Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Tea and Sympathy (1956)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Tea and Sympathy (1956)

Director Vincente Minnelli and MGM brought playwright/screenwriter Robert Anderson's hit Broadway play to the screen with a watered-down, almost sexless, yet still bold story - completely reflective of its repressive era in the mid-50s. The controversial, highly-edited film was one of the first key films dealing with teenage homosexuality and fitting in, without playing to obvious stereotypes.

Portrayed as a lengthy flashback (at the time of a Chilton School reunion ten years later attended by the protagonist), the film told about sexually-confused, effeminate (delicately featured) and misunderstood 17 year-old prep-school senior named Tom Lee (25 year-old John Kerr). In the film, words used to describe Tom did not include "homosexual" (the word was forbidden by censors) although other derogatory, ostracizing and mocking terms were used: "strange" and "off-horse," for instance.

As a student, Tom was a tennis pro, but also enjoyed sewing (taught to him by a maid when he was five), gardening, and reading, and he took a part in the school play A School for Scandal - to be held before the Saturday night dance - requiring him to dress up in a woman's dress for the part of Lady Teasdale. (He mentioned what his father's reaction would be: "My dad's going to hit the roof when he hears I'm playing a girl"). He also liked guitar playing (and singing) and folk music, rather than dating girls or playing football on the beach.

17 Year-Old Tom's Pursuits and Interests: Guitar, Gardening, Reading and Sewing

One of Laura's friends, a faculty wife named Mrs. Mary Williams (Mary Alan Hokanson), complimented Tom on his button-sewing skills: "You'd make some girl a good wife."

Tom - Tea (and Sympathy) with Laura

Tom To Play Female Part in School Play

Tom Left Out of Sports Activities

The young man found the most sympathetic ear in the person of his housemaster's wife, patient and understanding housemother Laura Reynolds (Deborah Kerr). With problems in her own troubled one-year emotionless marriage to Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson), also the school's athletic coach and interested in 'masculine' activities, including being an avid outdoorsman and member of a mountain-climbing club. Bill mentioned, along with other rowdy 'manly' boys on campus that bullied and tormented Tom, that he had a nickname ("Sister-Boy"): "He got himself a little nickname: 'Sister Boy'."

The only person who treated Tom decently and often defended him was his socially-accepted, athletic roommate Al Thompson (Darryl Hickman). Tom's divorced father Herb (Edward Andrews) was both ashamed and embarrassed about his son's reputation. He was also coercive and demanding - wishing Tom would pursue more masculine (machismo) activities and interests: ("You are known by the company you keep"), even though Tom was an exceptional tennis player. Tom refused to get a fashionable crew-cut ordered by his father ("You know, you ought to get a crew cut like the other fellows, Tom") - the style preferred by other males.

In one scene, Laura eavesdropped on her husband Bill and Tom's father Herb speaking about their concerns for Tom. Herb mentioned he was 'humiliated' attending Tom's tennis match earlier in the afternoon: "I went to the tennis match this afternoon, and I was humiliated. Come back to a 25th reunion just to be humiliated....And in the locker room: 'Sister Boy' they called him." Bill described why the "strange"-acting Tom was being ostracized:

"Well, Herb, he's a strange kid. He keeps to himself. He's different from the rest of them, and naturally, they just resent it."

Herb then asked: "Why isn't he a regular fellow, Bill? He's had every chance to be since he was knee-high to a grasshopper. Boys camps, boarding schools. I've always seen to it that he was associated with regular guys. Why doesn't some of it rub off?" Laura overheard and interrupted them to weakly defend Tom to them: "I think he is a regular fellow, whatever that is." Bill called Tom an "off-horse," and concluded the conversation by stating: "He certainly isn't a chip off the old block, Herb."

Afterwards, Bill reprimanded Laura for interfering: "And I wish that you wouldn't try to tell him about his own son....Look, Laura, stay out of these things." And then Bill insisted that Laura should only be "an interested bystander" in the problems of the boys. He reminded her of what the Headmaster's wife had warned her about the job as a Master's wife:

Bill: "All you're supposed to do is once in a while give the boys a little tea..."
Laura: (finishing his sentence) "...and sympathy."

