The Best Picture Project – Tom Jones (1963)

Dir. Tony Richardson

Starring Albert Finney, Hugh Griffith, Susannah York, Edith Evans and David Warner

Screenplay by John Osborne, based on Henry Fielding’s novel of the same name

In the history of the academy awards, Tom Jones as Best Picture winner seems a major anomaly because it might be the most subversive of Best Pictures ever – bearing in mind that subversion and the Academy Awards are relative things.  Nevertheless, given some of its darker and lustier themes, and their presentation in a jaunty, shiny package, it’s still a subversive film, if not as much as it otherwise could have been.

Ostensibly telling the story of a bastard child, adopted by a wealthy, titled landowner who is forced to strike out and achieve his fortune on his own, all whilst searching for love, Tom Jones is everything the Academy loves – and also everything it hates.  It is a costume picture, which the Academy adores, but it is no staid drama about stiff upper lips and what have you.  Instead it’s a ribald, jaunty, costume picture that tickles every film convention it can.  Though the film takes place in the 1700s, the main character regularly breaks the fourth wall, treating the movie camera at times as a camera, even though it had yet to be invented.  Straight ahead narrative story-telling is tossed out, replaced by montage after montage, some told silent, and all with a musical score that propels the action forward.  And, of course, it’s a comedy with a good deal of sex.

Because of its preoccupation with sex, and its decided lack of earnestness, Tom Jones is exactly the sort of film to expect the Academy to turn its nose up at, and perhaps if the film were released twenty years before or ten years after, you could expect it to lose – hell, you could expect it to fail to even be nominated at all.  After all, during the 40s the interest in the Academy was on hard-hitting social films, particularly about the war.  And in the 70s, you had the golden age of The Godfather, where even the fluffier of films like Cabaret, still had Nazis, homosexuality, and abortion.

Luckily, Tom Jones came into being during that period 1950-1968 where the Academy took a serious shine, so much so that even should 1963 not have been a weak year for Best Picture – which it was – you could Tom Jones might have claimed Best Picture.  Assuming, of course, that there was no major musical release, or a gigantic Lean-ish epic, to contend with.

Pleasantly, Tom Jones is a swiftly paced movie that is determined to avoid letting the audience get bored, and at almost all times, it succeeds.  Hardly a moment goes by where there isn’t some excitement propelling the action forward and while with most pictures I would tend to get bored at times and suggest the movie could be improved by removing ten minutes, Tom Jones was not one of them.

In the role of Tom, Albert Finney is a marvel, carrying the film on his back all the way through, but at all times he’s ably aided by Hugh Griffith’s drunken, lusty turn as Squire Western and Susannah York as Sophie Western – to claim there has ever been a more beautiful and charming British actress than Susannah York would be a fool’s errand.  After having seen Ms. York in A Man For All Seasons, my previous entry in this series, where she played the dowdy daughter of Sir Thomas More, her performance here as the beautiful girl next door is a complete revelation.  It’s almost sad that she isn’t more well-known.  In any event, the cast was marvelous and perhaps for one of the first times in this series, I can’t really think of anything major to complain about.

Trivia

Tom Jones was blessed with five acting nominations, one for Albert Finney, one for Hugh Griffith, and one each for Diane Cilento, Edith Evans and Joyce Redman.  In the history of the Academy Awards only 9 total films have ever been blessed with 5 nominations, the most recent before Network, which saw three of its five nominees walk away with the statuette.

Rarer still is the film that put three acting nominees in the same category.  Obviously, here, those three were in the Best Supporting Actress category.  The only other film that comes to mind to achieve the same feat was The Godfather II, which put Robert DeNiro, Michael V. Gazzo and Lee Strassberg into the Supporting Actor race, with DeNiro ultimately triumphing.

For a list of other winners and films seen, click here.

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