Best Picture Winners Aren't Timeless, and 'Tom Jones' Proves It

Tom Jones Criterion

A case study of how Best Picture winners age.

The paradox of the Oscars is well-established territory. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual recognition of the year’s standout achievements stands, in theory, to declare the work that deserves to be remembered, to distinguish the films that are worthy of being etched into a canon and thereby withstand the tests of time. Yet time is notorious for challenging the Academy’s decisions, having made innumerable claims in favor of films, performances, and artists unrecognized by the organization. For example, far more ink has been spilled over the importance of Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon than the title to which it lost the 1952 Best Picture Oscar, Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Such discrepancies speak to the reality behind the meritocratic myth in which the Oscars trade: AMPAS’s voting bloc consists of people holding varying ties to the film industry who make decisions within a time frame dominated by campaigns, predictions, hype, backlash, and the shifting sands of critical and popular opinion. In short, every Best Picture winner is a product of, and a lens into, its moment in movie history.

This is often thought of as a bad thing — the reason why the Oscars so often get it “wrong.” And while there is some price paid for the Oscars overlooking worthy films, the films that have taken home the gold, regardless of quality, do have a great deal to tell us about their moment in history, betraying the value of timelessness.

1963’s Tom Jones might be amongst the least timeless of the 89 films to date that have taken home the Best Picture prize. Tony Richardson’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, which chronicles the adventurous life of a womanizing troublemaker of dubious origin played by Albert Finney, is a British film that found a home in Hollywood at a crucial moment in which the American film industry was desperately looking elsewhere for inspiration, relevance, and a fresh identity in the age of television.

Tom Jones reminds its audience throughout that this is not your parents’ costume drama, with its irreverent tone communicated through an array of cinematic devices that the film’s supporters found inventive and its detractors considered empty trickery. The circumstances of Tom’s birth are presented in the film’s cold open as a work of silent cinema complete with intertitles and a sped-up frame rate. Tom’s courtship with Sophie (Susannah York) is depicted through what might anachronistically be described as music video aesthetics. The sequence is constructed through poetic dissolves and ends with a freeze frame of York’s fourth-wall-breaking glance at the camera, a technique immortalized by the ending of Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows. The comedic energy of Tom Jones is sustained primarily through its ceaseless awareness of itself as a film.

A major hit with audiences across the Atlantic, Tom Jones represented the complete, triumphant arrival of a new British cinema that had been in the making for the better part of a decade. On stage, television, and film, a young generation of directors including Richardson, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger, and Karel Reisz established themselves by depicting authentic stories about the everyday struggle of working-class young people trapped within the strictures of British society. Richardson, director of essential titles of this British New Wave such as Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, also provided institutional support to this movement with his production company, Woodfall. In toying with the Great English Novel with Tom Jones, the filmmaker sought to stretch his legs into a quieter sort of revolution, to “get away from the rainy, industrial cities of the North” and make “something full of color and fun.” Whittling down Fielding’s 900 pages into a digestible two hours with screenwriter John Osbourne (Richardson did an extensive uncredited re-write) and using nearly every stylistic tool movies had to offer, the director sought to present in moving image form what film scholar Neil Sinyard describes as the innovation of the source material’s technique: the “ingenuity of its structure” and the “breadth and variety of its characterization and social scope.”

The degree to which this experiment was successful has been subject to debate, both in its moment and since. But Tom Jones found an audience at the box office and, subsequently, the Oscars where it received eleven nominations and took home four statues. One of the winners, Richardson himself, was reportedly rather baffled by the film’s popularity. He did not attend the Academy Awards ceremony. Years later, British director Ken Russell — who created a career in making irreverent spectacles out of costume dramas — found an “air of desperation” in revisiting Tom Jones, commenting that the camera moved “relentlessly hither and thither in the hope of catching something of interest, at the same time trying to convince us that the pace is fast and furious.” Richardson’s earlier films, which rarely received notice at American awards, have not garnered a similar reputation.

But the “Tom Jones Moment” was bigger than Richardson, and even Tom Jones. It marked, however briefly, a shift in Hollywood’s measure of greatness. The film that won Best Picture the previous year, David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, was, like many winners of the Oscars’ top prize during the late 1950s and 1960s, a widescreen epic designed to display the beauty (and superiority) of movies in the age of television. It was also a film big enough to capture the aura of a British empire. Tom Jones, by contrast, was a small, scrappy, and decisively irreverent ransacking of the nation’s past.

In Richardson’s absence at the Academy Awards ceremony, an American producer received the Best Picture Oscar, accepting the recognition on behalf of Richardson, Woodfall Films, and, finally, “myself and my associates at United Artists.” This was David Picker, a rising producer at United Artists who was in charge of developing and acquiring European films. While major studios poured money into epics such as Lawrence (and, in the year of Tom Jones‘s release, the infamous Cleopatra), UA used its position as a distribution company rather than a production studio to its advantage by picking up overseas properties that its competitors had little interest in, including a series of spy novels by English author Ian Fleming. In 1963, UA released three of the ten highest grossing titles of the year: Tom JonesIrma la Douce, and Dr. No. The year that Picker held Richardson’s statue, UA went on to see five films ranked amongst the top ten, including two James Bond films, Blake Edwards’s Pink Panther sequel A Shot in the Dark, and A Hard Day’s Night. By the middle of the decade, America had little to do with what was popular and fresh in American movie theaters. A lucrative market had been established for what Time magazine called the culture of “London: The Swinging City.” And a film adaptation of an 18th-century novel played a surprising but important role in establishing this modern image.

Rather than an undisputed marker of what the best of 1963 had to offer, Tom Jones is valuable to the history of the Oscars, and to movies writ large, precisely because it resists timelessness. Richardson’s Tom Jones is a film that could not have been in this way at any other moment and could not have been recognized in this way at any other moment. Like all Best Picture winners, Tom Jones has a lot to tell about its year when we put aside the Oscars’ claims to abstract notions of greatness and simply ask why these movies took home the gold when they did.

Tom Jones is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection.

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