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Mario Bautista, has been with the entertainment industry for more than 4 decades. He writes regular columns for People's Journal and Malaya.

Jun 16, 2021



‘TEA AND SYMPATHY’ by Robert Anderson was first staged on Broadway in 1953 starring Deborah Kerr, John Kerr and Leif Erickson in the major roles, directed by Elia Kazan. 

It ran for almost two years and made into a film in 1956, with the same actors in the cast, directed by Vincente Minelli, the father of Liz and husband of Judy Garland. This was a much talked about movie that time among our aunts but we never go to see it.

The story is about Tom (John Kerr), an 18-year old student in a boarding school for boys who is fond of classical music, poetry and the arts, so he is suspected to be a homosexual by his homophobic schoolmates who go for the usual rough and masculine sports. 

The material reflects the social anxieties of that era when gay is not yet even a word that means homosexual.

Laura (Deborah Kerr), the wife of the housemaster, Bill (Leif Erickson), understands Tom and doesn’t believe that a man who’s just sensitive to the arts is necessarily homosexual. 

She herself is suffering from an unhappy married life and says Tom is more like her first husband, who died young in the war.

It is obvious that Tom is secretly in love with Laura and they’re drawn to each other because they are both feeling lonely. 

The play also shows the negative effects of bullying and unjust peer pressure on the mind of an impressionable adolescent.

On stage, the set is very simple, showing just the living room of Laura and the bedroom of Tom. Since film is a very different medium, they expanded the play and brought it out for exterior shots. 

Many other characters were added in the film, including Tom’s dad, his roommate and schoolmates.

The film starts in 1947 with the school reunion of students who graduated 10 years ago. Tom revisits his old campus home and his own bedroom. His story with Laura is then told in one long flashback. 

In the end, the film goes back to Tom visiting Bill, who is now separated from Laura. Bill gives him a letter that Laura wrote for him after a book that he wrote was published. 

This makes the film also a coming-of-age story and gives the movie a beautiful sense of closure.

In the film, there are scenes shot while Laura and Tom are on the beach. There is a big bonfire scene in the school grounds when his schoolmates try to humiliate Tom. 

And there are scenes in a bar which the boys frequent for a sexy waitress who’s friendly to them. An added scene is Tom visiting the waitress that ends in disaster, with him attempting to commit suicide.

The film’s climactic scene shows Laura helping Tom prove that he is heterosexual, where she utters the play’s most iconic line: “Years from now, when you talk about this, and you will… be kind”. 

In the play, it happens in Tom’s bedroom. In the film, it happens in an idyllic and romantically lighted place in the forest.

The cinema’s production code then had many restrictions so the play has to be modified for the big screen. 

In the play, a big conflict erupts when Tom went skinny dipping with a male teacher. This incident is not at all mentioned in the film. 

The word homosexual is also never used. Instead, Tom is called ‘sisterboy’ by his nasty tormentors to taunt him. 

Many other outspoken words were also sanitized. The world was really different then and cuss words and four-letter words were all avoided, unlike now when all foul words are allowed on screen, even on TV.

Deborah Kerr first captured our attention when we saw her as Anna in the memorable musical “The King and I”. We have since seen so many films of her, including the horror film “The Innocents” (remade as a series, “Haunting of Bly Manor”) and “Black Narcissus” where she played a nun in the Himalayas. 

She won the New York Film Critics best actress award for the latter, but the Oscars ignored her. She got her first Oscar nomination as best actress in “Edward My Son” and later in “From Here to Eternity”, followed by “The King and I”, “Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison”, “Separate Tables” and “The Sundowners”. 

Just like Amy Adams and Glenn Close who also got multiple nominations, she never won so they just gave her an honorary Oscar in 1994.

She gives an absolutely heartfelt performance as the melancholy wife who feels so much compassion for the bullied boy. She’s best in that scene where she tells her husband that he doesn’t touch her anymore. 

John Kerr does well as Tom but sadly, he doesn’t look like 18 at all. He looks more like someone taking up a postgraduate course.