Thursday, October 8, 2015

Audient Auscars: Tom Jones

This is the tenth entry in my 2015 project to clean up as many of my unseen best picture winners as I can, one per month.

I spent much of the first half of Tom Jones aghast that this movie won best picture. I was wondering what kind of terrible year 1963 must have been for the movies.

I spent much of the second half thinking, "Well, it's not Tom Jones' fault that it won best picture. The people who made it were probably just as surprised that it won as I was." I feel pretty certain that the people who made Tom Jones never had anything like the Oscars on their minds.

What Tom Jones has going for it in terms of traditional Oscar credentials is a period piece setting and its status as an adaptation of a work by a major author (Henry Fielding). What it has going against it are many things, most notably a ribald tone and an anachronistic filmmaking style that makes it more resemble an episode of Benny Hill than the staid Merchant-Ivory style that shaped the notion of cinematic period pieces for someone like me, who came of age cinematically in the 1990s.

The poster I've chosen here says all you need to know about how cheeky this movie is -- and I don't just say that because there's a giant lipstick print planted on Tom's cheek. Everything in Tom Jones is broad, much of it very intentionally so. One of the first ways I became familiar with Albert Finney was in his 1980 movie Scrooge, in which he plays the title character. Although I kind of liked that movie as a kid, there was always something garish about it in general, and Finney's performance in particular, that never sat well with me. I now see the roots of that garishness, though I'd say that Finney is hardly the one we should blame for this film's problems.

It's basically the story of an 18th century bastard who is raised among a rich family, falls in love with a rich girl (Susannah York), but can't have her because of his status as a bastard. Ah, if it were only a bit more like Wuthering Heights than that. The girl is of course engaged to a suitor of an equivalent station (David Warner, in his film debut) who has supposed aristocratic virtues, but little in the way of kindness or warmth. The suitor schemes against the bastard and has him sent away, where he encounters numerous adventures on the road to personal redemption and the unveiling of a secret related to his actual parentage.

It all sounds like pretty standard stuff, really, but it plays as anything but. Again bringing in a very modern reference, Tom Jones seems to have more the tone of something like Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story than it does the tone of Howards End. Many if not most of the characters are extreme exaggerations, either overly wicked or overly buffoonish, and sometimes both. Many skirts are chased and much liquor is consumed, and one sequence even involves a sexual seduction executed via slabs of meat eaten at a dinner.

I might have gotten more of the intended sense of fun from this movie if everything didn't look so dreary and grainy. Now granted, I was watching an old version that may have been ripped from a VHS tape for all I know, which was kindly uploaded to the web by a friend of mine and shared to me in her Google Docs. So I was not expecting a pristine copy of the print. But even adjusting for the expected degradation of the image, I could still tell that Tom Jones looked like garbage, especially compared to some of the truly handsome-looking pictures that were honored with Oscars around the same time. At its best it looks like a shoddy version of something made on the BBC; at its worst, far worse than that.

And the filmmaking style of director Tony Richardson is truly puzzling. Richardson made this in between a serious movie, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, and a bit of a bizarre movie, The Loved One. It's not as good as either of those, though it does share a bit of the spirit of the latter. I made that reference to Benny Hill in part because there are, actually, several scenes in which the action plays at double speed to underscore the goofy hijinx of characters running after each other, much like Mr. Hill regularly did on his show. There are also some very fast edits and some very grotesque close-ups of characters, giving the whole production a truly warped sense. I guess the people who like this movie like that about it. I don't, and I didn't.

But I can't say that I hate the movie either, though I was expecting to after 30 minutes. I sort of fell in step with its mood as it went along, but only sort of. I appreciate it as an odd curiosity and something truly different, perhaps something ahead of its time -- to the extent that I appreciate it at all. I suppose I also have to appreciate just how unlikely it was that this movie would even receive positive reviews, let alone be bestowed with a golden statue by a body of voters widely known for being humorless. It very definitely stands as one of the most unusual best picture winners of all time.

One of the strangest things about it, though, is how little it seems to care whether we like its characters or not. Even the characters we're supposed to like are frequently involved in wretched behavior, or are portrayed as dolts. I think we're supposed to like Tom, but he's the one most guilty of skirt chasing in the whole movie, even though his feelings for Susannah York's character are supposed to be pure. No modern movie would have a guy sleep around on his way into the arms of his beloved.

Also: Only after watching for more than an hour did I realize that York played Superman's mother.

Okay, in November, on to something I expect to be a bit more traditional: My Fair Lady.

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