Tom Jones won Best Picture in 1963 and made Albert Finney a star.

The 36th Academy Awards for the film year 1963.

Best Picture:  Tom Jones

  • Lilies of the Field
  • America, America
  • How the West Was Won
  • Cleopatra

Most Surprising Omission:  Hud

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  The Great Escape

Rank (out of 82) Among Best Picture Years:  #78

The Race: Hollywood wasn’t putting up much of a fight.  Of the three films earning critical acclaim across the board, only one of them, Hud, was an American film.  The other two were a bawdy British comedy (Tom Jones) and a surrealistic Italian comedy (8 1/2).  The biggest box office hit of the year, Cleopatra, was just trying to win back its record $44 million cost and fend off tepid reviews.  The only other film that was making any headway in the Oscar race was Lilies of the Field.

When the critics began to chime in with their annual awards in December, there was no question that Tom Jones was the film to beat, as it won Best Picture and Director from both the National Board of Review and the New York Film Critics.  The Golden Globes also gave it Best Picture, though their Best Picture – Drama went to Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal and their Best Director went to Elia Kazan for America, America8 1/2 had won Best Foreign Film from all three and it looked like it might do what no foreign film had done since 1938 — get nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars.  Hud maintained its place in the Oscar race with 5 Golden Globe nominations, including Picture and Director and Cleopatra announced its presence with 4 nominations, including Picture and Director.  The Directors Guild cemented the front-runners with the award going to Tony Richardson for Tom Jones and nominations for 8 1/2, America, America, Lilies of the Field and HudTom Jones was absent at the Writers Guild (it was possibly not eligible) but Hud and Lilies of the Field both won while America, America was nominated.

The Results: Tom Jones, as expected, lead the field with 10 nominations.  Hud managed 7, but shockingly, Best Picture wasn’t among them.  It had tied the record with 7 nominations without a Picture nomination, but no film had ever earned that many nominations and been nominated for Director and not been nominated before (it still holds the record for most points without a Picture nomination).  Instead, the other nominees were America, America, Lilies of the Field, Cleopatra and How the West Was Won, a big money-maker that had been mostly ignored by the awards groups (having won the Editors Guild and the Sound Editors Guild but nothing else).  8 1/2, like Hud, was nominated for Director and Screenplay, but not Picture, making it the fourth year in a row a foreign film had achieved that distinction (though this was the first of those four to also earn a nomination for Best Foreign Film).  The Cardinal was also on the Director list and it joined East of Eden as the only Best Picture – Drama winners to not earn an Oscar nomination for Best Picture (they are still the only two on the list).  America, America was the only film aside from Tom Jones to earn a Director nomination, essentially ending the race right there.  Sure enough, while Tom Jones would lose all five of its acting nominations, it would go on to win Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay, the first film to take that tri-fecta since 1958.

Tom Jones is far and away the best of the 1963 Best Picture nominees

Tom Jones

  • Director:  Tony Richardson
  • Writer:  John Osbourne  (from the novel by Henry Fielding)
  • Producer:  Tony Richardson
  • Studio:  United Artists-Lopert
  • Stars:  Albert Finney, Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Diane Cilento, Joan Greenwood, Joyce Redman
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Finney), Supporting Actor (Griffith), Supporting Actress (Evans), Supporting Actress (Cilento), Supporting Actress (Redman), Score, Art Direction (Color)
  • Length:  128 min
  • Genre:  Comedy  (Literary Adaptation)
  • Box Office Gross:  $37.60 mil  (#4  –  1963)
  • Release Date:  6 October 1963
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #164  (nominees)  /  #42  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Finney), Supporting Actor (Griffith), Supporting Actress (Evans), Supporting Actress (Redman), Supporting Actress (Greenwood), Supporting Actress (Cilento), Original Score, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup

The Film:  It is a film of sheer joy.  It is one of the best examples of cutting through massive amounts of prose and turning it into cinematic excellence.  It was so far and away the best of the contenders that it managed a complete sweep – winning both critics groups, the Golden Globe and the BAFTA aside from its Oscar win.  It was the first film to do that since The Bridge on the River Kwai in 1957 and, because of the addition of other major critics groups, it would be the last film to completely sweep the available Best Picture awards until Schindler’s List in 1993.

And let’s face it, it’s a great choice.  It might have come in fifth place on my list, but ahead of it are a War-Action film (The Great Escape) and three foreign films (Stray Dog, Winter Light, High and Low).  It earned its Oscar and it was good that the Academy made the right choice since the other choices were all okay at best (Lilies) or absolutely horrendous at worst (Cleopatra).

