Saturday, December 12, 2015

Tony Richardson | Tom Jones

bed to bed
by Douglas Messerli

John Osbourne (screenplay), Tony Richardson (director) Tom Jones / 1963

Although we often speak of the 1960s as if it were a coherent age of political and sexual openness and experimentation, having been there I can assure you that 1963, the year of Tony Richardson’s joyous testament to youthful debauchery, was not yet part of the liberated culture that followed it. As I have written elsewhere and reconfirmed by many studies about which I’ve also written, the early 1960s—at least in the US—was in many senses, particularly for gays and those who might soon after seek out open sexuality—a very conservative period. Although President Kennedy might have been living a quite satyric life, Jackie sat with her pillbox hat in a room separate, perhaps whispering nice appreciations into Leonard Bernstein’s ear, and even, at times, enjoying the euphoria of drugs, but living in a world that no one might have perceived as “liberated.”  Life in the early 1960s for the vast majority of Americans was not what the later 1960s might offer up to them.

      How remarkable, accordingly, for the culture at large to encounter Richardson’s bawdy revelry, hidden behind its faux 18th century moral narrative lectures. Albert Finney, portraying the naughty boy antics of the Henry Fielding hero, literally giggling along with composer John Addison’s spritely harpsichordal refrains, permitted nearly anyone without dour religious convictions to give themselves up to the sin of the flesh without actually having to admit it had anything at all to do with their own daily personal lives.
      No wonder the movie made millions and won over nearly any Britisher and American living through those days, winning several Academy Awards, including the best ‘film of the year, while being described by popular journals such as Newsweek as “The best comedy every made.”

       Finney portrayed the rapscallion Tom as the kind of figure who neither woman nor man could possibly resist—unless you were the foppish half-brother Bifil (David Warner), who uses his faked religiosity as a cover for his greedy desires. Even the well brought-up Sophie Western (played with an innocent lustiness by Susannah York)—who has been raised by her priggish aunt (Edith Evans) and her gout-suffering, hunt-loving, and womanizing father (Hugh Griffith)—could not abide Bifil, the supercilious man, promised to her for marriage. She chases, along with a pack of women, young and elderly, after the virile, handsome young Tom.
      That the usually anguished, working-class spokesman, John Osbourne was so brilliantly able to whip up a screenplay out of Fielding’s encyclopedia original satire, is truly amazing—akin to the possibility that  American playwright Arthur Miller might have been able to create a comic masterpiece, which that sincerely-serious writer was clearly incapable of. 
     And just as startling is that the director of works like Look Back in Anger, A Taste of Honey, Luther, and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner could possibly stir up the delicious pot of Keystone Comedy antics and the gluttonous sexual orgies of this film. Those who worked with him, including cinematographer Walter Lassally, report that Richardson, out of personal dissatisfaction with the results, almost boiled the frothiness of this work away to a stale stew. Fortunately, finances and temporal limitations prevented his further stirring. The accidental results are absolutely memorable


      No one who has seen it can forget the intense flash of Mrs Waters (Joyce Redman) (the hero’s possible mother) and Tom’s eyes as they fathom the full feast of birds, raw meat, and human flesh that together they ecstatically face across the table from one another: no sexual act could possibly match the fulfillment of those eyes, mouths, and jaws consuming everything in sight. Lust has never before or since been so perfectly embodied.
       The mad chase of Squire Western and nearly everyone else of good will in this cinematic fiction to save Tom from his much deservèd swing from the gallows is the glorious summation of hundreds of cliff-hanging endings of early cinema serials. 
      For years after, in my literature classes, I used this exuberant film to demonstrate narrative strategies that were employed only by the most experimental of 20th century fiction writers, including the intrusive narrations, the direct address of characters to the reader/viewer, and the authorial interventions that so delighted 18th century readers—until, one day, I realized that most of my students were not even born when this popular film transformed its audiences. 
      Along with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Richardson’s film represented a part of the British cultural revolution that soon would change everything in American society, punching American artists and audiences to transform the arts  on an even larger scale. If Richardson, as his later films reiterate, was hardly a cinematic visionary, in 1963 he was able to create a work that suggested he might possibly be one, and helped to extend what the French New Wave filmmakers had already intimated.
     Two years later Godard would offer up, in Pierrot le Fou, the same sort of self-conscious and self-destructive fool that Tom Jones was in Richardson’s and Osbourne’s droll cinematic representation—but, even then, without Finney’s sexual exuberance, Godard’s hero had no solution but finally to completely destroy himself. Only in Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde, did we discover characters as openly able to flaunt social and sexual conventions as did Fielding’s handsome foundling—yet they too were necessarily destroyed by the surrounding society. 
     By that time, however, everything, everywhere had already changed, and the society of the late 1960s began realize that death was not a necessary result of sexual and political transgression; yet, perhaps, given the 1970s and 1980s struggles with AIDS and other versions of social and sexual scourges, that recognition came too late.
     Perhaps, coming as it did before we even expected it and could assimilate its radical message, Tom Jones should be perceived as a kind of self-enchanted trumpet charge into a new generation, a work that had no idea where is was going, but gracefully went there nonetheless. If Rick and Elsa will always have Paris, I and millions of others of my generation, will always have the light-tripping antics of night-shirted Tom, merrily traipsing off in utter confusion from bed to bed.

Los Angeles, December 12, 2015

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