The love-starved and refined Laura courageously befriended Tom - risking her marriage. (She explained to Bill how she saw in Tom similarities to her first young husband John whom she married when he was 18. She mentioned how he foolishly proved how "conspicuously brave" he was - and was killed in WWII. She remembered: "He was kind and gentle and lonely....In trying to prove he was a man, he died a boy.")

As Tom's father was about to leave, he visited his son in his room and complained about the frilly curtains, and the fact that Tom was playing a female role in a play. He insistently demanded that he not participate: "You're not going to play that part" and had Tom phone the play's director to cancel out. As the call was being made, Laura intervened and explained to the director an acceptable excuse - that Tom's father had wanted him to concentrate on his final exams.

During the night's traditional bonfire and pajama fight activity (when "the new boys put on their pajamas and the older boys try to tear them off"), it was expected that Tom would be unfairly assaulted and unable to defend himself. However, when everyone avoided Tom, his roommate Al courageously jumped in and ripped off his PJs, to include him. As a result, Al was pressured by his father to move to a new dorm in the new year with a different roommate: ("He wants me to room with Mike Farrell next year. He says Mike's a regular guy"), meaning that Tom would be less protected. Al confided in Master's wife Laura about his own concerns about Tom's obviously 'different' behavior:

Mrs. Reynolds, he does act kind of - Well, why does he have to walk so…Why doesn't he talk about the same things the other guys talk about?...He's never had a girl up for any of the dances....All the time alone, wandering off up to the golf course, taking off on his bike, listening to phonograph records alone over in the choir room.

Laura described how 'easy' it would be to "smear a person" by making up suggestive insults: "You'd be surprised how quickly your manly virtues would be changed into suspicious characteristics." Al refuted her interference by calling her a 'bystander': "You're just a bystander! You're not going to get hurt. Nothing's going to happen to you one way or the other."

However, as a result of his discussion with Mrs. Reynolds, in a prominent scene set in a music room adorned with statue busts and instrument music stands, Al attempted to show Tom how to walk in a more virile fashion.

Meanwhile, Laura became more bold in her support of the tormented Tom, while at the same time feeling like she was growing apart from Bill. Early on, she told her husband: "We so rarely touch anymore. I keep feeling I'm losing contact with you....You seem to hold yourself aloof from me, and a tension seems to grow between us and..."

To prove his worth and heterosexual preference, a pressured Tom phoned the town's The Joint soda shop waitress Ellie Martin (Norma Crane), who was known to have an "easy" and bad reputation, to invite her to the Saturday night dance - it would be his first date. Before leaving for his date, Tom spoke to a supportive Mrs. Reynolds, who boldly described her attraction to him. She hinted that she liked Tom for his similar characteristics to her first young husband. She also reached out to Tom to support his personal struggle, and tried to be humanly nice to him without being pitying. She told him her motivations: "I guess it's because I like you. No one else seems to." Tom impulsive kissed her, and they embraced each other. However, she was worried for Tom's sake as he left for his ill-fated date, and her husband unexpectedly returned from his cancelled mountain-climbing trek.

During Tom's date with Ellie after he entered her apartment, he was awkward, jumpy and nervous in her presence. When she asked him to dance and felt his soft girly hands, she insulted him by using his nickname: ("You've got soft hands, almost like a girl's. Oh, is that what they call you, Sister Boy!"). Ashamed, he suicidally reached for a knife in her kitchen drawer, as she cried: "Stop him, he's got a knife! He's crazy!", before he was apprehended by nearby neighbors and the campus police and threatened with expulsion.

Tom's Awkward Date With Ellie

Tom Humiliated When Called 'Sister-Boy'

The next day, Tom's father arrived - boasting of his son's masculine prowess with a woman until he learned the additional facts of the suicide attempt. In the Reynolds' apartment with her husband, Laura explained Tom's motivations to go on a date: "Is there to be no blame, no punishment for the men and boys who taunted him into doing this? What if he had succeeded in killing himself? What then?" Laura blamed her husband for standing by as Tom was humiliated as an outsider: "You wanted to humiliate the boy in the eyes of the school because if he was right, then you had to be wrong. If he could be manly, then you had to question your own definition of manliness." She held her husband responsible for insisting on rigid codes of manliness, while providing a new definition:

"Manliness is not all swagger and swearing and mountain climbing. Manliness is also tenderness and gentleness and consideration."