The film is perfectly constructed (you can watch it by the way, instantly on Netflix – I recommend it if you’ve never seen it).  It starts out as if it were a silent comedy, with intertitles, the last of which is absolutely perfect – he is named Tom Jones “of whom the opinion of all was that he was born to be hanged.”  Though it then transitions to a more standard film, it returns to the notions of early comedy with some of the slapstick, sped up scenes (such as Tom’s escape from Jenny’s bed).  Throughout these early scenes we also get the treat of the wonderful Oscar winning score, music played on a harpsichord and in perfect fit with the story and its setting.  We also have the narrator.  McKee might not approve of voiceover, but here it is perfect, as it gives us all the information we need for the story and provides an amusing point of view (such as the line “Tom had always thought that any woman was better than none, while Molly never felt that one man was quite as good as two.”)

The film is very well-made.  It earned its Oscar for Score (even if I go with The Great Escape), has great editing that matches the film itself, has incredible costumes and sets and cinematography that makes the night really seem like the night out in the country, where there are no lights, instead of a Hollywood set.

Then there are the performances.  Apparently, Albert Finney demanded a part of the gross because he didn’t feel the film was particularly serious, but it made him a star and showcased him at his best.  In his long, wonderful career, he has still never managed to win an Oscar, but he certainly was fabulous here.  Even more fabulous were Hugh Griffith and Edith Evans, both of whom should have won their respective Oscars as the wonderful brother and sister combination on the chase after Tom.  Evans’ delivery of the line “Wake up, you country stewpot! . . .  Rouse yourself from this pastoral torpor!” is the stuff of perfection.  The Academy noticed many performances, also bestowing nominations on Diane Cilento for her sexy Molly and Joyce Redman for her part in one of the sexiest and funniest scenes in film history, though I would also have gone with Joan Greenwood for her wickedly good portrayal of Lady Bellaston.  The only weakness is that Susannah York seems to just stand around and look pretty in comparison, but even she is good, just not as good as those around her.

Perhaps only in 1963 could Tom Jones have won Best Picture.  It is one of those rare Comedy winners (it wouldn’t happen again for another 10 years), but it was so clearly the best of the nominees that even the Academy couldn’t screw this one up.  While it breaks my streak of three straight years where I completely agreed with the Academy, it still was the best of the choices for the fourth year in a row, the longest stretch in Oscar history.

Sidney Poitier became the first African-American to win Best Actor for Lilies of the Field (1963)

Lilies of the Field

  • Director:  Ralph Nelson
  • Writer:  James Poe  (from the novel by William E. Barrett)
  • Producer:  Ralph Nelson
  • Studio:  United Artists
  • Stars:  Sidney Poitier, Lilia Skala
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Poitier), Supporting Actress (Skala), Cinematography (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  94 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  1 October 1963
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #36  (year)  /  #352  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  So here we have Lilies of the Field, the second best of the nominees.  But what does that mean?  Well, 1956 is the only year since the early thirties to have a second best film that is worse.  Lilies of the Field is by all means a decent film, with a very good performance from Sidney Poitier, a nice charming story and it’s enjoyable.  But, sadly, it is a measure of just how weak a year 1963 is.  It is, at best, a solid *** film, a good, enjoyable film that doesn’t even rise to the level of very good, let alone great.

Here’s the story in a nutshell.  A young black man is driving across the desert when he stops because his car is overheated.  He agrees to do some work for some German nuns in return for some food and water.  He soon ends up in a bit of a quandary.  The main nun (well-played by Lilia Skala, though I wouldn’t have given her the nomination the Academy did) believes that the man has been sent by God to help them finish their church.  He, on the other hand, wants to earn a living.  Eventually, of course, God wins out, and the man manages to finish the church, and even inspire many of the people in the nearby town to help him finish it.

Poitier is very good, though he misses out on my nominations entirely (he finishes seventh – even finishing fourth among the actual Oscar nominees).  But it is a harmless film that no one could really argue against, which seemed to leap it into the Best Picture race over better films like Hud or 8 1/2.  In the end, it isn’t quite weak enough to finish in the bottom 100 of the nominees, but it is still a good example of what a weak year it was.

