Albert Finney, 1936–2019

A great actor and movie star, Albert Finney, is dead at the age of 82. In the clip above, an interview from 1984, he talks about finding the right way to play then-Pope John Paul II in a TV movie, adopting advice from John Gielgud who told him to borrow a few physical details or mannerisms from the real man and not try to go for an outright imitation. That would, in Gielgud’s words, make the performance “constipated”. Good advice, and you could make the argument that Finney spent his career delivering explosive but natural performances.

Born in Salford, Manchester, Albert Finney was the son of a bookmaker who made it into the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. In the late 1950s, he started appearing on London stages, doing Shakespeare among other things. His national breakthrough came soon, in 1960, when he appeared in two critically lauded movies, The Entertainer and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Directed by Tony Richardson, the latter film became the most typical example of the “angry young man” genre of British kitchen-sink dramas and it remains one of Finney’s most memorable performances, resulting in a BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer.

The clip above shows the opening scene from Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, where Finney first appears as the rebellious factory worker.

Albert Finney’s next hit was Tom Jones (1963), an adventure-comedy based on a Henry Fielding novel. The film won four Oscars, including Best Picture, and earned Finney his first nomination (there would be five in total). In my review of the film, I describe Finney’s Tom Jones as “handsome, charming and a little naughty” – no wonder that this film gave Finney his international star status. The energy and force he shows in his first movies defined him as an actor. In the scene above, Finney works his charm from his bed.

In the following years, Finney chose to work with prominent directors like Karel Reisz and Stanley Donen, and even directed a film himself, the 1968 comedy drama Charlie Bubbles. In the 1970s, he was married to another movie star, Anouk Aimée, and enjoyed one of his biggest hits, playing Hercule Poirot in the star-studded Murder on the Orient Express (1974). Looking at his screen resumé, you might think Finney didn’t work all that much, but the truth is that he remained loyal to the theater even after becoming a movie star; he always made room for the stage. 

The 1980s had more great roles for Albert Finney. He was tremendously good in The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984), in the former making fun of himself a bit as a Shakespearean actor called “Sir” (watch the clip above). He wasn’t afraid to challenge himself musically – he was a singing Ebenezer Scrooge in Scrooge (1970) and played “Daddy” Warbucks in Annie (1982). Hardly superior films, but Finney made both palatable. The 1990s did not really provide him with good movie roles though, save perhaps for Miller’s Crossing (1990) by the Coen brothers.

Then came Erin Brockovich (2000) where Finney played a lawyer who found himself reluctantly working together with a feisty single mother (Julia Roberts). Their banter is one reason why the movie is so enjoyable; they were both Oscar-nominated. Finney also did what so many other British actors of a certain age come to do sooner or later – play Winston Churchill. He did so in the TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002), picking up an Emmy and a Golden Globe. He was also memorable as an older version of Ewan McGregor in Tim Burton’s Big Fish (2003). His last screen role was in one of the best Bond films, Skyfall (2012). A fitting final appearance.

Albert Finney’s legacy was celebrated today by the likes of Edgar Wright, Christopher McQuarrie and Ava DuVernay:

What do you think?

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