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Film / Tea and Sympathy

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"Years from now when you talk about this—and you will—be kind."
Laura Reynolds

Tea and Sympathy is a 1956 drama film directed by Vincente Minnelli, based on the stage play by Robert Anderson (who adapted the screenplay himself).

It tells the story of Tom Lee, a senior at a boys' prep school. Different from the other boys—in that he prefers music and reading as opposed to sports and roughhousing—he's a frequent target for bullies. They suspect he might be gay, and he faces pressure from his father to be more manly. He gains a kindred spirit in Laura Reynolds, the wife of his coach. She too is lonely at the school and is drawn to be Tom's friend, reminded of her deceased first husband.

The original play was one of the first to tackle the topic of sexual orientation, and the prejudice that results. John Kerr played Tom, with Deborah Kerr (no relation) as Laura and Leif Erickson as Laura's husband Bill. All three reprised their roles for the film adaptation. Former Child Star Darryl Hickman has a small role as Tom's roommate Al.


  • Abusive Parents: Tom's dad is emotionally abusive - forcing him to quit the school play, get his hair cut and take part in activities he hates. It's implied with Al's father too, who forces him to change rooms so he won't be with Tom.
  • Adaptation Expansion: The play only features Tom, Bill and Laura as characters. Everyone else becomes an Ascended Extra in the film. The play also ends with Laura and Tom's final kiss whereas the film adds an extra scene where the older Tom reads a letter from Laura.
  • Adaptational Modesty: In the play before the Big Damn Kiss, Laura is said to unbutton her cardigan in the script. She does not do this in the film.
  • Adapted Out: The play has a gay teacher who is Tom's Only Friend but gets fired over his sexuality.
  • Age-Gap Romance: Tom is nearly eighteen and Laura is definitely over thirty (Deborah Kerr was thirty-five during filming but certain dialogue implies she's meant to be a few years older).
  • All of the Other Reindeer: Tom is bullied by his entire class for being different.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Not Tom, who is actually in love with Laura. But certain parts of the play make it look as though Bill is. Laura talks about how they never do anything together, and it's hinted that he was pressured into marrying her. Parts of the film play this up, as Bill ignores his wife on the beach in favor of spending time with his gang of shirtless boys.
  • And That's Terrible: Laura's letter at the end basically says this. It was tacked on to appease the censors.
  • Author Appeal: Vincente Minnelli's trademark 'Minnelli Yellow' appears in several scenes - it's the colour of Bill and Laura's kitchen curtains most notably.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Bill and Laura have a very unhappy marriage due to Bill's distance from her.
  • Big Damn Kiss: Tom gives one to Laura, but it immediately turns into a Cry into Chest. Tom and Laura have a proper one towards the end.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Laura's letter at the end to Tom solidifies this. Although Tom went onto get married and become a successful author, Laura and Bill divorced and Bill was never right as a result. She also affirms that what they did was still wrong.
  • Bowdlerize:
    • The original stage play isn't remotely subtle about Tom being accused of homosexuality, with characters calling him a "pansy" and other epithets, and his close relationship with a gay teacher who was fired once the school discovered his sexual orientation, which sets the plot in motion (something completely absent from the movie). The filmmakers toned this down considerably for the movie, though the subtext is still fairly obvious to modern viewers.
    • The reason why Tom is Mistaken for Gay in the play is because he was found on the beach with said teacher, leading to a Not What It Looks Like moment. The film just has Tom being seen sewing on the beach with the faculty wives.
  • College Widow: The coach's wife isn't exactly a widow, it's just that her husband doesn't pay much attention to her. This is why she turns her attention to the young man whom his more 'hearty' classmates mistakenly think is gay.
  • Coming of Age Story: From Tom's perspective.
  • Dance of Romance: Subverted, since Tom keeps rebuffing Laura's attempts to teach him how.
