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Ten Reasons to Remember Tom Jones, a Foundling

Andrew here to celebrate an anniversary. Fifty years ago tomorrow, Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones won the 1963 Best Picture Oscar at the 36th Academy Awards. Up until a few weeks ago it was one of my most glaring cinematic blindspots from that era.

A cursory glance over the Best Picture winners of the 60s (ha, who am I kidding? I know the list by heart) reveals that by my faulty empirical research Tom Jones is easily the least discussed Picture winner from that decade today. Even Oliver, arguably the decade's least respected winner, seems more oft considered and it’s a curious thing because even ignoring the actual quality of Tom Jones it’s not business as usual as far as Oscar winners go. And, usually, we like to talk about when AMPAS throws us a curveball with its winners, for better or for worse.

Certainly, from an outsider's perspective it doesn't seem to be much of a curveball. What's the fuss about another period-piece turned Oscar winner? Although period films are lucky with awards they don't tend to be well remembered, or loved, on the internet. I could imagine what Tom Jones seems to represent to someone on the outisde looking in, another stuffy British drama Oscar bait film. (Something's that plagued Merchant Ivory films two decades after their heyday, but that's another story.) But, Tom Jones in all its unusualness has much to savour and enjoy, fifty years after its release.  

Here are ten reasons to give it another or your first look...

10. Significant Best Picture Winner
Everyone who reads The Film Experience loves some good Oscar trivia. And Tom Jones has Best Picture related trivia to go around. It belongs to a number of elusive clubs re Picture winners. It’s one of only a dozen films financed exclusively outside of the United States to win the Prize. It's also one of the handful of purely comedic films to win the Prize. There would be some quibbling as to whether it's the most objectively funny but it certainly the most aggressively comedic Best Picture.  Even the dramatic arcs are just comedic punch lines in hiding. It also rests with Shakespeare in Love as the only of two British period comedies to win Best Picture at the Oscars. Less positive, it's one of the very few Best Picture winners not nominated for editing, an unusual omission considering how heavily comedy depends on editing to land correctly.

9. Ambition and a Turning Point in British Films
Before Tom Jones, Richardson and his English contemporaries had concerned themselves with kitchen-sink dramas. Richardson's own Look Back in Anger and A Taste of Honey are two of the best ones. Tom Jones was not an angry young man of the era, although it's amusing how Richardson does present him as something of the sort. With its ambitiously zany stride Tom Jones, is rooted in escapism, signalling a move towards more light-hearted movies. Richardson places himself among his contemporary new-wave directors with the experimental way he shoots this period piece (more on that below).

But, apart from its place in its era, Tom Jones (and its hero Tom Jones) does much that’s unusual for cinema then and even for cinema now. Finney’s Tom prances about on-screen with significant devilish glances at the camera, distinctly aware that he’s in a film. The breaks in the fourth-wall (incidentally, like fellow comedic Best Picture winner Annie Hall), the droll overhead narration, the silent-film prologue, Tom Jones is a creature of its era yes but it's also a sign of a director firmly stretching his inventive talents. 


8. Supporting Actress Trivia

For a very long time Tom Jones was a footnote in my Oscar pedantry due to its record-making actor trivia. In addition to being the film with the most acting nominations (five, tied with All About Eve, Peyton Place, and Network and five others) it’s the only film to ever earn three nominations for Supporting Actress - 60% of the whole category -- though none of them won. Oscar fanatics will remember that the only films to do the equivalent are On the Waterfront, The Godfather and The Godfather II which each earned three Supporting Actor nominations.  

Sure it’s called Tom Jones (and also earned a supporting actor nod for Hugh Griffiths zany, supporting comedic turn) but Tom spends the film surrounded by women. If you go into the film knowing no names you would have a hard time guessing which three women came out with nominations. 1963 must have been such an unusual year for supporting actresses but even then the choice of nominees is fascinating. Susannah York as Tom’s intended and the female with arguably the largest role is not one of the nominated women. Neither is Joan Greenwood as a promiscuous, older noblewoman with whom Tom has a sexual liaison (Greenwood was, curiously, Golden Globe nominated). No, the three nominated women are Edith Evans serving Maggie Smith realness before it was a thing as Susannah York’s spinster aunt; Diane Cilento as the young “slut” (a word used with and for curious comedic  effect throughout) in a slight role as a Sophia Loren-esque temptress and Joyce Redman playing a woman Tom saves from a Redcoat officer. Redman is easily the finest of the three but it’s a curious thing how slight, if hilarious, each of the three performances seem. As much as AMPAS liked Tom Jones, it didn’t get key nominations you’d expect (no nod for its costumes, editing, or its cinematography) making the triple nominations that much more curious. It’d be interesting to see how they’d be ranked in a Smackdown. (hint, hint)

7. Success with satire
Oftentimes it seems the only way to successfully do satire is with a strident dark tones. Nashville is one of the finest cinematic satires, Election and Fight Club are two very good ones. All of them are funny but never 'light'. Tom Jones is satirical and humorous and incredibly lithe and light, too. Tom Jones is one of the funniest films of the 1960s.

