Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Smyp* (for Symp*)

Deborah Kerr and John Kerr homonymically co-star in the 1956 movie Tea and Sympathy, based on a stage play by Robert Anderson. (Homonyms are, strictly speaking, "one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings"; technically, the two Kerrs are homographs.) Deborah Kerr (like the automobile) and John Kerr (like the mongrel dog) play Laura Reynolds, the wife of a macho-seeming house master, and Tom Lee, the insecure prep school student she takes under her wing. Laura and Tom do not always look or sound like the other people around them—Tom in particular is taunted by his classmates for being a "sister boy." His perceived lack of sexual and athletic prowess is seen as symptomatic of a strange otherness. In one pivotal scene (though these words are not actually used), Tom is clearly shown to be a bit "light in the loafers," as they used to say. Laura is drawn to the boy, who reminds her of her first husband, an equally sensitive soul who died trying to prove his masculinity. She proffers the tormented Tom "tea and sympathy," which at times seems to spill over into something more. Some critics have deemed this film a cop-out for suggesting that Tom is truly heterosexual, but in a sense it's rather timely given the current focus on bullying and the fact that young people, especially males, are often targeted for "acting gay," whether they really are or not. Nevertheless, the censors fought this film every step of the way. Have some sympathy for today's typo, which was found five times in OhioLINK and 70 times in WorldCat. All five of the former, it should be noted, are for forms of the word symphony, a carefully composed piece of beautiful music, something which Laura and Tom manage to make together by the film's end.

(First edition cover of Tea and Sympathy, from Wikipedia.)

Carol Reid

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