Tea and Sympathy. 17-January-2015. 2:30 pm

Vincente Minnelli

Deborah Kerr, John Kerr

Vincente Minnelli (1903-1986) is best known for his musicals, including Meet Me in Saint Louis (1944) , The Band Wagon (1953), and An American in Paris (1951). Among the almost forty films he directed, one should be considered a gay classic: Tea and Sympathy (1956).  In the censorship years in the USA, from the late 1930s to the late 1960s, north-American films trying to elude the Hayes code had a number of options if they wanted to portray gayness: metaphor, subterfuge, side-characters, homophobic fronts, or, like the film Tea and Sympathy, absurd heteronormative endings concocted to appease right-thinking viewers. For queer and queer-friendly audiences, the sting of compromise was always preferable to invisibility. Tea and Sympathy is a prime example of the twists and turns that allowed gays and bisexuals to survive under a regime of Compulsory Heterosexuality.

Of course, queers invented parallel secret codes to match the norms – in British cities in the 1950s, gays invented a new slang language, the Polari; in the USA in the 1970s, deviants came up with the ‘backpocket hankerchief code’; in early 1800s Yorkshire, posh lezz Anne Lister went around asking people if they liked ‘the second Eclogue’ by the writer Virgil to find out if they were bent; in 1920s Berlin, gay men wore Kohl eyeliner; the famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen’, two Irish women who eloped to Whales in 1778 to live together, chose a quote from Sappho for their tombstone… and so on… We came up with ways of finding each other, and ways to make sure that our existence was registered… somewhere, by someone.

One of the easiest ways for people to express and read sexual non-conformism has been our gender presentation. As Tea and Sympathy shows, when one’s gender is out of sorts, this is always read as queer.  Not just by homofriends, but also by homophobes. A masculine woman or an effeminate man are not necessarily gay, of course – but escaping from conventional gender is also escaping from the very different expectations associated with frills or dungarees…  so ‘out-of-sinc’ gender has been adopted by many queers. The protagonist of this film, Tom, is under pressure to become a ‘real’ man: tough, grunting, bossy… But what he craves is glamour and emotion. He dreams of a quiet self-confidence which wont depend on making everyone smaller and weaker around him. Enter Mrs. Reynolds, a woman on the verge of Tom’s life, who will turn out to be the perfect teacher for him. She will be a bridge to the Feminine, to knowledge that would be otherwise inaccessible to him. And it is fascinating to see how the film itself mimics Tom’s infatuation with all things girly –- the images seem to float in a languid warmth. Is this an example of a gay sensibility in cinema? Of a rebellious, unconventional way of seeing?

Vincente Minnelli began his career in the theatre, working as a costume designer, and the joy in dressing up and the love of those sculpturally elegant dresses of the 1950s  are important in our film. Minnelli’s musical knowledge also spilled over to other areas, as you can see in the fine orchestration of movements in the film.  He was also a master in the use of colour, and, as the film critic and Minnelli biographer Emmanuel Levy pointed out, Tea and Sympathy is coded in various shades of blue which signal various degrees of (stereotypical) masculinity. Watch out for how the colours change in the film. The perfect example of an invisible code, made for those who need to see it.

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