In the past several years, LGBT teens have made headlines for being bullied, beaten, and ultimately taking their lives after enduring daily harassment from their classmates. For gay men and women, this isn’t exactly news. That’s why Dan Savage started “It’s Gets Better,” a series of videologs filmed by celebrities, athletes,and people like us – promising the kids that they’ll be alright. To date, there have been 22,000 entries.
But bullying, unfortunately, is by no means a recent phenomenon. Last night, as part of their Vincente Minnelli retrospective, the Brooklyn Academy of Music Cinematek screened Tea and Sympathy, a 1956 melodrama that follows the trail of an “off horse” in a New England prep school populated by “regular fellows.” Protagonist Tom Lee is a sensitive guy. He spends his time listening to records and strumming his guitar – the other boys play football and go mountain climbing. Tom’s only allies are his roommate, Al, and the housemaster’s wife, Lauren, played by Deborah Kerr.
It’s easy to read Tea and Sympathy as a cult classic of the ‘so-bad-it’s-good’ variety. When Tom’s father complains, “I can’t tell my friends he wants to grow up to be a…folk singer,” he delivers it as though a folk singer were no different than a crack fiend. Later, the housemaster reassures Tom’s father: “Don’t worry, they’ll give him a real going over at the pajama party tonight,” which, to a gay audience, plays very differently than intended. Between the soaring orchestrations, bereft close-ups and the camera’s omnipresent focus on the tea set, one can imagine that Todd Haynes partly styled 2002’s Far From Heaven on this film.
Check the trailer (which really glosses over the gay parts)
While some scenes come off as shlocky, others can give gay audiences goose pricks ofrecognition. Tom’s father forces masculinity on him – encouraging him to flirt with the haggard woman at the coffee shop, nearly forcing him to get a crew cut so he’ll fit in the other boys. Tom’s interests, including gardening, sewing and cooking, immediately earn him the nickname “sister boy,” a moniker that sticks like superglue in an all-boysschool. The most poignant scene comes when Tom’s alpha-male roommate tries to coach Tom in the art of manliness. He has Tom walk around the room, and when he attempts to describe his stride, he can only produce a gesture, an unspoken, “You’re light in yourloafers.” Then when Al demonstrates his walk, a hulking stomp, it seems ludicrous –Tom won’t event attempt it.
“It wouldn’t do me any good anyway,” he says. Once you’ve become the class pariah,there’s really no way to shake it. Tom does try to bed the coffee shop girl but the plan goes horribly awry, and in a heartbreaking capitulation Tom casts aside the girl and riflesthrough her kitchen for a sharp knife. Only the intervention of strangers stops him from killing himself.
Many hold that the main character in Tea and Sympathy is not gay at all. The playwright Robert Anderson flatly stated, “It has nothing to do with homosexuality… It’s about a false charge of homosexuality.” While many gay audiences ignore this, the film is no-less poignant if Tom is simply a sensitive, straight teenager. Whether bullying springs from differences in race, class, orientation or anything else, the common denominator is difference. If the trappings have become outdated, the central theme of Tea and Sympathy is as important today as ever: students can be helpless at the hands of their classmates, but it only takes one understanding person to turn their life around.
In celebration of Spirit Day 2011, go be that understanding person. Check out Out.com’s post on how to show your solidarity with LGBT youth, and remember that your help can make all the difference in the world.
The Vincente Minnelli Retrospective at the BAM Cinematek runs through November 2. For information on screenings, tickets and times, visit www.bam.org.