The Kerrs of this world

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TEA AND SYMPATHY — my goodness. I have so lightly sampled the works of Vincente Minnelli. This one is particularly handy because it ties the uniquely oppressive qualities of his comedies — domestic hells like FATHER OF THE BRIDE and THE LONG, LONG TRAILER, whose natural analog is nightmare (FOTB features a renowned expressionist nightmare scene whose image of Spencer Tracy’s feet mired in a floor swamp got quoted in the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET) — to the quieter parts of his melodramas. The movie resists exploding, and so winds its audience up into quite a state. “I’m starting to find this hypermasculine environment extremely claustrophobic,” observed Fiona.

At one point Kerr claims he’s reading “Candida.” “Does he mean Candide?” I ask. “Candida is a yeast infection,” says Fiona.

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Gay man or huge woman?

I recall an online discussion between two film-lovers, I think both gay, as to whether the first of this film’s Kerrs, John Kerr, was meant to be seen as gay. Although the whole story hinges on his being regarded as sexually suspect by his fellow collegians, until the second Kerr, teacher’s wife Deborah Kerr, sleeps with him, I honestly don’t feel it matters.

The script, adapted by Robert Anderson from his own play, is careful to make clear that for purposes of censorship, Kerr’s character is straight, but unconventional and therefore regarded with suspicion in the conformist campus where the story unfolds. Both script and direction are careful to keep their options open, however — we are free to assume that some light alibiing has been applied to the scenario and that if you strip this away, Kerr’s character is gay.

On the other hand, even at face value the lesson is progressive — as with DESIGNING WOMAN, Minnelli is able to present a gay-seeming man who is “really” (according to the dialogue, the element of a film which carries the least weight of conviction) straight. The lesson is that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and by extension, you shouldn’t queer-bait and queer-bash because you don’t know. Society, and schools and other institutions, would get a lot more civilized by following such a suggestion, and the true elimination of prejudice might follow more easily.

I feel like Minnelli is also crying out in this film — “Don’t you see how crazy all this is?” The homosocial world of the film is deeply closeted and strange: one of the things that marks Kerr out as potentially deviant is that he enjoys the company of women. Male activities include sweaty contact sports, talking about sex, and a nocturnal, firelight ceremony in which boys tear off one another’s pajamas (an aggressive fire ballet to match those in numerous other Minnelli films).

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Part rites of passage, part Rites of Spring.vlcsnap-2013-07-09-08h51m55s181

Furthermore, the film’s two most vociferous spokesmen for manliness are Deborah Kerr’s husband and John Kerr’s father, both of whom are peculiar arguments for normalcy. Hubby Leif Erickson can’t bear to touch his beautiful wife, cannot discuss emotions with her, and responds to her friendship with young Kerr with hysterical jealousy, so that one comes to wonder who exactly he is jealous of? His hatred of the isolated young student who rooms in his house and whom he should be protecting seems pathological.

Edward Andrews as the dad is just odd.

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Right after this shot there’s a glaring continuity error as the door opens and he’s suddenly in a completely different position, as if the movie is screaming You Didn’t Just See That! That Never Happened!

Nervous, sweaty, prissy and eager-to-please, he comes across as frantically overcompensating and desperate to be one of the boys. One senses the other men regard him as less that 100% virile, but give him a pass because at least he’s trying. Really hard. One could simply argue that Minnelli’s vision of straight men is camp-inflected and inaccurate because of who he was, but I prefer to see this as barbed satire, and carried out in a visual language too subtle for the censors to grasp, to sly for them to comment on without feeling silly.

Kerr, so good in THE COBWEB, is excellent here — I wonder if he gave up acting because typecasting in the role of sensitive, vulnerable youth gave him few options in movies of the fifties. At any rate, he made a go of lawyering instead.

