively overt and subtle), and incredibly progressive subject matter for the time.
Also interesting is that Laura is drawn to Tom–in an ironic repeat of his infatuation with a teacher. This plot line is left to linger, however, as Laura and Tom never actually get together. In fact, Tom, having gotten married, is literally ‘straightened-out.’
Deborah Kerr is great in this role; I don’t think she could’ve made a bad movie. But John Kerr, isn’t just passive, as we might expect, he’s just not very interesting. Good thing he isn’t shown doing more than a few folk song lyrics–nobody would put a quarter in his hat.
Erickson and Andrews play their garrollous characters aptly, with broad strokes of huffing and puffing. Crane does a lot with a relatively minor role; Hickman too is spot-on as the puzzled, but loyal buddy.
A small issue noted by other reviewers: if it’s 1946, why are almost all of the cars ’49-and early ’50s models? With a more recent movie this would be completely understandable. But we’re only talking about ten years between time periods here.
Yes, a lot of prewar cars were worn out by the mid-’50s, but there were plenty of them still on the road and in used car lots (anything up through ’48 would work fine). Not more than half a dozen cars are needed, after all.
This is definitely worth a look, but is let down a bit by the too-tidy, textbook ending. 7/10