During the early 1960s American began emerging from its stiff 1950s homogeneous façade into a counterculture unafraid to let it all hang out. I suggest to you that these seeds had perhaps always been there under the surface (“nothing new under the sun”) but were deeply buried beneath values motivated by keeping up appearances. As the “image first” walls were being torn down these seeds were getting a chance to grow into things like San Francisco’s Summer of Love and upstate New York’s Woodstock festival. This kind of attitude was beginning to bleed into mainstream cinema. As seen in best picture winners like The Apartment and West Side Story. Dropping the 1950s Ozzie and Harriet fantasy will put movies on a collision course with what will become the movie ratings system we know today.
You see, as of 1963 there were no movie ratings. Everything had to pass the Motion Picture Production Code which governed what kind of content was acceptable and what was unacceptable for movies produced for public audiences. If you didn’t pass the code the Motion Picture Association of America wouldn’t distribute your film.
Before the end of this decade (said in JFK voice) there will be a motion picture rating system. But for now the 1963 best picture winner continues to push the envelope of what the Production Code would allow and it gets away with it through its tongue in cheek humor.
Not only is Tom Jones the only flat out comedy to ever win the Oscar for best picture but a man named Thomas John Woodward appropriated the name for his singing career recording the hits “It’s Not Unusual”, “What’s New Pussycat”, “Delilah”, and “She’s a Lady.” Yup. That’s right. Tom Jones the singer took his name from Tom Jones the movie.
From the very beginning the film strikes me as being ahead of its time. It feels dated now in the same way some films from the 70s feel dated. But this was 1963 and was probably considered cutting edge.
The film opens with the story of the hero’s birth. It’s presented in the style of a silent film, complete with title cards and a harpsichord soundtrack. But poor Tom is a bastard child abandoned in the bed of the wealthy Squire Allworthy (George Devine). The maid Jenny Jones (Joyce Redman) is accused of being the mother but refuses to name the boy’s father. She is banished and the Allworthys raise him as their own.
Albert Finney is charming as the titular 18th century England ladies’ man. You can see why the name is fitting for a singer who has to have the stage swept after every performance just to clear all the panties thrown at him.
Tom falls in love with the neighbor girl, Sophie Western (Susannah York) but Tom’s… um… tomfoolery… with the local trollop Molly (Diane Cilento) puts him on the outs of proper society. Sophie’s aunt arranges her to be married to Blifil (David Warner), Squire Allworthy’s nephew and legitimate heir. But Sophie loves Tom and refuses to marry Blifil.
Eventually Tom is sent away because he’s getting in the way of Blifil and Sophie. He heads to London but on the way has a tryst with a woman who turns out to be Jenny Jones. Yeah… his mother. So hang on for just a sec. The spoiler is she’s not really his mother. The disgusting part is that you don’t know that until almost the very end of the movie. But there is a solid 40 minute stretch in the film where you think he and his mother… well… you know, she wasn’t really his mother so let’s not dwell on that.
There’s a lot of Deus Ex Machina in the last 5 minutes. Of course if you’re going to have Deus Ex Machina the last 5 minutes is a good place for it. That’s where we find out that Tom’s real mother was not the incestuous Jenny Jones but rather Squire Allworthy’s sister! Tom turns out to be a legitimate heir after all and can marry Sophie and live chlamydia ever after.
Make no mistake: this film is a comedic romp and not just a comedic romp but a British comedic romp. Half the characters seem like they’re refugees from a Monty Python sketch or an episode of Benny Hill.
It’s a like a film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel if Jane Austen was a horny 13-year old boy. But although the film is a bit raunchy (or “cheeky” as my occasionally-English mother would say) it’s pretty innovative and very well made. The snarky narrator and asides to the camera breaking the “fourth wall” would make Frank Underwood (or Deadpool) proud.
It’s just not my style. Even as a comedy it lacks a level of grace and finesse necessary to elevate it to what I would consider Oscar-caliber. Not even the talented cast—which garnered 5 acting nominations (Finney, Hugh Griffith, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans and Joyce Redman)—can overcome all the silliness and John Addison’s jaunty score doesn’t help.
So my assessment is that I appreciated this film far more than I liked it. It’s not unbearable to watch. It’s just not my cup of tea. This got me thinking about what I think should have won instead.
It was an odd year for the best picture and director categories. Only 2 of the films up for best picture also had their director nominated. Tony Richardson (who won for Tom Jones) and Elia Kazan for America America.
The other films nominated were Cleopatra, How the West Was Won and Lilies of the Field. The other directors were Martin Ritt (Hud), Otto Preminger (The Cardinal) and Federico Fellini (8½).
Hud is pretty great but another film was released that year that got virtually no Oscar love*. Charade starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn directed by Stanley Donen (Singin’ in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers) is a smart and deftly crafted romantic comedy/mystery.
Either one would have been my pick but as I’ve said before, timing is everything. I suspect the pioneering elements of Tom Jones outweighed some of the more traditional (albeit better) films.
Probably the most noteworthy event of these Oscars was Sidney Poitier’s win for best actor for Lilies of the Field. He became the first black performer to win since Hattie McDaniel took home the best supporting actress Oscar nearly 25 years earlier for Gone With the Wind.
It would be another 19 years before another black performer would win when Lou Gossett Jr. won best supporting actor for An Officer and a Gentleman.
Poitier received his first best actor nomination 5 years earlier for The Defiant Ones. This would be his 2nd and final nomination although he would receive an honorary Oscar in 2001, the same night the 2nd black man would win best actor (Denzel Washington) and the first time a black woman would win best actress (Halle Berry).
In the 15 years since Denzel and Halle won gold more than 20% of the acting Oscars have been given to black actors. In the 75 years prior only 2% of the winners were black.
One last thing… and I’m not making this up. At the 1963 Academy Awards Sammy Davis Jr. announced the wrong winner. He was given the envelope for best original score when he was announcing best adapted score (from 1963-68 they split the category).
But Sammy handled it like a boss and you can see it right here.
*Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer’s titular song from Charade was its only nomination.