Oscar Profile #303: Tony Richardson

 Born on June 5, 1928 in Yorkshire, England, Cecil Antonio “Tony” Richardson had the unprecedented distinction of being president of both The Oxford University Dramatic Society and the Experimental Theatre Club, as well as being the theatre critic for the university student magazine at the same time. He graduated in 1952 and immediately became a producer for BBC.

Richardson made his professional directorial debut with British TV in 1953. By 1955 he was directing such acclaimed TV productions as Mama Don’t Allow and Othello. A founding member of the British New Wave, he early on directed acclaimed theatrical productions of Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer, both of which he later turned into highly successful films.

A sensation on both sides of the Atlantic, Richardson turned from those films to his first Hollywood production, 1961’s Sanctuary from William Faulkner’s novel, which not successful. He then returned to England to produce and direct A Taste of Honey, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Tom Jones, the three greatest triumphs of his career, in quick succession from 1961-1963. It was during this period that he married Vanessa Redgrave who would give birth to his actress daughters, Natasha and Joely.

Having won both the Best Picture and Director awards for Tom Jones, Richardson had his pick of projects. Unfortunately, all of the projects he selected from the mid-late 1960s to the early 1970s including The Loved One, Mademoiselle, The Charge of the Light Brigade and Ned Kelly were not successful. Redgrave named Jeanne Moreau, star of 1966’s Mademoiselle as co-respondent in their 1967 divorce. He would later have a third child with another woman in 1973.

Richardson suffered major career rejection in 1970 when producer Harry Salzman pulled the plug on his projected film about the life of Nijinsky to have been played by Rudolf Nureyev. He did not make another film until 1973 when he directed the American Film Theater production of A Delicate Balance. He suffered another career setback when Motown producer Berry Gordy fired him from the 1975 Diana Ross film, Mahogany and replaced him with himself. 1977’s Joseph Andrews, a return to Tom Jones territory, failed to re-ignite his career, but the 1978 TV movie, A Death in Canaan brought him renewed critical acclaim. 1982’s The Border brought him his strongest notices as a film director in two decades, but 1984’s The Hotel New Hampshire put his career back in limbo.

In 1990 Richardson directed an ambitious, well-received TV production of The Phantom of the Opera starring Burt Lancaster. It would be the last success of his life.

Richardson, who was bisexual, died of AIDS on November 14, 1991 at the age of 63. His last film, The Blue Sky for which Jessica Lange would later win an Oscar, was delayed by the bankruptcy of Orion Pictures and not released until September 16, 1994.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

A TASTE OF HONEY (1961)

Richardson had previously directed the British kitchen sink dramas, Look Back in Anger and The Entertainer both on the British stage and the big screen, garnering Laurence Olivier an Oscar nomination for the latter. He also directed A Taste of Honey in both mediums, opening up the one-set play for the screen. Veteran character actress Dora Bryan had the role of her life as the alcoholic mother of pregnant teenager Rita Tushingham, outstanding in her first film as were Paul Danquah as her elusive black lover and Murray Melvin as a gay friend who helps her through the pregnancy.

TOM JONES (1963)

Richardson’s film of Henry Fielding’s 18th century classic took the world by storm, not only winning him Oscars both for his direction and the film itself, but a slew of other worldwide awards. Tame by today’s standards, the bawdy antics and risqué dialogue shocked audiences of the day who laughed themselves silly in spite of themselves. The film boasts a nonpareil performance by Albert Finney, who made his film debut in Richardson’s The Entertainer, in the title role with strong support from Susannah York, Hugh Griffith, Edith Evans, Joan Greenwood, Diane Cilento, Joyce Redman and many others.

A DELICATE BALANCE (1973)

The short-lived American Film Theater was a series of filmed stage plays with major stars given limited release in 1973 and 1974. One of the starriest was this film of Edward Albee’s oft-revived Broadway play, its sterling cast consisting of Katharine Hepburn, Paul Scofield, Lee Remick, Joseph Cotton, Betsy Blair and Kate Reid who walked off with the acting honors in the role in which she replaced Kim Stanley. Two legends sprang up around Stanley’s firing. One was that she couldn’t remember her lines, the other was that Hepburn had her fired for upstaging her, something the lesser known Reid also did.

THE BORDER (1982)

Richardson received some of the strongest notices of his career for his direction of this hard-hitting crime drama that also provided Jack Nicholson with the last of his string of great character leads of the era. Nicholson plays a border agent who, along with partner Harvey Keitel, has been engaged in smuggling illegal immigrants into the country. He has a crisis of conscience when a young Mexican girl has her baby stolen from her. Valerie Perrine and Shannon Wilcox as Nicholson and Keitel’s bubble-headed wives and Warren Oates as the crooked Border Patrol Chief are also superb.

BLUE SKY (1994)

This was one of a handful of films that were held captive by Orion Pictures’ bankruptcy. Completed shortly before Richardson’s death in 1991, the film was not released until 1994. The convoluted plot involves a cover-up of military nuclear bomb testing in the early 1960s. Jessica Lange deservedly won an Oscar for her unforgettable portrayal of Tommy Lee Jones’ sexy bipolar wife, with strong support from Jones, Powers Boothe, Carrie Snodgress and a startlingly young Chris O’Donnell, who had become a star between the time the film was made and finally released, as Lange and Jones’ impressionable teenage son.

TONY RICHARDSON AND OSCAR

  • Tom Jones (1963) – Oscar – Best Picture
  • Tom Jones(1963) – Oscar – Best Director

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