[See previous post: "John Kerr: (Suspected) Gay Teen in Tea and Sympathy Has Died."] Robert Anderson’s Tea and Sympathy is notable for a variety of reasons: the play marked Deborah Kerr’s Broadway debut (on her 32nd birthday, Sept. 30); one of its lead characters turns out to be a sympathetic adulteress; it tackles the issue of homosexuality, which, despite the Elia Kazan-directed (both film and play) A Streetcar Named Desire, remained mostly taboo in the ’50s.
Also of note, watching Tea and Sympathy today proves that the last six decades haven’t necessarily led to a major lessening in social prejudices, as Anderson’s play would still be considered quite daring — even if for somewhat different reasons. (Photo: John Kerr and Deborah Kerr in Tea and Sympathy.)
In Tea and Sympathy, John Kerr plays the sensitive adolescent Tom Lee, whose bullyish New England prep-school classmates assume is gay because, well, he’s sensitive, he’s a loner, he’s not into sports, and, gasp!, one day he is caught sewing. Eventually, Tom himself begins having doubts about his sexual orientation. Luckily for him, beautiful headmaster’s wife Deborah Kerr — whose husband (Leif Erickson) may be himself a nasty closet case — sets the record straight, both figuratively and literally: "Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will, be kind."
In the ’50s, Kerr’s highly sympathetic adulterous seductress was young Tom Lee’s savior and sex tutor; in the early 21st century, she’d be every ambitious district attorney and tabloid publisher’s dream: a predatory sex offender. (See also: “Deborah Kerr: What Lies Beneath” and “Deborah Kerr: Socially Dubious Desires.”)
Tea and Sympathy movie
Vincente Minnelli, himself reportedly a closeted gay man (at the time already divorced from Judy Garland), directed the 1956 film version of Tea and Sympathy for MGM. As to be expected, problems arose during the making of the film because of Production Code restrictions.
Tea and Sympathy producer Pandro S. Berman told the New York Times in 1955: "The theme of the play is essentially this: what is manliness? We haven’t changed that at all. The boy is regarded by fellow students and the housemaster as an ’off-horse’ because he doesn’t flex his muscles and knock himself out climbing mountains or playing basketball. To them he is soft physically and becomes suspect. They conveniently pigeon-hole their standards for manliness and anyone who doesn’t conform is an oddball. We never say in the film that the boy has homosexual tendencies—I don’t believe the word homosexual was actually spoken in the play either—but any adult who has ever heard of the word and understands its meaning will clearly understand this suspicion in the film."
In order to further appease the Production Code enforcers, MGM’s Tea and Sympathy has the main story told in flashback, with a new ending added to the tale: the now married Tom reads a letter from Deborah Kerr’s character, in which she explains that her actions led to the breakup of her marriage. “Prudish and unnecessary,” complained the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther.
Unfortunately, Minnelli’s film version of Tea and Sympathy, though adapted by Robert Anderson himself, is much too careful in its handling of the key characters to have much dramatic impact. For instance, there’s precious little to indicate that either Tom or the headmaster — or both — might indeed be gay. Compounding matters, everything about the gorgeous-looking production, including the performances, comes across as artificial and stage-like. (A not uncommon occurrence in those days when transferring Broadway plays to the screen, e.g., Mervyn LeRoy’s The Bad Seed and Fred Zinnemann’s A Hatful of Rain.)
John Kerr was bypassed at Oscar time (though his work earned positive notices); Deborah Kerr received an Oscar nomination that year, but for Walter Lang’s musical The King and I. Kerr, however, did get shortlisted for Tea and Sympathy at the BAFTAs, in the Best British Actress category.
John Kerr movies
Though a handsome and likable screen presence, John Kerr was never to become a Hollywood star. He had earned good notices for his first film role, that of a psychiatric patient in Vincente Minnelli’s The Cobweb (1955), but his follow-up movie, the aforementioned Tea and Sympathy, was a prestige production, not a box office hit.
["John Kerr and Deborah Kerr: Tea and Sympathy" continues on the next page. See link below.]
John Kerr and Deborah Kerr in a Tea and Sympathy publicity shot: MGM.