6. That sensual supper scene
A cursory glance over modern reviews of Tom Jones reveals a slight reluctance to give credit where its due to the film, the notion of the film’s bawdiness being potentially envelope-pushing today in its day but quaint today is echoed by a number of writers. But even as contemporary audiences would not find the same things surprising in Richardson’s adaptation, even time capsules have their merits. And it's not just a time capsule, either. Older films tend to need specific iconic scenes to serve as their beacon to future generations. In Tom Jones that's the feast from the second half of the film. Meal time has rarely been as sensual and I’d want to imagine that any pornographic film which uses food as the main aphrodisiac owes something to Tom Jones. Tom and Mrs Water dig into their meal with significant gusto making the moment delightfully comic while being distinctly seductive. The image of Joyce fellating chicken bone is worth it.


And,  yes, the scene does (err) climax in a passionate embrace.

5. That musical score
If it were just for the opening scene – a five minute short film – I’d already be roundly impressed with John Addison’s score. Addison had previously worked with Richardson on Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey and The Entertainer. His work on Tom Jones is particularly exemplary. Music is a key element in telegraphing farcical elements to the audience and Addison’s sly and spry tones are as significant as the winking cinematography in pointing out the humour amidst the tale. Speaking of which….

4. Its fidelity to Fielding's prose while remaining fresh

English playwright John Osborne (most famous for the excellent “Look Back in Anger” and its three adaptations) deserves much credit for his work on the screenplay. Henry Fielding, one of my favourite English writers, is an especially loquacious one and the source material for Tom Jones is about a 1000 pages long. You wouldn’t know it from this spry adaptation. Of course, there’s the caveat that the version of Tom Jones we’re presented with today is altered from its original version with some twenty minutes missing. Still, short as it is Osborne manages to condense the novel’s machinations while still retaining the tone of Fielding’s text. So many speak of Tom Jones as a "surprisingly" irreverent take on a stuffy English text but any bookish savant would know that Fielding was one of the first rebels of English prose. His works were considered much too sensational for his audience both for his satire and the sexual promiscuity within the texts. In adapting novels to film I often wish writers would strive for fidelity of tone more and less for fidelity of text. Adaptating Tom Jones into a 20 hour series would be of no use if the tone is lost and it’s Osborne’s screenplay keeps it intact. From there it’s up to Richardson and company.  

3. Walter Lassally cinematography
2. Richardson’s savvy direction
Usually when one speaks of films subverting our expectations it’s the narrative of the film being considered. Tom Jones would have been subverting notions of the British period film in the sixties and although I suspect some might see its more salacious inclinations as potentially quaint now they’re still unusual for the gusto with which they’re attacked. But even as the narrative subverts typical constraints of its era, Tom Jones is all the more impressive for the way its technical aspects are supporting the subversion too.

Tom Jones does not LOOK as you’d expect a film from this era or about such things to look, even if it’s a comedy. Richardson's direction is a credit to the film’s New Wave roots where it’s carrying itself atypically but even today key aspects of what Richardson is doing with direction and especially Lasally is doing with his camera are surprising and impressive. Just as with the editing, Tom Jones was not nominated for its cinematography even though it's the best technical aspect of the film. Key among the photography and editing is an exhilarating fox-hunt which is shot with a shaky-cam that is usually used to reveal a heated war scene or some such battle. Narrative-wise the moment is incidental, but a quarter way into the film it reiterates the point that this not a tale of genteelness but the raw, if hilarious, underbelly of the upperclass. Frame after frame Tom Jones is sumptuous to behold and excellently directed. 

1. Albert Finney
All the goodness mentioned till now would be for naught if the actor embodying Tom Jones did not work. The best thing about watching older films is considering where they may have seeped into current film and there are aspects of Tom Jones subtly found in some aspects of today’s ribald comedies: the promiscuous, but loveable male lead and his quest for the virtuous woman’s hand. It’s a….problematic conceit but one which Fielding’s source and Richardson’s film both manage to get away with. Finney’s charm is invaluable here. It’s a gem of a performance and of the 1963 nominees I've seen, my favourite. Finney is acutely aware of the satire that he’s in and plays it as such. For  all the exasperating vacuousness he elicits Tom’s sincerity and that's paramount.


