Tom Jones – 1963
Wow… I… I don’t know what to say about this one. I am utterly confused as to why this one won Best Picture. On the one hand, it had a few mildly redeeming qualities. The story was cute and it had a couple of funny moments. The costumes and sets were actually quite realistic and believable. But the directing was horrible, the camera work was sadly lacking, the editing was laughable, and the acting was preposterous. Goodness gracious! Where do I begin with this wacky, zany, sex farce comedy?!?
Let’s start with the horrible directing. The director, Tony Richardson, made several choices that made his film appear low-budget and cheesy. For example, the extensive use of the hand-held camera was disorienting. Cheese factor 1: Imagine the scene: A scandalous woman is leaning against a tree, her blouse barely clinging to her shoulders. She is attempting to seduce Tom Jones. The hand-held camera is behind Tom as he approaches the woman, as if we, the viewers, are peeping-toms, trying to get a look over his shoulder at the promiscuous lass. Then it switches to Tom’s perspective, so in effect, the woman is now seducing the camera, or us, the viewers. There was actually a lot of that first-person perspective in the film. During a sword fight, the actor is fighting with the camera, as if he is dueling with the audience.
Cheese factor 2: Another questionable directing choice was the breaking of the fourth wall. The actors would sometimes remove themselves from the story and speak directly to the camera, or the viewers, spouting exposition. I understand that this is done for comedic effect, and it certainly has its place in film-making… but it is a deliberately campy effect. Best Picture winner?
Cheese factor 3: The ridiculous Benny Hill sequence. There was actually a scene in which the volume on the kooky music was turned up and the action on the screen started playing at 4x speed, like at the end of every episode of Benny Hill. Again, this was done deliberately for comedic effect, but it was just so campy that I question how it was able to win the Best Picture award.
Cheese factor 4: Snapshot comedy. There were several scenes in which the varied reactions of characters were shown in snapshots. The longest example is a scene in which two characters are trying to listen to a conversation through a closed door. The director used 8 or 10 still snapshots of the two actors, each of which showed different funny reactions to what they were overhearing. Once more, it was a deliberately campy technique used for comedic effect, and like all the previously mentioned cheese factors, it has its place.
But these things unfortunately have the side-effect of making the film appear to be extremely low-budget and shoddily made. As I was watching the film I kept hearing the director in my head. “Uh… what should this shot look like? Maybe try putting the camera over there. Yeah! That looks pretty groovy!” And one more thing: From a technical standpoint, it looked like many of the outdoors scenes were filmed on an old home video camera. The lighting seemed too dark, and actors were often back-lit, obscuring their features.
Another thing that bothered me was the fault of the editor. Sometimes the dialogue did not seem to match up with the lip movements of the actors. It was like a badly dubbed Kung-Fu flick. Was this also a conscious choice?
Now, all that being said, I guess I cannot blame the actors. They did their jobs and made the movie that the director wanted. But again, the director did not make characters, so much as caricatures. They were all over the top and very one-dimensional. Aaaargh! I have to keep going back to the fact that it was done on purpose, which was fine for a campy movie! But then why did it win Best Picture?
I think that three things more need to be considered. First was the fact that it was the 60’s. Did audiences really love the idea of such a campy comedy? Second, what were the other movies that were nominated for Best Picture? Maybe the pickings were pretty slim. And third, there were a few things about the movie that were actually very well done.
Alright, what was going on in the 1963? The Vietnam War was in full swing. Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary was closed. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. President Kennedy was assassinated and LBJ was sworn in as President. So it was a pretty tumultuous year. One might say that a campy comedy might have been a good way to ease social tensions.
What else was nominated? America, America, Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, and Lilies of the Field. Granted, I have not seen any of these films, though I hear that Lilies of the Field was a very good movie. And you can rarely go wrong with Elizabeth Taylor (Cleopatra) or the star-studded cast of How the West Was Won.
So what about the good things in Tom Jones? I have to admit that the costumes and filming locations were spot-on. They were always very authentic and appropriate. The wigs were perfect. Also, the peasants were appropriately wretched. I’ve seen movies in which the peasantry were all quite attractive under their dirt make-up. In Tom Jones, they were quite realistic. Also, the story itself was cute enough and fun to follow.
Tom, himself, played by Albert Finney, was appropriately cast. The character was supposed to be so attractive that he was irresistible to women. And I must admit, when he turned on his million-dollar smile, he was absolutely adorable. Susannah York played Tom’s true love, Sophie Western. Another few actors who stood out for me were George Devine as Squire Allworthy, (Tom’s adopted father), Joyce Redman as Mrs. Waters/Jenny Jones (Tom’s lover/alleged mother), Edith Evans as Miss Western (Sophie’s crotchety old aunt), Joan Greenwood (Tom’s wealthy lover), and George A. Cooper as Mr. Fitzpatrick (a jealous husband).
OK, one final thing: The food scene. There was a scene that was, I guess, supposed to be funny. Tom and Mrs. Waters are getting ready to have sex. They are sitting across from each other, eating a large meal consisting of bread, lobster, chicken, oysters, and pears. As they eat, again, directly to the camera, using that forced first-person perspective, they are growing more and more aroused, as if the piggish chomping and greasy fingers is some kind of foreplay. But it was actually more disgusting than anything else. I think it was supposed to be funny, but it went on for far too long and my stomach was starting to turn by the end of it, especially when they got to the pears. Mrs. Waters practically stuffed hers through her teeth! Ugh!
I think that this movie’s real problem wasn’t so much that it was a campy comedy, but that it seemed so low budget. In my opinion, it doesn’t in any way measure up to any of the other winners I’ve seen. Even movies like Cimarron and The Greatest Show on Earth, which are widely considered the least deserving Best Picture winners, had production values that were far greater than Tom Jones. Campy comedies are fun to watch, but they can be done better than this. The movie and the techniques used make the movie and its comedy very dated. You watch it, and instantly know it is from the 60’s.
I don’t know. Maybe I just hold a Best Picture winner to a higher standard.