Albert Finney, the Reluctant Star

The Daily — Feb 8, 2019
Albert Finney in Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963)

Over a career that stretched from Britain’s “angry young men” era in the early 1960s through to his final role as James Bond’s gamekeeper in Skyfall (2012), Albert Finney was nominated for five Oscars. Not only did he never win, he never even showed up at the Academy Awards. “I was in London,” Philip Concannon quotes him as saying. “It’s a long way to go for a very long party, sitting there for six hours not having a cigarette or a drink. It’s a waste of time.” No need for the Academy to take it personally, though. True to character, Finney, who passed away yesterday at the age of eighty-two, also turned down a knighthood.

Finney grew up in Salford, a town near Manchester in northwest England, “a region where the Industrial Revolution had spread a patina of grime, grit, and pollution over back-to-back homes separated by cobbled alleyways and streets,” as Alan Cowell describes it in the New York Times. This is the milieu at the root of the “kitchen sink” dramas written by the “angry young” playwrights and novelists who, Cowell writes, “railed against the class system and the claustrophobic trap it laid for workers locked in dead-end jobs.” Following his stint at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, where his classmates included Peter O’Toole and Alan Bates, and having made his mark on the stage, Finney took his first small film role in The Entertainer (1960), directed by Tony Richardson and written by the exemplary “angry young” playwright, John Osborne. Richardson then produced the film that made Finney a star, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), directed by Karel Reisz and based on Alan Sillitoe’s adaptation of his own novel. The Guardian’s Andrew Pulver notes that Guide to British Cinema describes Finney’s portrayal of a restless machine in a bicycle factory as “a mixture of defiance and selfishness overlaid with a raw sexuality.”

Writing for the BFI, David Parkinson points out that instead of committing to a five-year contract in return for the lead role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Finney opted to reunite with Richardson for Tom Jones (1963), the “reworking of Henry Fielding’s picaresque masterpiece that moved British cinema away from ‘angry young men’ and into a tantalizingly brief period of modishly swinging ’60s optimism.” In an essay accompanying our release last year, Neil Sinyard argues that “it is hard to imagine another young English actor of that time who could have conveyed Tom’s good nature so robustly.”

Before the ’60s were out, Finney turned in one of his most memorable performances under the direction of Stanley Donen. “A generation of admirers still name Two for the Road [1967] as their favorite ‘romantic’ movie,” writes Leonard Matlin, adding that “romantic” is “an ironic soubriquet for that memorably bittersweet film that paired him with Audrey Hepburn.” By this point, the success of Tom Jones had given Finney the means to try his hand at directing, a challenge he took on only once. In the title role of Charlie Bubbles (1968), he coaxed from himself what the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw considers to be “one of his most captivating and revealing performances as Charlie, a hugely successful writer who returns in triumph to his hometown of Salford in a Rolls Royce, looking warily discontented with what he finds in memory lane—and with himself.” Bradshaw also notes that, as a producer, Finney played a crucial role in the early careers of Mike Leigh, Lindsay Anderson, Tony Scott, and Stephen Frears.

In the ’70s, Finney spent more time on stage than on the screen, though he did give us an unforgettable Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). For Dan Callahan at, it was in the early ’80s that Finney “did his most impressive film work, turning in four performances in a row that displayed his range and appetite.” Two of them, the musical Annie (1982) and the booze-soaked Under the Volcano (1984), were directed by John Huston. Peter Yates’s The Dresser (1983) paired Finney with his old friend Tom Courtenay. Callahan’s clear favorite of the four, though, was directed by Alan Parker in 1982. “When it comes to the portrayal of self-destructive and self-sabotaging male anger and vanity, Finney’s George in Shoot the Moon has not been equaled or surpassed,” he writes. Finney went on to work with Joel and Ethan Coen in Miller’s Crossing (1990), with Steven Soderbergh in Erin Brockovich (2000) and Traffic (2000), with Tim Burton in Big Fish (2003), and with Sidney Lumet in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), which features, as Peter Bradshaw puts it, Finney’s “superb turn as the agonized, careworn father of criminals” played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke.

“Finney could have had a lucrative Hollywood career after Tom Jones, but he chose life and the rigors of the theater instead,” writes Callahan. “He loved horses, beautiful women, and a good drink or three.” For Bradshaw, an “awful lot of flavor and texture has left British acting with the departure of Albert Finney.”

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