I have been watching all the movies that won the Oscar for Best Picture. Next on my list was the 1963 winner, Tom Jones, directed by Tony Richardson and starring Albert Finney, Susannah York, Diane Cilento and Hugh Griffith.
Tom Jones is a campy period romp following the titular hero as he beds women, flaunts authority, and finds trouble. It's lightweight, bawdy fun.
The competition that year included: America America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won and Lilies of the Field. It's actually a bit of a surprise that Academy voters didn't lean towards Cleopatra, since it's an historical epic, but perhaps the world truly did love Tom Jones in 1963, as the movie poster suggests. The movie is based on the novel by Henry Fielding, written in the 1700s to expose British hypocrisy.
Director Sir Tony Richardson came from a theater background with a famously relaxed attitude towards directing. His cast was populated with Shakespearean-trained actors, and he shot on location for lush visuals. John Addison's clavicord accompaniment both mirrored the style of Handel operas and, occasionally, the frenetic soundtrack to a silent movie comedy.
We first meet Tom Jones as a baby, discovered in the home of a wealthy landowner. A servant woman, Jenny Jones, is turned out of the house for being the mother, and a barber is banished for allegedly being the father. The opening credits run over a shot of the baby boy, who has no idea what his future will bring.
When next we see our hero, he is a grown man. Having been raised by the wealthy landowner as an adopted son, Tom Jones lives a life of privilege, in which he is free to hunt at will and to cavort with a local peasant girl. His existence seems blissful until she becomes pregnant and accusing fingers fall on him. The abrogation increases when he steps forward to protect her against attackers.
But does this deter our hero? No, because he seems to be blessed with the ability to wiggle out of scrapes due to wit and luck. Yet, that does not prevent Tom Jones from eventually crossing the wrong people and being turned out of his happy home. He engages on a one-person road trip, engaging in episodic adventures with women and ruffians, narrowly escaping a thrashing (or worse) on numerous occasions.
The narration throughout the movie is interesting, since it provides commentary on the action, talking about what a hero should and shouldn't do. Sometimes Tom does what a hero should; sometimes, not so much.
Certainly, Albert Finney is winning as the bawdy Tom Jones. It was funny to see him as a young sex symbol, because his later career has consisted of very staid and respectable characters. Legend says Albert Finney felt the lead role wasn't serious enough, and agreed to star only if he got a producing credit; he later traded the credit for profit participation.
This was the only film to have three nominees for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. The award, however, was won by Margaret Rutherford for The V.I.P.s. The film also marked Lynn Redgrave's film debut. She played a minor role as a barkeep at the Upton Inn.
So why did Tom Jones win, even though the historical epic Cleopatra was in play? First of all, Tom Jones takes some liberties with the format, pausing action in order for the narrator to give his commentary, and using deliberately campy techniques, such as speeding up the action during chase scenes. Oscar voters love when films break new ground, occasionally rewarding them with the top award. Period films are also popular amongst Oscar voters. Not to mention, the memory of Lawrence of Arabia lingered, and voters seldom reward the same type of film two years in a row.
Most likely, voters were also ready for a laugh. Don't forget: this was the same year that the United States president, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated. Viewers may have longed to take a vacay from deep thought.
While it is not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Tom Jones is a fun journey, especially if you like lightweight, bawdy period pieces.
The whole world loves Tom Jones!