4.07.2011

Movie love in the '50s

I'm currently in the middle of a very fun project--working my way chronologically through film history, trying to screen as many of the films I know I should have seen by now, but haven't, as possible (I'm watching at least one new one for every year, 1928-present). At the moment, I'm up to the mid-1950s, a very good place to be if (like me) you go in for what could be called the "'50s Hollywood Aesthetic": widescreen cinematography, rich Technicolor (or any of its knock-offs), big emotion. It was also the apex of the social drama, into which category one of this week's films might be said to fall. Actually, Vincente Minnelli's Tea and Sympathy (1956) might better be classified as a "gay weepie." I'm going to go ahead and call this film a masterpiece: impeccably shot, precisely acted (more on this below), and a study of sexual repression and homophobia so ahead of its time as to be, sadly, still prescient. I'd long known about this film, mainly via The Celluloid Closet (1996, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman), but hadn't ever seen it before (it's only just now getting a DVD release, as part of the Warner Archive project). Now I can safely say that this is a crucial film for understanding modern representations of homosexuality, cinematic or otherwise. It also struck me that not only in its content but also in its style, its sheer glossiness, this had to have been just as much an influence as Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows (1955) on Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven (2002). Just look at that screen grab: was there any other period of film that so aestheticized the very surface of movies as '50s Hollywood did?

Anyway, a word about Deborah Kerr, seen here, who plays Laura Reynolds, the sensitive, sexually frustrated faculty wife who harbors a kind of love, or maternal protectiveness, or even a kind of queer affinity for the sensitive, artistic, closeted undergraduate Tom Lee (John Kerr), called "Sister Boy" by his alpha-male roommates (their conventional masculinity is telegraphed by their always noisily bounding everywhere). Deborah Kerr gives here what detractors might call a parody of a Deborah Kerr performance: broiling with inner rage and desire, yet utterly mannered on the surface. And yes, this was a performance that she had been giving (and continued to give) for much of her career. But perhaps it reaches its apotheosis here, where she finds a perfect balance between a stagy, classically English style of acting (measured pauses, impeccable diction) and a truly beautiful naturalness, especially in little moments--sinking into a chair with a little sigh, for example. The beauty of her performance is central to the beauty of this endlessly fascinating film.

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