Also, he’s easy on the eyes.

If my shoddy research is accurate Tom Jones sits alongside Patton, Chariots of Fire and Gandhi as the least discussed post 1959 Oscar Best Picture, so I’m assuming many of you have not seen it. If not, now’s as good a time as any to seek it out.

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Reader Comments (28)

Love this movie! So happy to see some long overdue appreciation for it. Redman is definitely the best of the three ladies and I too recommend 1963 for an upcoming smackdown.

I wanted to point out that The Godfather and The Godfather Part II also received 3 Supporting Actor nominations in their respective years. Those two plus On the Waterfront and Tom Jones are the only such instances. Would be cool to see that happen again.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick T

There is also a 97 remake for the BBC (mini-series) with Samantha Morton, Kathy Burke (BAFTA winner Best Actress) and Max Beesley (who looks a lot like Finney in these pics) that is pretty good although not nearly on the same scale. I believe it was one of the reasons Morton was cast in Sweet and Lowdown.

Growing up, this was considered a "scandalous" movie in my house and a symbol of the decline of morals in entertainment.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Patrick T is right-both Godfathers received three acting Oscar nominations, and Mutiny on the Bounty received three Best Actor nominations. Tom Jones is, of course, the only film to do it with three women (I wonder if there were any other films that came close-Nashville maybe?)

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

Also, that last photo of Finney...weak in the knees.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJohn T

"In addition to being the film with the most acting nominations (five, tied with All About Eve, Peyton Place, and Chicago"

plus Mrs Miniver, From Here To Eternity, Bonnie & Clyde, Network and The Godfather Part 2

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

and minus Chicago, which had four

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterpar

How is it even possible to give ten reasons to remember Tom Jones without mentioning that a drunken Hugh Griffith accidentally created the greatest and most unforgettable rider and horse moment ever put on film?
Probably not only any pornographic film which uses food as the main aphrodisiac owes something to Tom Jones. The chess game in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) looks as if it was inspired by the supper scene, at the very least it seems to be a somewhat more "sophisticated" variation of its theme.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Ewan McGregor was very well-cast as a young Albert Finney in Big Fish.

I've wanted to see this for a long time. It hasn't been all that widely available, though I see Amazon has it to rent. My parents were fans of this movie.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Chicago only had four acting nominations, and The Godfather Part II also had 3 supporting actor nominations. Please check your facts before posting!

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I'll never forget how the book "Alternate Oscars" refused to designate a Best Picture winner for 1963. He didn't pick ANYTHING.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJason

TFE readers really DO love their Oscar trivia.

Suzanne: Indeed, Ewan McGregor was perfectly cast as young Albert Finney. BIG FISH gets such a bad rep.

Henry: Is the miniseries worth watching? Richardson's vision seems like it would be difficult to equal. (Even if he was, apparently, dissatisfied with the finished product.)

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew K.

Albert Finney was never young. He was a fully formed adult. The images of him as a younger man are startling. He's walking sex unlike the adorable and on his way to ruin young George Hamilton—who you know never lifted a finger during sex.

I think Best Picture winners popular or unpopular aren't discussed more—people associate the Oscars with the actors. Who has won, who has never won or been nominated, and the people who "robed" worthier nominees in the categories. If you want to discuss the merits of movies seriously never use awards bodies as a guide.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenter3rtful

I'll be one of the few dissenting voices to say I LOATHE almost every minute of this film. The slap-happy tone irritated me to no end, and I'd have to rank it among the worst films every to win Best Picture. Perhaps I need to revisit it in light of all the love people are giving it.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJordan

Andrew K. The mini-series is very worth while viewing for the acting. Very sound perfs across the board and true to the source material. There are a lot of now familiar faces in the cast which is always fun. I'm surprised Beesley doesn't have a bigger career.

Costumes aside, the production values are budget, mini-series without looking like cardboard sets.

Its been years since I saw the 63 so can't really compare the two in terms of script. Obviously the mini is much longer so more material.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

Not only have I never seen TOM JONES, I'm not sure I've read much about it either. This post convinced me to get it on my queue. Thanks!

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

We didn't read the book, but we were shown this in High School English back in the 80's (yes, I'm on of the Olds on this site.) It was very raunchy and funny for high school Seniors. Today's schools would never show such a film "obsessed with breasts".

