Reeling Backward: Tom Jones (1963)
The Best Picture Oscar winner is an enjoyable, surprisingly bawdy and self-referential caper starring Albert Finney as a spoiled, incorrigible scamp.
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When I saw “Big Fish” — probably the only Tim Burton film of the last two decades I unabashedly love — I wondered at the casting of Ewan McGregor and Albert Finney to play the same character at different stages in life, as they didn’t much look or sound like each other.
After finally catching up with “Tom Jones,” the breakout role for Finney that won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1963, I wondered at my wonderment. Young Finney looks so much like a similarly aged McGregor they could pass for brothers.
The film is a thoroughly enjoyable caper, with Finney’s titular character traipsing through a series of lively, bawdy adventures as a young man seeking his fortune in 1700s England, bedding a small army of women and cheesing off an even larger contingent of men.
This column is part of my admittedly sporadic project to watch and write about all the Best Picture Oscar winners I haven’t seen. “Tom Jones” is the most recent of the bunch, and the eight remaining are mostly clustered in the pre-1945 years.
(I’d add something about being more diligent about not letting so long a lapse go between these essays, except I think I wrote the exactly the same thing the last couple times — a span of something like three years.)
Let’s get the primary and most obvious question out of the way: given the distance of many years, is “Tom Jones” still a worthy winner of the most coveted Academy Award? Or is it fated to join films like “Around the World in 80 Days” and “The Greatest Show on Earth” as a contender for the unfortunate title of Worst Best Picture?
The film was pretty universally beloved in its heyday 60 years ago, both a commercial and critical hit. I’d have to say, though, that I think it resides toward the lower end of the list of Best Pics.
The film has a certain looseness to it, at once modern but also unpolished and raw. The production was rather haphazard, constantly flirting with disaster, and director Tony Richardson wrote in his autobiography that he felt the movie “to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution.”
He spent a lot of time re-cutting the film and admitted to cringing inside when people praised it — even though he won two Oscars for it as a producer and director.
Its competition for Best Picture was “Lilies of the Field,” “How the West Was Won,” “America America” and “Cleopatra.” Not exactly a banner year. (I’d have taken “Lilies.”)
The plain truth is that, seen today, the movie feels rather light and inconsequential. I’m a big champion of comedies deserving more recognition from the Academy, but there’s little thematic weight or human insight to “Tom Jones.” It’s less of a cohesive narrative than a set of loosely joined adventures, something more like Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
The screenplay by John Osborne, adapted from the 1749 novel by Henry Fielding, “The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling,” also won an Academy Award, as did John Addison’s musical score. It garnered six additional nominations, including Best Actor for Finney, Supporting Actor for Hugh Griffith and art direction.
In what must represent some sort of record (though I’ve not been able to verify), three out of five of that year’s Best Supporting Actress nominees came from “Tom Jones:” Joyce Redman, Diane Cilento and Edith Evans.
Not to denigrate a quintet of fine thespians, but I’m not sure if any of them really deserved their nominations. Finney is a charming rake, but the character is wafer-thin, more a collection of impulses and instincts than a well-drawn figure. Tom Jones is not very interesting in of himself; it’s more what’s happening all around him that drives the plot.
Griffith and the ladies are each gifted with exactly one trait for their characters, which they play up for maximum comedic effect. Though I might be persuaded to reconsider Evans, playing a high-society snob who alone seems capable of observing, acting upon those observations and even changing her opinion.
The story: Squire Allworthy (George Devine), a well-to-do country nobleman, returns home to find a baby boy in his bed. A maid, Jenny Jones, and barber, Partridge (Jack MacGowran), are accused of bearing the child out of wedlock and banished. But Allworthy, unmarried and childless, names the tyke Tom and decides to raise him as his adopted son.
Flash nearly 20 years into the future, and Tom has grown to be a carefree and exceedingly handsome lad who enjoys the fruits of his station without any of the responsibilities. He adores his next-door neighbor — meaning they reside on adjoining estates — Sophie Western (Susannah York), a smart and lively girl.
But her father (Griffith), a proudly bumpkin-ish squire who lives for his drink and hunting dogs, intends to marry Sophie to Blifil (David Warner), Allworthy’s mirthless nephew and heir. Through a series of machinations by Blifil and his toadies, Tom is sent packing with little more than the clothes on his back, and Sophie takes to the road as well in pursuit of him.
The ironic thing is, even though Tom continually finds himself the victim of dirty scheming and unlucky misunderstandings, the awful things people say about him are largely true. Although good-natured, he is callow and full of bluster. He claims to love Sophie, but is incapable of resisting the charms of other ladies — who seemingly prostrate themselves along every step of his journey.
Tom is apparently so handsome, women from highborn to low are just dying to seduce him, and he’s more than happy to go along. It was pretty unusual in 1963 for a movie to talk so openly about male beauty, and to depict females as being just as gullible when presented with a pretty face as were men.
Certainly Richardson shoots Finney to look incredibly dashing, his rugged face set off by an impressively buoyant mop of hair that hangs over his forehead just so. I should note that, in the grand movie tradition of mature actors playing youngsters, Finney was closer to 30 than Tom’s stated late teens.
Cilento plays Molly, a local commoner who makes her bed with Tom in whatever woods they find themselves. She soon gets with child, which the squires and locals seem willing to forgive (him, not her), but their continued dalliances help earn him his punishment.
Evans plays Miss Western, Sophie’s aunt from London, who is continually mortified by her brother’s backward ways and tries to act as matchmaker between Sophie and Blifil. At one point Tom’s chief accuser, she gradually comes to see that he’s simply full of passion and youthful lack of restraint.
In his journeys Tom rescues a Mrs. Waters, an older trollop who rewards his protection with her intimate favors. She is later revealed to be Jenny Jones, the woman said to have borne him, which produces a very funny smirking glance straight to the camera. I’d be curious to see what sort of reaction that got in the day, if Oedipal incest could play for laughs in 1963.
Finney also has several asides where Tom acknowledges the audience, such as using his hat to cover the camera when he’s about to enter yet another assignation with a lady. The narrator (Micheál Mac Liammóir) is similarly self-aware, making quips and comments upon the act of storytelling, such as the need to turn away from a scene before it gets to the actual sex.
Even with the remove of the self-referential joking, “Tom Jones” is quite bawdy and daring for its time. It’s made quite clear that there is a lot of extramarital sex going on, including the suggestion of incest. Women are portrayed as either virginal figures or foul temptresses, and the men are either pigs or prigs.
“Of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged,” is how the narrator describes Tom Jones — not a bad person per se, but incapable of controlling his youthful, lusty nature. I’m not sure if there’s an astounding revelation in that bit of information, certainly not enough to warrant a Best Picture prize.