After years in the limbo of home-video unavailability, Tom Jones has finally returned to tape — and in the slightly shorter version reedited by the late director Tony Richardson and rereleased to theaters in 1989. This means it’s now possible to rent every Best Picture winner of the past 40 years. The bad news is that while Tom remains a lot of fun, he’s just not the irreverent Young Turk he seemed three decades ago.
To understand why this movie charmed audiences in 1963, consider the other contenders for that year’s Best Picture Oscar. The Hollywood studios were in their late-dinosaur phase by then, coughing up such ponderous epics as Cleopatra, How the West Was Won, and America, America — each running more than 2 1/2 hours and weighing a filmic ton. Tom Jones, though, is as nimble as a hare. Screenwriter John Osborne and Richardson (both received Oscars as well) came up with a smart solution to the problem of adapting an 18th-century literary classic: Turn it into bawdy slapstick with generous helpings of then- daring sex and violence. Cast Albert Finney, Britain’s angry young hunk of the moment, as Fielding’s rascal-hero. Give the actresses a chance to show period cleavage. And trick it all up with freeze frames, iris-outs, fast motion, and cow-pie fights. In that respect, Tom Jones fits right in with the artistic nose-thumbing that jump-started English pop culture just then: It’s part of the same impulse that produced The Goon Show, the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, and ultimately, Monty Python.
What then seemed a revelation now looks relentlessly mod. The movie remains watchable, and parts of it endure: Hugh Griffith’s dithery Squire Western, a brutal hunting sequence that says volumes about the English gentry by observing how they treat their horses, and of course, the much imitated dinner scene, in which Finney and Joyce Redman devour their food in the same fashion they intend to devour each other postprandially. But if you like your powdered-wig sex with a sting of real emotion, rent 1988’s Oscar-nominated Dangerous Liaisons. Ironically, the once au courant Tom Jones is back to being a period piece — and that period is the early ’60s. B