America, America - a nearly forgotten nominee for Picture and Director in 1963

America, America

  • Director:  Elia Kazan
  • Writer:  Elia Kazan  (based on his book)
  • Producer:  Elia Kazan
  • Studio:  Warner Bros.
  • Stars:  Stathis Giallelis, Elena Karam
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Art Direction (Black-and-White)
  • Length:  174 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • Release Date:  15 December 1963
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #50  (year)  /  #378  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  It actually wasn’t that surprising in 1963 when America, America was nominated for Best Picture.  It had a director who already won Best Picture and Director twice, it had been nominated for the DGA and the WGA and earned 5 Golden Globe nominations, even winning Best Director.  It was a grand sweeping tale of Kazan’s uncle and how he came to leave Turkey and make his way to the United States.  It was a story in which America was the promised land that people wanted to reach, the kind of thing that Oscar voters were likely to eat up.  It didn’t earn any acting nominations at the Oscars as it had at the Globes, but with all the unknowns in the large cast, it was unlikely to get any acting attention from the Oscars.

So why is it that today it’s almost completely unknown?  How many other films from the last 50 years have earned the three big nominations of Picture, Director and Screenplay and remain so completely unknown?  It’s not a bad film by any means.  It is well directed, decently written, the acting isn’t bad, it is well made.  But there isn’t a whole to it.  It tells the same kind of story you can find in so many other films and isn’t particularly engaging, especially considering its length.  There is really nothing about it for people to remember.  It’s not major Kazan by any means and falls into the bottom 100 of the Best Picture nominees, just another symptom of one of the worst year in Oscar history since the early 1930’s.

Now I wrote that all a couple of months ago, when I actually re-watched the film.  Now, having written the information for The Year in Film: 1963, I was stunned to realize that America, America ranks 11th for the year from the Top 1000.  Not only that, but it has continually been rising over the last several years.  While Gentleman’s Agreement, which walked away with the Oscars for Picture and Director doesn’t even make the list, this film is now in the top 600.  So perhaps it is not as forgotten as I might have thought.  Or perhaps it is the foreign influence – that people are more interested in this kind of story, which really doesn’t age very much.  Either way, it certainly was a surprising realization.

How the West Was Won - a perfect example of the problems with gimmicks

How the West Was Won

  • Director:  Henry Hathaway  /  John Ford /  George Marshall
  • Writer:  James R. Webb
  • Producer:  Bernard Smith
  • Studio:  MGM
  • Stars:  Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Karl Malden, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Richard Widmark
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography (Color), Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  162 min
  • Genre:  Western
  • Box Office Gross:  $46.50 mil  (#2  –  1963)
  • Release Date:  20 February 1963
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #76  (year)  /  #421  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  none

The Film:  This seems like a good moment to talk about the difference between developments in film and gimmicks.  Montage was a development.  It added something new to the way we view film.  It began so well with D.W. Griffith, but it was really perfected by Sergei Eisenstein in The Battleship Potemkin.  It is hard to imagine film today without it.  On the other hand, 3-D is a gimmick.  It is trickery designed to enhance something, but in fact, doesn’t really offer that much, and hopefully, will go away like it has in the past.

Watching How the West Was Won, I was reminded of one of the worst gimmicks and one of the worst delays in adapting to a development.  How the West Was Won was filmed in Cinerama, which involved three different cameras.  It is one of two Cinerama films for which there was no single camera version (the other one was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm).  When shown in anything other than Cinerama, it involves lines down the screen, breaking the picture into three parts.  It must have looked very impressive up on the screen, but in any other format it is distracting as hell (it is visible on all current prints).  It also affected the acting, as they had to look at different spots on the screen and tried to seem more impressive, which actually lead to poorer performances.

I first watched the film some 15 years ago or so and was very unimpressed.  It had won the Oscars for Best Original Screenplay (Really?  This cliche filled overblown film with very few interesting characters and a storyline that rambles all over the place while trying to do too much is better than 8 1/2?) and Best Editing (only if someone had edited a good hour out of it), but I didn’t think it even merited mention in either category.  When I watched it again, I watched it on VHS in a fullscreen presentation.  I blame idiotic marketing people and the two major video companies of the 1990’s (Hollywood and Blockbuster) for this.  They insisted for years that people really wanted things in fullscreen, because they didn’t want the black bars on the television.  Any film made for a widescreen format should be shown as such.  Otherwise you miss large portions of the film, and on a film like this, it is especially idiotic.  What makes it even worse is that the trailer is done in widescreen and then the film itself is in fullscreen.  That was a development and it was one that people should have embraced much earlier.

