The Kerrs of this world
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.