In Tony Richardson's engagingly chatty memoir, "The Long-Distance Runner," the English film director who died three years ago expresses surprisingly negative feelings about "Tom Jones," the movie that many consider his masterpiece.
While allowing that its success was "a very agreeable thing to have to deal with," Richardson adds: "I felt the movie to be incomplete and botched in much of its execution. Whenever someone gushes to me about `Tom Jones,' I always cringe a little inside."Richardson's disappointment in the movie is unusual considering that it gave him the kind of perfect career moment most directors only dream of. ("Tom Jones" will be shown as part of a two-and-a-half-week Film Society of Lincoln Center retrospective of Richardson's work that began Aug. 27.)
When "Tom Jones" was released in 1963, the critics raved, the box office boomed and the movie went on to win four Academy Awards, including best director, and became one of the biggest hits of the early 1960s.
In retrospect, "Tom Jones" seemed to distill the heady excitement of an era when "swinging England" was being born. Very briefly, the critical spotlight that had fastened on Fellini, Antonioni, Bergman and French New Wave directors swung back to the British cinema where Richardson, along with Karel Reisz and Lindsay Anderson, had refined the so-called kitchen-sink school of social realism.
Kitchen-sink cinema combined the sooty live-from-the-slums look of Italian neo-realism with playful New Wave techniques developed by Francois Truffaut and others. What eloquence the genre achieved had less finally to do with slice-of-life veracity than with the emergence of a young generation of British actors - among them Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay - who brought an oratorical fury to their embattled working-class characters.
Richardson had made his reputation directing the stage dramas and later the screen adaptations of John Osborne's "Look Back in Anger" and "The Entertainer," as well as "A Taste of Honey" and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner."
In "The Entertainer," Laurence Olivier turns in one of his two or three greatest screen performances as Archie Rice, a seedy middle-aged music hall performer whose sagging fortunes become an overworked metaphor for Britain's decline.
Although "Tom Jones" dealt with kitchen-sink issues like class struggle and included pointedly gory, mud-caked scenes of 18th-century rural life, it was also a triumphant break from the genre. This picaresque comic romp, adapted by Richardson with Osborne from Henry Fielding's novel, revelled voraciously in the physical world.
Everybody in the film, even its villains, seemed to be having a fine old time. The movie presented a dictionary of up-to-the-minute cinematic tricks - freeze frames, characters addressing the camera, sped-up action and an occasional narrator - that was almost cheeky in its virtuosity. Anything that could keep the movie's narrative momentum chugging at full speed was brought in, and it all worked.
When "Tom Jones" appeared, England was only beginning to emerge from a grim postwar austerity. Arriving just on the eve of Beatlemania and the British Invasion, the film made an international star of Finney, whose smoldering, slightly loutish lubricity helped set the mold for a new generation of English male rock stars.
The film's flaunting of a delirious full-blooded sensuality, a quality rarely found in British films, contributed immeasurably to its success. With its satirically edged portrait of a robust 18th-century society in which sexually liberated youth triumphed over sour-faced prudes, "Tom Jones" anticipated the rampant hedonism that was right around the corner. Its subliminal message seemed to be that if English life used to be this much fun, why shouldn't it be that way again?
"Tom Jones" reaches a peak of naughtiness in the notorious eating scene in which Finney and Joyce Redman leer at each other while making lascivious overtures to morsels from their dinner plates. In 1963, the scene was considered the ne plus ultra of racy double-entendre. Revisited today, "Tom Jones" is still remarkable for the lustful performances of three of its actresses: Redman, Diane Cilento and Joan Greenwood.
Greenwood's elegant turn as a mature seductress with a yen for younger men also foreshadows Anne Bancroft's Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," which came four years after "Tom Jones."
In much the same way that Richardson's hit announced the arrival of "swinging England," "The Graduate," an even bigger blockbuster, distilled the mood of American youth at the dawn of the counterculture.
Richardson's golden moment was short-lived. After "Tom Jones" he never directed another major hit. His next film was a commercially unsuccessful adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's "Loved One," in which the element of caricature was pushed to the grotesque.
To his credit, Richardson never settled into a stylistic or commercial rut. He took an artistically adventurous road, filming the works of writers as diverse as Vladimir Nabokov ("Laughter in the Dark"), Edward Albee ("A Delicate Balance"), John Irving ("The Hotel New Hampshire") and Shakes-peare (a critically acclaimed "Hamlet" done mostly with talking heads).
Seen in the context of a career that never settled into a predictable niche, "Tom Jones" stands as a magnificent fluke. It is very possible that its creator never really understood what made it so special.