Friday, June 5, 2015

Birthday Take: Tony Richardson in "Tom Jones" (1963)

Left to right: Susannah York and Albert Finney in Tom Jones
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Tony Richardson
Born: June 5, 1928
Died: November 14, 1991 (63 years old)
Nomination: Best Director - Tom Jones (won)

The Take

The further back into the Oscars' Best Picture winners that you go, the more difficult it likely is to see why many of the films won. Where some spectacle manages to withstand the test of time, others look bloated and silly. While it is a testament to the advancement of film, it also begins to make sense why the Oscars can be perceived as sometimes being pretentious. They have a legacy to maintain and sometimes that requires picking films that are substantially more complicated than visually audacious. Sometimes they overlap, but rarely do they work to create a more satisfying final product.

Among the more forgotten Best Picture winners to test this limit is Tom Jones. For starters, it is a film only available on demand pay services - an advantage that all other Best Picture winners have avoided. However, it is a fascinating look into the historical period piece genre as it isn't like its surrounding peers. Where A Man For All Seasons is rooted in familiar dramatic acting and settings, Tom Jones immediately feels like a defiant cry against the model, likely inspired by its subjects raucous behaviors. Albert Finney's Tom Jones is a figure that likes to have fun and thus the format that surrounds his story feels that way. It is also the film that likely tows the line better than any other winner in being style and substance in often unbalanced but curiously ambitious ways.

To get the gist of the direction, Tony Richardson starts the film with Jones' birth via a silent film parody, title cards and all. Eventually the film evolves into its own beast with fourth wall breaking scenes of characters talking directly to the audience. Many scenes are outlined in ways that feel self-aware and the charm of Finney's performance manages to keep all of it afloat. Without Richardson's direction, there's a chance that Tom Jones would be another disposable period piece. Even the touch of a whimsical third act song parlaying Jones' death is an inspired touch that allows the personality to grow. Where films like Around the World in 80 Days may seem embarrassingly dated, this is one of those that immediately makes sense why it won.

Yet the question remains as to why it has been forgotten. Nobody really recalls Tom Jones as a high point in Best Picture winners (not that it was). However, it seems like one that is so playful with the format that the people who heralded Birdman into the top spot this year would definitely have nice things to say about Tom Jones. It is technically an interesting film with a lot of enjoyable elements at play. It may still fall into the trappings of a period piece, but the fall isn't nearly as droll. This could be its biggest reason, as it was a film that existed to take out the pretentiousness of the genre, but was still ahead of its time to a style that would become oversaturated in the decades to come. It was meta and poked fun at itself. It was what the 60's needed to break from its conflicting past and the neurotic commentary of the future. 

So while Tom Jones may at best never be the first thing that you think of when you think of Tom Jones, it still deserves some recognition for being the oddball in a time where spectacle was usually a lot more devastating. It was fun and thanks to Finney, allowed to be somewhat comical. It is the type of Best Picture winner that most people likely try to make where it is prestigious enough to capture the serious crowd, but adventurous enough to reach a populous market. It may not be an exceptional film, but Richardson's direction is hard to ignore because of how ambitious it tries to be. Was it great? No. But it definitely deserves to be more than just a random film forgotten to time.

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