She explained how she knew what Tom was forced into doing: "Last night, I know what Tom had in mind to do...I knew what he was going to do, and why he was going to do it. He had to prove to you bullies that he was a man and he was going to prove it with Ellie Martin. Well, last night, I know this is a terrible thing to say, but, last night, I wish he had proved it with me." She said she was miserable about Tom's condition - and tried to remedy it: "My heart cried out to this boy in his misery, a misery imposed by my husband. And I wanted to help him as one human being to another, and I failed" - and also she admitted that she was herself "miserably lonely." Bill lambasted her for her 'mothering' instinct: "You were more interested in mothering that boy up there than becoming my wife." She asked him: "Why won't you let me love you?" and without answering, he abruptly left. [Note: It was unstated, but it was possible that Bill had supported Tom's persecution because he himself was really a self-hating, closeted gay.]

In the film's most infamous scene, Laura searched for Tom and found him in the woods near the golf course's 6th tee. To his surprise, she thanked him for the kiss they earlier shared: "That was the nicest kiss I ever had - from anyone." (She was referring to his attempt to kiss her the night before, when she seemed to rebuff him.) She attempted to comfort him, but he wouldn't listen. She extended her hand to him - and offered herself to him for another kiss, to prove that they could both show affection toward each other. She told him, as she held his face in her hands:

"Years from now when you talk about this - and you will - be kind."

Although not shown, it was implied that Tom resorted to an affair with a transgressive Laura to be 'cured' of his sensitive nature, and to help her fulfill her own needs.

The flashback ended, returning to 10 years later in a tacked on epilogue (part of the framing technique). Tom had returned for his school reunion as a happily-married novel writer. The film's main revelation was that Bill and Laura had divorced - she had no choice but to leave him after giving herself to Tom, and had moved out west somewhere: (Laura wrote: "I couldn't go back to Bill after that afternoon with you and pretend that nothing had happened, and my not going back ruined his life"). The Reynolds had broken up as a consequence of Laura's indiscretion. Presumably, Laura had suffered afterwards for her adultery - the breakup of her marriage was the punishment that the repressive censorship code required.

The film ended with a voice-over from Laura in an appreciative letter that she never mailed to Tom, but had enclosed in a box forwarded to Bill. He read it as she stated: "I have just read your book, your novel about your days in school, about us. It is a lovely book, tender and romantic and touching." She implied that what they had done was wrong: "You have romanticized the wrong we did and not looked at it clearly." She ended with a very memorable statement: "About one thing you were correct. The wife did always keep her affection for the boy, somewhere in her heart."

Tom at Chilton School Reunion Before Flashback to 10 Years Earlier

Laura's Manly Husband - Coach Bill Reynolds (Leif Erickson)

Tom Was Bullied and Called "Sister-Boy"

Tom's Embarrassed Father Herb Lee (Edward Andrews)

Laura Overhearing Herb and Bill Calling Tom "Strange"

Bill Reminding Laura To "Stay Out of These Things" and Only Give the Boys "Tea and Sympathy"

Herb to Son Tom: "You're not going to play that part!"

Laura - Conflicted About Trying to Help Tom Beyond Just "Tea and Sympathy"

Tom's Roommate Al Explaining His Room Change and His Concerns About Tom to Laura

Al Teaching Tom to Walk in Music Room

Laura Feeling Separated From Husband Bill

Growing Attraction Between Tom and Mrs. Reynolds Just Before His Date - A Quick Kiss

Laura Questioning Her Husband's Complicity in Tom's Behavioral Issues

Laura Admitting Her Love For Tom: "Last night, I wish he had proved it with me"

Laura's Confession About Being "Miserably lonely" To Her Husband

Laura's Statement to Tom:
"That was the nicest kiss I ever had - from anyone"

Laura's Concern for Tom

The Kiss Between Laura and Tom ("Years from now when you talk about this - and you will - be kind")

Tom - 10 Years Later - Reading Laura's Letter


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