The above-mentioned dinner scene is the only part I remember of it though, and was one of the first times I saw food related to sex. Naughty Naughty!!!

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Jordan, I'm not a fan of the movie either. The sound is sloppy and the visuals are almost muddy. (And, no, there is nothing wrong with my TV or sound system.) I didn't laugh at all, yet it is supposed to be a comedy.
That said, Albert Finney is great in it, and the dinner scene was pretty clever and effective, if a tad too long.
I am in the midst of watching all the best pictures, but I am fairly confident that Tom Jones will be in my bottom 10, if not 5.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercash

I have seen every Oscar winning movie, and I would easily rank this in the bottom five.
Only the hunting scene holds up well today.
It beats Cavalcade, Cimarron, Broadway Melody and Gentleman's Agreement, but not many more...

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEkollstr

Ekollstr: If it can beat at least 4, that's not "easily rank this in the bottom 5", that's "easily bottom 10, maybe bottom 5."

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

@volvagia: Or he can mean its easily in the bottom five - as in #5 is handily worse than #6.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

I'm loving the relative divisiveness of the film. Honestly, I'm not sure it would even place it in the bottom five of the 1960s (I rank My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, A Man for All Seasons and Oliver below it without hesitation and only rank Lawrence of Arabia and The Apartment definitively higher)

1963 was such a fascinating year, AMPAS wise. Cleopatra being such an utter fiasco threw a monkey wrench in the proceedings. For the second year in a row, only two films scored directing and picture nominations (1964/65 would see a ridiculously congruent line-up between director, adapted screenplay and picture; even all five leading men came from best picture nominees). Lots of individual achievements that fascinate and excite but at the same time, you sorta get why Danny Peary in Alternate Oscars elected to give no film his alternate best picture.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

I love this film, it was a mainstay for Saturday or Sunday afternoons. It is a comic delight, and Albert Finney was a sensation. Other people can discuss awards, or try to pin an arbitrary low rating on it, but anything that makes me laugh and still gives such pleasure is worth a gteat deal.
Thank you for an excellent article which might introduce this gem to others.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Albert Finney is HOT HOT HOT in this movie!

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

When I saw Tom Jones in a repertory theatre, all the color had faded to a muddy pink brown. I'm sure that's not the way it was originally. Albert Finney is so wonderfully young, and I loved Hugh Griffith (one of my favorites) and the wonderfully weasle-y David Warner. I'd read the book and liked it.

My older relatives tell me this was considered a "dirty" movie when it came out, and people refused to see it. Those who did see it bragged about how sexually liberated they were. The academy chose it as a "daring" choice, which became laughable after some years had passed. Maybe that's why it's not talked about so much, it seems silly in retrospect to have considered it to be daring.

My favorite Albert Finney movie is Two For The Road.

April 12, 2014 | Unregistered Commenteradri

The style and tone of this film certainly aren't for everyone. (Nothing is.) But the obviously grim and overly serious attitude Jordan, cash and Ekollstr approached something as relaxed and satirical as Tom Jones with makes them the Blifils of this post, and the rest of us should be grateful to them for unintentionally providing us with even more fun here.
The most hilarious comment however came from Arkaan of course who called Cleopatra - the hightest grossing film of 1963 and now a semi-classic that's enjoying at least some kind of critical reevaluation - an "utter fiasco". All things are relative: even back then Cleopatra was still going relatively strong during awards season with 9 Oscar nominations and ultimately 4 wins. Of course it was partially seen as a big disappointment, but calling it an "utter fiasco" seems to be as out of proportion as the film's budget although it does fit in with the hysteria Taylor and Burton ignited in the 60s. But Arkaan, that was 50 years ago.
By the way, cinematographer Walter Lassally may have been robbed of an Oscar nomination here, but he would get the award next year for Zorba The Greek. So maybe Tom Jones at least had helped him win.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterWilly

Heh - I don't hate Cleopatra and calling the film itself an utter fiasco is probably too far. But the production, the EVENT of Cleopatra practically invented the word.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterArkaan

This is my third favorite Best Picture winner of the 60s, behind SOM and Midnight Cowboy. Rarely has pure joy been seen like this on screen. And any movie that lifted Mr. Finney's star to the heavens merits high status in cinema history. And that dinner scene. I still get a woody every time I pass the rotisserie chickens at Whole Foods.

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

........I still get a woody every time I pass the rotisserie chickens at Whole Foods......

Is there a web site?

April 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterHenry

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