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The point in the movie where it has to furiously back-pedal is the ending — the movie can coat homosexuality in plausible deniability, but it has to cop to adultery. But this is handled graciously — we learn that the Kerr-Erickson marriage was destroyed by her infidelity, which is supposed to be a sop to morality, but I think most viewers would think GOOD — maybe Debs can find happiness elsewhere. There’s a line of VO about her husband’s life being ruined, but Minnelli cannily plays it over a shot of him working away, same as always, seemingly perfectly happy without the ball and chain. And we’re told that John Kerr now has a wife — yay, she straightened him out! — or, Yay, she cured him of his insecurity! — or Yay, he got himself a lavender marriage to pacify social expectations! I think it doesn’t matter. I think it’s fine. The movie does a marvelous job of telling a story it was absolutely forbidden from telling.

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24 Responses to “The Kerrs of this world”

  1. La Faustin Says:

    As to Candida, think GBS, not yeast: that’s the title of a Shaw play whose heroine is torn between her stalwart stodgy husband and her sensitive younger admirer — obviously a theme of great appeal to poor Tom.

  2. David Boxwell Says:

    Yep, Erickson and Andrews are huge closet queens in this–which makes the movie endlessly fascinating. Erickson can’t keep his mitts off the strapping dudes who hang out with him on the beach! He just joshes around, heh heh heh, whereas Andrews is just _tortured_!

  3. A man who made his name as a scenic designer and arrived in Hollywood wearing Turbans and make-up to marry Judy and father Liza is an ideal choice to direct a project like this — a wildly equivocating heterosexual propaganda piece wracked with sheer hysteria from stem to stern

    John Kerr’s presumed gayness matters TONS. “Effeminacy” visualizes Teh Ghey before the horrified eyes of those who abhor the possibility (aka. likelihood) that they might be gay themselves.

    Leif Erickson’s character is an obvious closet case — his “masculinity” performance an elaborate mask of the truth.

    Edward Andrews WAS a fussy old queen (full stop)

    Anderson’s concern for “sensitive” heterosexuals attacked because they’re perceived as gay, when they aren’t, is a cheap insult to actual gay men — who like Erickson’s husband are loathed with gusto (enter Orson Scott Card carrying a torch and leading what he hopes will be a mob to overthrow the U.S. government if gay marriage goes nationwide)

    “Later when you speak of this — and you will — be kind” is pure unadulterated camp. I laughed in 1956 and I’m still laughing.

  4. Fiona W Says:

    Hello La Faustin, (completely off topic here but I stupidly deleted your e-mail so I couldn’t reply directly) Thank you so much for the fragrance care package. I wore it today and very nice it was too. x

  5. I am glad our Shadowplay host liked this one; always happy to see a really old-school melodrama get some love. I think you are right, the theme is that of the nonconformist outsider, and that kids act out the benighted attitudes of their elders. I also think Minnelli is satirizing the whole milieu, especially by making it clear that Erickson is deepest denial about his own nature. It’s similar to The Cobweb, where Minnelli clearly shows that Widmark may be creating future patients for himself right in his own house.

  6. I think, like quite a few melodramas, Tea and Sympathy can be enjoyed as camp or as serious drama. Had the play been more progressive for its time, it could never have been filmed without even more radical defanging. As it is, here’s a fifties movie in which the existence of homosexuality can be inferred, and though the movie is prevented from directly commenting on that, it chooses to focus its satire on the outwardly “straight” world.

    Erickson’s character is hateful because, if we see his as closeted, he attacks others to affirm his membership of the straight pack: a traitor like Ed Koch or Roy Cohn. Even he is human in his internal conflict: the entirely horrible characters are the straight boys picking on Kerr.

  7. And then there’s Darryl Hickman as the really nice college boy who’s sympathetic to John Kerr and tries to help by teaching him how to “walk like a man.”

    For gay men who grew up in that era this film is the psycho-sexual equivalent of Night and Fog

  8. That’s a bizarre scene alright — it plays like they’re trying not to let it get too comic, but it’s pretty farcical.

    I realise my personal response to the movie is far from authoritative — maybe it plays differently now? It’s hard to imagine a time when this picture would have been reassuring to conservatives, but I guess it was assumed by many that D Kerr “straightens out” J Kerr, and the other currents were disregarded.

