March 19, 2007
Tom Jones: Best Picture, 1963
What an incredibly strange batch got hauled in at the 37th Annual Academy Awards (hosted by Jack Lemmon). Tom Jones was nominated for 10 Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director (Tony Richardson), Best Original Score, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Albert Finney), Best Supporting Actor (Hugh Griffith), Best Art Direction (Color), and 3 for Best Supporting Actress (Diane Cilento, Edith Evans, Joyce Redman). It won the first 4. Ironically, the winners were not present for the first 3 of those 4 awards, and they were accepted by someone else.
As for the rest, Best Actor went to Sidney Poitier for Lilies of the Field, Best Supporting Actor to Melvyn Douglas for Hud, Best Art Direction to Cleopatra (starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton) and Best Supporting Actress to Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s (also starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton). 1963 was one of those years where Oscar didn't pick many movies that people would remember favorably (if at all) . . . an off-year (awful year?) if you will.
Tom Jones is based (heavily or loosely, I do not know) on Henry Fielding's massive 18th century novel of the same title. Clocking in at just over 2 hours, the movie maintains a relentlessly frenetic pace as much for slapstick effect as to cover even just the bare bones of the original plot. Squire Allworthy, a bachelor living with his spinster sister, retires to his bedroom one evening and discovers an illegitimate infant boy occupying his bed. Blame for the child's existence quickly falls on Jenny Jones, a household servant, and she is promptly exiled along with the local barber accused of being the father. Squire Allworthy adopts the baby, dubbing him Tom Jones and raising him as his own (sort of).
Before long, the squire's sister marries and has a son of her own, Blifil, and the two boys grow up together. Tom is a rollicking, lusty lover of fun and sport, while Blifil is a model student and a prim, stuck-up prig. Both men love Sophie Western, but she only cares for Tom . . . this is unfortunate since he can't seem to keep his pants on around a large segment of the local female population. Blifil soon exposes Tom's wicked ways and he is exiled, leaving Blifil the logical choice to marry Sophie and unite the estates and fortunes of Squires Western and Allworthy. Sophie, horrified, runs away with her cousin, Mrs. Fitzpatrick, and half the major characters follow in hot pursuit.
Meanwhile, Tom falls in with all sorts of entertaining people, and starts bed-hopping again. Everyone winds up in London for a long interlude of dancing around social conventions and whatnot. Tom carries on more affairs and gets in more trouble, and finally all sorts of revelations are made just in time for a climactic last-second rescue from the gallows and a happy ending for Tom.
Tom Jones is chaotic and unfocused, and its pacing is a disaster. It has definite flashes of genius, and a good deal of honest hilarity. However, by the time the ending rolls around, it is difficult not to feel that the film has long since worn out its welcome. Far too much screentime is taken up by material that is either boring or irritating.
Albert Finney is fantastic in the title role, charismatic and fun throughout. His performance here is certainly far better than the one that would get him his next acting nomination over 10 years later (as Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express). Finney inhabits and possesses his character completely, and it is difficult not to find at least a little enjoyment whenever he is on screen. Tom Jones is also blessed with some magnificent set pieces, including an enormous, rollicking and elaborately-staged fox hunt featuring some great aerial shots of the action and a rich and magnificent costume ball full of rich and fantastical outfits of all kinds.
The movie further benefits (occasionally) from a style that rarely takes itself seriously, lampooning older movie conventions along the way. Tom Jones opens like a silent film, complete with melodramatic music and title cards, and isn't above frequent slapstick and "Keystone-esque" sped-up chase scenes. Like much of the repertoire of Monty Python (which Tom Jones almost seems to foreshadow from time to time) some of this works extraordinarily well while some is just too silly or outrageous to elicit more than a groan . . . and it is often not clear why some things work and others don't.
Ultimately, though, it's all just too much. Tom Jones drags too often, and in all the wrong places. Perhaps if an additional half-hour of subplots had been shaved off, or if the characters weren't so constantly interacting at a fever pitch, it would be an easier movie to watch and enjoy. There are certainly plenty of glimmers of a much better movie showing through beneath its exhausting and campy tone.
I've only seen three of the movies involved in the 1963 awards (besides Tom Jones), but it seems to have been something of a year of "ultimates," particularly in terms of ensemble casting. The three I've seen are The Sword in the Stone, It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, and The Great Escape. And I've seen a handful of others that weren't noticed: Hitchcock's campy The Birds, Peter Sellers' hilarious The Pink Panther, and Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant's magnificent pairing in the comedy/romance/thriller Charade.
It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World may not be the funniest comedy you've ever seen, but at 192 minutes, it's probably the longest. And it probably has the most epic all-star and comedic cast you're ever likely to find on a single screen: Spencer Tracy, Milton Berle, Sid Caesar, Ethel Merman, Mickey Rooney, Phil Silvers, Jonathan Winters, Jim Backus, Andy Devine, Peter Falk, Buster Keaton, Don Knotts, Carl Reiner, Jimmy Durante, Jack Benny, Jerry Lewis, and the Three Stooges. I remember watching the final climactic scene (a masterpiece of juvenile slapstick) over and over and over again when I was younger. Mad World was nominated for 6 Oscars and won 1 (Best Sound Effects, now Best Sound Editing). It lost Best Original Score to Tom Jones.
Then there's The Great Escape, the ultimate prison camp movie. Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, et al came together for a fantastic film with lasting appeal . . . and Oscar missed the boat altogether. The Great Escape was nominated only for Best Editing and lost to another ultimate: How the West Was Won. That film was nominated for 8 awards, including Best Picture, and won 3. It featured performances from Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, Jimmy Stewart, John Wayne, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach, Richard Widmark, Agnes Moorehead, and Spencer Tracy (as the narrator). And, of course, there's the infamous Cleopatra, widely considered to be one of the most ostentatious failures in movie history. However, it still racked up 9 nominations (including Best Picture) and 4 wins.
Selecting from an admittedly limited pool, my pick for best of 1963 would fall on either The Great Escape or Charade.Posted by Jared at March 19, 2007 11:16 AM | TrackBack