Saturday, October 24, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Tom Jones" (1963)

Scene from Tom Jones
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Tom Jones
Release Date: October 24, 1963
Director: Tony Richardson
Written By: John Osborne (Screenplay), Henry Fielding (Novel)
Starring: Albert Finney, Susannah York, George Devine
Genre: Adventure, Comedy, History
Running Time: 128 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Director
-Best Adapted Screenplay
-Best Original Score

Oscar Nominations: 6
-Best Actor (Albert Finney)
-Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith)
-Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cliento)
-Best Supporting Actress (Edith Evans)
-Best Supporting Actress (Joyce Redman)
-Best Art Direction-Set Direction (Color)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-America, America
-How the West Was Won
-Lilies of the Field

And the winner is...

When people think of Best Pictures from the 1960's, there's a handful that would immediately come to mind. There's West Side Story, The Sound of Music, Midnight Cowboy, and of course Lawrence of Arabia. It is arguably one of the strongest decades for winners in the awards' history. However, there's something very curious about director Tony Richardson's Tom Jones. Not only is it a film that doesn't immediately come to mind, but it's likely to be mistaken for a pop singer of the same name. For a film as eccentric and colorful, it's strange that its ambitions aren't more fondly remembered nor is its fourth wall-breaking action considered cutting edge to modern audiences. While there have been worse, Tom Jones is probably the most baffling Best Picture winner in history.

The film's production history is full of many problems. While these hurdles are often unavoidable, there's a looming sense of dread that followed Tom Jones. For starters, the casting of Hugh Griffith proved to be problematic. He was often drunk on set, often putting the cast and crew in danger, including the dangling of a bar maid upside down out of a window. It caused numerous delays in production. Because he commuted from London, he would often pass out on the road to the set. This meant that crew members had to travel alongside his pathway until they found him. While his condition was often seen as a problem, his life was arguably saved once because of it, as a horse had collapsed on top of him. To say the least, he wasn't pleasant to be around.

Then there was lead star Albert  Finney. Nowadays, Tom Jones is remembered as a farcical drama full of comedy and song. The opening scene is a duplication of silent film in which the titular character as born; his birth being declared through title cards. Yet Finney wasn't so keen on this. He felt that the film wasn't serious enough and demanded that it be changed. As a result, he received temporary producing credits until he settled on a profit participation. Despite his cheery attitude on film, he was considered to be distant and morose while on set. This was mainly because he felt like he was being used. It didn't help that in one accident, Griffith's riding crop came loose and injured Finney to the point of bleeding. In lighter news, it was also the debuts of actors David Warner and Julian Glover, who are auspiciously less bitter about the experience.

The film wasn't an immediate success. In fact, the reviews weren't favorable and had to survive on word of mouth. Thanks to this process, it became a success and ended up in the Top 5 box office for 1963. Despite any conflicts behind the scenes, the film did rather impressively at The Academy Awards, winning four of its 10 nominations. To date, it's the only film to have three nominees in the Best Supporting Actress category. In what should have been a momentous night for Richardson, he was absent from the ceremony and sent people to receive the award. These people were David V. Picker (Best Picture), Edith Evans (Best Director); and composer John Addison's award was accepted by Elmer Bernstein. While not an impressive, ground-breaking year, it was peculiar that so many of the central cast were absent.

This makes sense when you consider that almost everyone involved with the film actually hated it. There was Finney, who was disappointed with the tonal direction. People likely hated Griffith for his reckless behavior. Among the bigger surprises was the film's own director. Richardson once claimed that: "I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. I am not knocking that kind of success – everyone should have it – but whenever someone gushes to me about Tom Jones, I always cringe a little inside." As fate is known to do, it remains his most known movie. If one must have an answer to why Richardson likely disliked the movie, cinematographer Walter Lassally has a theory. He believed that the crew got along just fine during production. It was Richardson in post, editing the film beyond its necessary means. 

This raises the question as to whether Tom Jones is an underrated winner, or just the black sheep. Nowadays, the film is largely forgotten. Whenever it is brought up, it's mostly related to the singer - who actually took his stage name from the film. In another striking note, this was the last film that President John F. Kennedy saw before his assassination, though no opinion survives. For a film as rich with experimental style and energy, it's strange to think that anyone could outright dismiss it, let alone the people who made it. However, it's the case; raising questions as to why it won in the first place. Is Tom Jones the greatest? It's not even the best of the first half of the 1960's. But what it is is a peculiar, dated relic from an arguably weak year for the category. It will baffle before it ever decides to explain how it won.

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