Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Tea and sympathy for a midnight cowboy

MIDNIGHT COWBOY was on television again and I had to go back to it, after not seeing it in decades, and I have been reading about the 1956 TEA AND SYMPATHY in those old "Films and Filming" magazines I got a batch of recently which led to digging out the dvd of that .... both are very 'gay interest' titles and maybe time to re-evaluate them ...
MIDNIGHT COWBOY, 1969 -The streets of New York are mean and dirty and paved with broken dreams in this Oscar-winning (the first X-rated film to win Best Picture Oscar) tale about the friendship between Jon Voight's rather dumb Texan gigolo/hustler and Dustin Hoffman's ratty grifter. The performances are so good you find yourself truly caring about this poor, luckless pair, and the film's late '60s period detail has its own charm too, as we take in that scuzzy New York of the time, and the Warhol crowd (Viva and others are here).
This was a hugely important movie at the time, and we all loved it. I liked the book too, by James Leo Herlihy (author of ALL FALL DOWN), and Schlesinger's film is a good adaptation, if a bit confusing in the flashbacks to what happened in Texas, setting dumb stud Joe Buck on his odyssey to New York where he finds all manner of lowlife as his dreams of becoming a stud to rich ladies is soon in tatters. 
There is that amusing scene with pickup Sylvia Miles in a scene-stealing few moments, as well as Brenda Vaccaro as the rich girl in a fur coat, and preacher John McGiver, and that poor kid in the cinema ..... The ending is suitably affecting as the greyhound bus arrives in Florida. Voight was probably never as good again (though he won the Oscar for COMING HOME in 1977) and of course Ratso is one of Hoffman's defining roles. Waldo Salt's screenplay and Schlesinger's direction are first rate as is the music score by John Barry and that song "Everybody's Talkin'" by Nilsson. It all defines the late Sixties.

TEA AND SYMPATHY probably defines the mid-Fifties too, a successful play by Robert Anderson, filmed by Vincente Minnelli in 1956, with the Kerrs - Deborah and John (no relation) recreating their stage roles, along with Leif Ericson as Kerr's husband and sports coach. 
Tom Lee is a sensitive boy of 17 whose lack of interest in the "manly" pursuits of sports, mountain climbing and girls labels him "sister-boy" at the college he is attending. Head master Bill Reynold's wife Laura sees Tom's suffering at the hands of his school mates (and her husband), and tries to help him find himself.
No wonder the play is not revived these days, it is excruciating to today's sensibilities, and the film never gets screened either - I don't recall it ever playing in Ireland either during my time there - it may have been banned!. I have been planning to return to Minnelli and his musicals and dramas, and have several lined up: THE BELLS ARE RINGING in 1960, KISMET, BRIGADOON and his comedy that I like a lot (purely for the Harrisons, Rex and Kay) 1958's THE RELUCTANT DEUBTANTE and his 1957 DESIGNING WOMAN - so there will be more on these soon - see Minnelli label for THE BANDWAGON  (maybe my favourite musical ever) and others like his 1962 drama TWO WEEKS IN ANOTHER TOWN. Of course his other dramas include SOME CAME RUNNING, HOME FROM THE HILL, that remake of FOUR HORSEMEN OF THE APOCALYPSE and his delightful comedy THE COURTSHIP OF EDDIE'S FATHER, all during his great period of the 1950s and early 60s. We caught up with GOODBYE CHARLIE too a year or so ago, as per preview, again- Minnelli label.
Back to TEA AND SYMPATHY: Vaguely effeminate boy (sensitive features, wavy hair, bouncy walk) with 'unmanly' interests (poetry, classical and folk music) and 'unmanly' accomplishments (sewing, gardening, playing the guitar) is believed to be "not a regular sort of fellow" by his father, his bruiser of a housemaster, and his fellow college students, every single one of whom sport crewcuts, and enjoy mountaineering, swimming, ball games, horsing around, strength contests, boasting about non-existent sexual conquests and smashing their tennis shots.... It is very easy to laugh at this sort of thing,of course, and years on TEA AND SYPMATHY is a laughable antique, its characters being so blatantly contrived to suit the author's ends.

Of course the censorship problems of the time (Homosexuality was a taboo subject in '50s Hollywood) required the film to be bracketed by a new start and end showing that Laura regretted her "sacrifice" of giving herself to Tom to prove that he was normal and not homosexual (gay was hardly the word here). Tom is now married as he revisits his old school, and gets that letter from Laura from her ex-husband .... and we flash back to how it all began, of course a lot of the boys and the coach seem more gay than poor "sister boy" Tom who is happy sewing with the women and listening to music, rather than playing sports and being one of the gang. It is all deliciously quaint now, but Minnelli gives it his usual gloss and makes it look good with good scope compositions and his usual flair for decor. 

Deborah is as one would expect sensitive, stong and understanding as Laura. Edward Andrews is at his most venal as Tom's father (a narrow-minded crude character) who is disappointed in him and has a horror of him "being different" and wants the coach to make a man of him! Perhaps the play (and Minnelli's movie) can be seen as a ruthless portrayal of the "straights" - Tom's father is a really dumb man, and most of the boys and the other women are insensitive types. There's Jacqueline De Wit again (obnoxious Mona Plash in Sirk's critique of small town American society: ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS) horrified at the idea of a boy sewing. 
A problem for me is that John Kerr is just not very interesting as an actor, here he is 25 playing 17, and he is all wrong (he was also wrong in SOUTH PACIFIC) - he often comes across as sullen and obnoxious, no wonder the other guys don't want him around and tease him by calling him "sister boy", he also has an annoying monotone voice. I would rather have seen Joan Fontaine and Anthony Perkins (who replaced the Kerrs on stage) in the roles. Its certainly a fascinating oddity now proving that Tom cannot possibly be gay if he slept with Deborah Kerr, as her adultery (for which she must pay) cures him of worries about his masculinity. On, those Fifties ! 
I suppose the film has historical importance. It provides a good perspective for comparing gaylife now to the mid-1950s - when this movie was made. Of course a generation ago the subject could not be hinted at - here in the TEA AND SYMPATHY era gayness is a problem to be avoided, in the early 60s ADVISE AND CONSENT era only the bad guy was gay or queer and of course in VICTIM the good guy had been gay once, was sorry about it, and hoped he would never do it again .... ADVISE AND CONSENT review at gay interest label, or May 2012 Archive.
The film is representative of people's sentiments then as the success of the play showed - apart from Deborah Kerr and Joan Fontaine playing it in New York, Ingrid Bergman did it in Paris. 


  1. I think TEA AND SYMPATHY is a masterpiece. It has dated, naturally but it is one of the great Cinemascope films with a wonderful performance from Deborah and a fine one from John Kerr. I love it.

  2. Masterpiece is a word you bandy about quite a lot Martin !