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It's unusual
by Asa Butcher
2008-01-12 10:24:26
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Tom Jones
Directed by Tony Richardson
United Artists, 1963

"It's not unusual to be loved by anyone, It's not unusual to have fun with anyone!" crooned Tom Jones in the opening lines of his first British number one "It's not Unusual" in 1965, but this isn't why we are here. It seems that many people immediately think that Tom Jones is about Tom Jones, even though the film Tom Jones is actually based upon Henry Fielding's 1749 novel The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling and not the Welsh singer - confused?

In actual fact, Tom Jones' manager changed the singer's name from Thomas Jones Woodward to link him with the good-looking, low-born stud womanising image of Tom Jones, the book and film's title character. This is becoming far too complicated, so let's start a fresh.

Tom Jones is a multi-Academy Award-winning 1963 British period comedy that stars a 27-year-old Albert Finney, who had just made his cinematic breakthrough three years earlier with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning considered to be the first of the "kitchen sink dramas". It was interesting to discover that acclaimed British director David Lean had wanted the relatively unknown Albert Finney to play Lawrence in the previous year's Best Picture winner Lawrence of Arabia, but Finney didn't believe the film would be a success and turned it down.

Finney was certainly careful over his roles because he even felt that Tom Jones wasn't serious enough, agreeing to star only if he got a producing credit, which he later changed for profit participation - the film has currently grossed over $50m, so he made a good choice. Tom Jones wouldn't be among many people's top ten Best Picture winners, including myself, and it would surprise me if many had even seen it, yet the movie does have many qualities that make it worth watching and then you have to watch it again to determine whether you really enjoyed it or not.

I think I did, at times anyway. It isn't often a movie leaves me in two minds as to whether it was a waste of my life or I'd recommend it friends. There are some unique comedic moments - unique for a 1960's Best Picture winner - such as the opening sequence performed in the style of a silent movie and the shock of the characters breaking the fourth wall giving asides to the camera/viewer, which must be the first Academy Award winning movie to do so.

However, it is the famous eating scene between Tom and Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), as they sit opposite one another silently consuming an enormous meal while gazing at each other, that sticks in the mind long after the closing credits. It is a scene often parodied in other movies and television shows, such as "The Simpsons", yet the improvised scene only took three hours to shoot, although it is said that the actors felt the effects from the food for days (Watch the scene here).

Let's skip over the later bedroom scene and the revelation that Mrs. Waters, a.k.a. Jenny Jones, is believed to be Tom's mother because there's nothing like the hint of incest to spice up a film! There are far stranger moments though, such as seeing David Tomlinson, better known for his role as George Banks in Mary Poppins the following year, attempting to rape Sophy Western (Susannah York), the only girl Tom really loves. I found myself cringing at the sight of one of my childhood favourites chasing a young girl around the bedroom in a dishonourable fashion.

Somehow Tom Jones managed to beat Elia Kazan's America, America, Walter Wanger's Cleopatra, Bernard Smith's How the West Was Won and Ralph Nelson's Lilies of the Field to claim the Academy Award for Best Picture, plus it also won Tony Richardson the award for Best Director, beating Federico Fellini for the movie . Returning to the "kitchen sink drama" genre, only the year before Tom Jones was released Richardson directed The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, another of the great British classics of the 1960s.

The film claimed two other awards, Best Music, Score - Substantially Original and Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, although sadly Albert Finney lost out to Sidney Poitier in the Best Actor in a Leading Role category. On a slightly more positive note, Tom Jones is still the only film Academy history to have three nominees for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and it is the only time three British actresses have been nominated in the same category - none of them won though!

The inspiration for Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon twelve years later is quite evident, but I would have to say that Tom Jones is slightly better, albeit because it is funnier and quirkier, thanks to the humorous narration by Micheál MacLiammóir, "It is widely held that too much wine will dull a man's desire. Indeed it will... in a dull man." Take a chance on Tom Jones and once you have done so, watch the film again and try to confirm whether you enjoyed it or not… even now I am uncertain, but, as Tom Jones once sang, "It's not unusual"!

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