Now what about the film itself?  Well, it’s mediocre at best.  It tells a long epic story about the taming of the west, centering mostly around one family, but it’s a mess.  It’s directed by several different people, there’s not a single worthwhile acting performance among the numerous, numerous stars and even the technical aspects aren’t particularly good.  The film became too much about the gimmick and lost sight of how to actually make a film.

No longer the worst, but close: Cleopatra (1963)

Cleopatra

  • Director:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz
  • Writer:  Joseph L. Mankiewicz  /  Ranald MacDougall  /  Sidney Buchman  (from the histories by Plutarch, Suetonius, Appian and the book “The Life and Times of Cleopatra” by Carlo Mario Franzero)
  • Producer:  Walter Wanger
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Stars:  Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison, Roddy McDowell
  • Oscar Nominations:  Picture, Actor (Harrison), Editing, Cinematography (Color), Score, Sound, Art Direction (Color), Special Visual Effects, Costume Design (Color)
  • Length:  243 min
  • Genre:  Drama  (Roman Epic)
  • Box Office Gross:  $48.00 mil  (#1 – 1963)
  • Release Date:  12 June 1963
  • My Rating:  *.5
  • My Rank:  #83  (year)  /  #474  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Art Direction, Costume Design

The Film:  There are 478 Best Picture nominees and Cleopatra falls into the list at #474.  On my original list it was last.  So what happened?  Have I suddenly improved my opinion of Cleopatra on watching it a second time?  Hell, no.  Three of the spots are reserved for the three films that I haven’t been able to see.  As for spot #475?  Well, that goes to Rex Harrison’s other howler, Doctor Dolittle, which actually seemed much worse upon seeing it again.  But Cleopatra earns the exact same *.5 that it earned the first time I watched it.  It is a terrible film and deserved the spot I gave it last time.  It’s just that Dolittle now deserves it more.

It starts out with some promise.  There is the large desolate field after the defeat of Pompey, with Julius Caesar standing over the destruction.  The Cinematography is solid, the costumes are good, the art direction is sumptuous and Harrison gives a solid performance.  Then we move from Italy to Egypt and the story gets more intriguing and we actually begin to learn a little history as well and see the political intrigue.  But then Elizabeth Taylor enters the picture and it stops dead.  It’s weird to say that when you look at her in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof or Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but there’s no question that she’s the biggest problem here.  She’s way too old for the role, tries too hard to be alluring and is really quite awful.  What makes it worse is that when Richard Burton finally enters the scene, things don’t improve at all.  It’s astounding that their affair could so captivate the world when their on-screen chemistry was non-existent.

To be fair, not all of the blame can be laid upon Liz and Dick.  After all, this film was directed and co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a man who already had two Best Director Oscars and would later go on to direct Sleuth.  But the direction is terrible and the script is even worse.  So much of the dialogue is simply terrible that it’s difficult to imagine that Burton or Taylor could have given strong performances.  Of course, there is also Roddy McDowell, so strangely effeminate as Octavian, strangely praised for his performance (reportedly he might have gotten a Best Supporting Actor nomination but the studio accidentally listed the entire cast as leads) when he is just as bad as the leads.  Really the only one who escapes criticism is Harrison, who was nominated and is quite good as Caesar, though he is better in scenes where he is not interacting with Taylor.

Then we must come to Caesar’s death scene.  It is such an important moment, the turning point of the entire film, a moment of actual action as opposed to the long, expensive scenes of Cleopatra entering Rome, designed to show off all the money spent on the film, but taking so dreadfully long as to just seem ridiculous.  But no more so than the death of Caesar.  In the original DeMille Cleopatra the death of Caesar was the moment where the film went from mediocre to bad, with a horrible performance and a laughably directed scene.  Here it is almost as bad, for while Harrison is just fine, to play the scene through Cleopatra’s vision is to waste a magnificent dramatic scene.  Why make use of all these sources and not go the literary route and make use of Shakespeare’s scene?  Was it just that Mankiewicz, who had directed the 1953 film version of Julius Caesar didn’t want to repeat himself?  Or just that they wanted to get all the use out of Taylor that they could.  Either way it was a terrible decision, one that seems on par for the rest of the overindulgent scenes that had preceded and would follow.  It is a badly written, badly conceived scene that is just a waste of time, a rather apt metaphor for the entire film itself.

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