  9. You nailed it. That’s why her adultery was “forgiven” by the MPAA. She saved a kid from “being a fag.”

  10. In that case, I’d say it could be read as a spectacular case of “slipping one past the goalie” — at any rate, at least we get to see an alternative version of 50s masculinity who’s neither Glenn Ford nor Jerry Lewis.

  11. Lovely piece. Haven’t seen the film itself in years, but I adored it the last time that I saw it. As to “curing” — somebody, perhaps John Kerr and perhaps Vito Russo (confirmation, David E?) has talked about the silliness of Tom’s latter-day appearance, wearing “the world’s biggest wedding ring.” (Somehow that phrase puts me in mind of DIAL M FOR MURDER.)

    Robert Anderson’s play was of some interest to me, since I went to a boy’s school (later immortalized as the “billionaires boy club” — though no billionaire I). And in the theater version, as I remember, young Tom is discovered swimming naked with his male teacher. As opposed to being found, um, knitting on the beach. Also, the cast list of the other schoolboys included Dick York and Alan Sues (of LAUGH-IN).

  12. Fiona was fascinated by Tom’s dad’s revelation that when he caught the maid teaching Tom to sew, he immediately fired her. The levels of anxiety revealed are TOXIC.

  13. Precisely! In “The Celluloid Closet” Vito notes : “Tom Lee discovers that the classmates who taunt him because he has never been with a woman are every bit the virgin he is, only they don’t need to prove anything and he does because he’s not a regular guy. Tom Lee is the one who has to go out and get a whore and make sure everyone hears about it the next day.”

  14. In fact, it’s the nice guy roomer who is a virgin, but we can assume most of the rest of them are too, yes. “Wildly equivocating” about sums it up — Minnelli probably couldn’t have tackled the subject any other way, at any time, and MGM certainly wouldn’t have let him get any closer to reality or a courageous statement. I think he was the right guy at the right time to make a film which can be read three ways at once (he’s gay/he’s straight/he’s gay THEN straight)…

  15. La Faustin Says:

    As I recall, in the stage play the teacher with whom Tom goes swimming IS gay and is fired for that reason (although their friendship is non-sexual). Can anyone confirm?

  16. Well, I guess that would add a potentially sympathetic offstage gay character, but *maybe* slant it more towards Tom being a straight boy who’s just a little different, or else a straight boy who’s being tempted. The whole piece is so cautious, there’s always going to be an escape hatch from any interpretation!

  17. That’s true about the teacher in the original play. Naturally he couldn’t exist even off-screen at MGM (where Jack Cole was presented as straight)

  18. david wingrove Says:

    For me this film is akin to CABARET (starring Minnelli’s daughter Liza) in that its hero has an abortive sexual fling with a woman, but is still obviously gay. Of course, the two are not mutually exclusive – as many, or perhaps even most, gay men will testify. And if the script keeps on insisting that he’s straight….

    Well, the script in THE REVOLT OF MAMIE STOVER insisted that Jane Russell’s character wasn’t a hooker. But was anybody ever dumb enough to believe that?!

  19. Yes but in Cabaret Michael York doesn’t do it with Liza to prove anything, and that still doesn’t stop him from having sex with a man.

    Moreover the Nazis aren’t a bunch of busybody college roommates.
    They’re ery straightforward thugs and killers.

  20. The two groups do share an understanding of the uses of scapegoating, however, one on a petty scale, the other genocidal — but it’s the same dark human impulse.

  21. Next thing you know they’ll be ripping each others’ pajamas off.

  22. “The homosocial world of the film is deeply closeted and strange: one of the things that marks Kerr out as potentially deviant is that he enjoys the company of women.”

    For much of history that was true: men were encouraged to be heterosexual and homosocial. There’s a short story by Borges where the woman two brothers fall for is “The Intruder” and- after they’ve killed her to preserve their relationship with each other- they decide there’s something “queer” about getting that worked up over a woman. They may well be socially anomalous in the intensity of their feelings, not in the kind of feelings.

  23. Marge Simpson on John Waters: “I think he prefers the company of men.”
    Homer Simpson: “Who doesn’t?!”

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