May 9, 1936-Feb. 7, 2019
Albert Finney was a great stage and film actor, but his recent death at 82 made brief headlines. There is a reason for that. Unlike so many artists who struggle for recognition all their lives, or fight to keep in the spotlight if they succeed, Finney was one who avoided stardom. A blue-collar actor with classical chops, he turned down David Lean’s offer to play Lawrence in “Lawrence of Arabia” after Marlon Brando refused the role. Lean deeply regretted that Brando refused his offer, but Finney’s reason for refusal was odd. According to Lean, Finney stated that “He didn’t want to be a star.” Of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone else besides Peter O’ Toole, the third choice, playing Lawrence of Arabia. Ironically, Albert Finney then did Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones” (1963) and became a star. It is a wonderful film of a great satirical 18th century novel: raunchy, self-conscious, rowdy, often breaking the imaginary fourth wall when actors address the camera/audience. The film includes a suggestive eating scene between Finney’s rakish Tom Jones and a voluptuous woman who is a well-endowed free spirit.
Finney then did John Osborne’s play, “Luther,” and garnered great reviews. Unlike Marlon Brando who never went back on the stage, Albert Finny played many seasons as a stage actor, becoming invisible to the movie going audience until he suddenly appeared in a film. Albert Finney was nominated for an Oscar five times but never won. It is interesting that he never attended the Academy Awards ceremony, and turned down a knighthood.
“Maybe people in America think being a ‘Sir’ is a big deal,” Finney said. “But I think we should all be misters together. I think the ‘Sir’ thing slightly perpetuates one of our diseases in England, which is snobbery. And it also helps keep us ‘quaint,’ which I’m not a great fan of.”
The appeal of Albert Finney was that he was so real….always carrying the tough core of a blue collar worker, yet able to master the complex language of Hamlet. He was one of the least mannered of classical actors, and Albert Finney leaves behind a few memorable films.
He attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and worked in the theater before his film debut in “The Entertainer” (1960), directed by Tony Richardson, and starring the legendary actor, Laurence Olivier. Finney’s work includes “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” (also 1960), about an angry young lower-class worker, and a dark nonlinear romantic film with Audrey Hepburn, “Two for the Road” (1967). Their chemistry together is magical. Finney played a dying flamboyant actor during World War II London in “The Dresser” (1983), an Irish mob boss gangster in “Miller’s Crossing” (1990), and starred opposite a hard-edged Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich” (2000), which got him a nomination as best supporting actor. They are excellent foils for each other. Of Finney, Julia Roberts said, “It was my terrific joy and privilege to work with Albert. His talent was eclipsed only by his enormous heart.”
Albert Finney plays a tragic drunk in John Huston’s 1984 film, “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry. He received acclaim for his performance as Winston Churchill in the 2002 BBC–HBO television biographical film, “The Gathering Storm.” One of my favorite performances is Finney’s detective in the 1981 Sci-Fi thriller, “Wolfen.” Developers are planning to build a new structure in a slum when suddenly, strange savage murders occur. Non-human hair is found on the victims. Are the killers a special breed of “spiritual” highly evolved wolves protecting their hunting grounds? Finney’s detective Wilson discovers the answer in a gripping confrontation.
His last performance was in the James Bond film, “Skyfall” (2012). All of the films mentioned are worth another look. Albert Finney was an original talent.
Michael Corrigan of Pocatello is a San Francisco native and a retired Idaho State University English and speech communication instructor. He studied screenwriting at the American Film Institute and has authored seven books, many about the Irish American experience.