  • Double Standard Rape: Female on Male: Ellie the waitress from the diner is implied to regularly hook up with boys from the school. Admittedly Tom is nearly eighteen, but the age difference never gets questioned. Ellie in fact responds to a call from Tom by asking what's in it for her. Laura's troubled when Tom goes to see her, but it's more to do with her own jealousy and the idea of Tom forcing himself to do something with a woman he's not interested in - as opposed to him nearly being an accessory to statutory rape. Then again, the fact that no one in the area has a problem with a local waitress regularly taking advantage of teenage boys, could be another indicator of just how backwards the system is.
  • Embarrassing Nickname: 'Sister Boy' for Tom. It turns into a mini Berserk Button for him as the film goes on.
  • Fanservice: The beach scene gets the faculty wives into swimsuits, and the other boys with their shirts off.
  • A Father to His Men: Bill is loved and respected as a coach to his boys.
  • Framing Device: A device exclusive to the film. The story is framed as a flashback when Tom visits the school at a ten year reunion.
  • Gay Aesop: The play was one of the first to tackle this - stressing that persecuting someone over their sexuality can have detrimental effects.
  • Green-Eyed Monster: Bill is accused of being jealous towards Tom.
  • Hot for Teacher: Tom confesses that he was in love with his teacher when he was twelve.
  • Interrupted Suicide: After failing with Ellie, Tom grabs a knife to kill himself, but he's stopped.
  • In Touch with His Feminine Side: Tom is, and he's mocked for it.
  • I Should Write a Book About This: It's revealed that Tom is a published author, who turned his experiences into a novel.
  • Jail Bait Wait: Laura doesn't allow Tom to kiss her properly until the day of his eighteenth birthday.
  • Leaning on the Fourth Wall: Laura's letter at the end suggests that the very film we've been watching is Tom looking at his past through a Rose-Tinted Narrative.
  • Likes Older Women: Seems to be the case with Tom, since he crushed on his teacher and Laura.
  • Lonely Together: Laura and Tom bond because they both feel alone at the school.
  • The Lost Lenore: Male example. Laura's dead husband is part of her motivation to be there for Tom.
  • Lovable Jock: Al seems to be the only decent jock in the house.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Implied. Tom is made fun of for liking traditionally 'feminine' things, and the movie makes it as clear as possible for a 1950s audience that everyone thinks he's gay.
  • Most Writers Are Writers: Tom grows up to become an author.
  • Only Friend: Al is this for Tom. When he's forced by his father to change houses, Laura has to become this.
  • Redhead In Green: The movie's famous romantic scene between Laura and Tom goes down while redhead Laura is wearing a green evening gown.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: Tom the Sensitive Guy is contrasted with Manly Men like Bill and Al.
  • Shirtless Scene: Tom after his pyjamas get torn off.
  • The Smurfette Principle: Laura is the lone female surrounded by testosterone. The only other woman in the story is Ellie - the waitress from the cafe downtown.
  • Standard '50s Father: The story takes place in the 40s but Tom's father fits the dark version of the trope, and his attitude is very damaging for Tom's psyche.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: Tom can sew, which he learned from a maid. His father apparently fired her when he found out.
  • Token Good Teammate: Al, Tom's roommate, tries to ward the bullies off and help Tom out.
  • Traumatic Haircut: Attempted by Tom's father, who wants him to look like the other boys. Tom just says the barbers closed and doesn't go through with it. Though he claims he tried to cut his hair the same way as the others before.
  • Unexplained Accent: It's never said why Bill has a British wife, although Laura being an immigrant does explain why she feels distant from everyone else.
  • Vague Age: Laura's age is left vague. Deborah Kerr was in her mid-thirties but certain lines suggest she's meant to be a little older. Her first husband was in World War I when he was eighteen, putting her in her early forties at the time of the events.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Al is last seen telling Tom that his father wants him to switch houses next year. It's unknown whether he and Tom remained in touch afterwards.
  • Why Couldn't You Be Different?: Tom gets this attitude from his father, who wishes he were more masculine.