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Albert Finney: The Actor Who Said "Sometimes You Have to Play Jazz"

by John Aquino on 02/10/19

On hearing the news of the death of the actor and director Albert Finney at the age of 82, I felt that a great actor of both stage and screen, an underrated director, and an individual comfortable in his own mind and skin had left us and the world was poorer in talent and experience as a result.

I never met him and don't know people who did, although I know some fellow graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts or RADA (Great Finney quote: "On the Waterfront came out and there were 150 guys [at RADA] doing Brando impersonations.") The first film of his I saw was Tom Jones, based on Henry Fielding's 1749 novel. My sisters took me, and they refer to my experience watching it as occurring, "before John knew about things" because I kept asking question during the film, such as "What is he going to do with her?" In my high school class, our Latin teacher, a priest, who took pleasure in describing his experiences at movies that we were too young to see, called the eating scene between Finney and Joyce Redman "the dirtiest scene I've ever witnessed in which the actors were fully clothed." Finney's performance was that of a young, manly bold, brash but somehow decent and lovable man. In a way, I came of age thanks to Albert Finney.

Finney was born in Manchester and if his upbringing was more genteel than his classmates it was because his father was a successful bookie. His acting career began with him depicted as one of Britain's angry young men along with Alan Bates, Kenneth Haigh, and Tom Courtenay, but he quickly broke away from the pack. After an apprenticeship at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford, England in plays starring acting titans Charles Laughton, Paul Robeson, and Laurence Olivier, he starred in the film Sunday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) in which he  played a Manchester factory worker struggling with his job and two loves. His performance is real and deep. He is Brando with the emotions and not the mannerisms. Finney won the Golden Globe award as best newcomer. He turned down the lead in Lawrence of Arabia because he didn't want to spend six months in the desert and sign a long-term contract and instead took the title role in Tom Jones. The producers thought that it would not be a box office hit and so offered him less money than Lawrence would have paid and a percentage of the profits instead. The movie was tremendously successful, won the Academy Award for best picture, earned him a nomination for best actor, and made him a millionaire thanks to his profit percentage.

His popularity after Tom Jones was so overhwlming that his participation in his next film, Carl Foreman's all-star war drama The Victors (1963), was heavily promoted even though his part lasted only two minutes at the end and he spoke in Russian. He played a psychopathic killer in a remake of the 1937 film Night Must Fall (1964) and shocked fans of his lovable rascal in Tom Jones. He then, having the money to do so, returned to the stage for three years starring in Luther on Broadway and in productions at the new National Theatre, the Old Vic, and the Chicester Festival, thus creating a pattern of his alternating between film and theatre. He returned to films in 1967, starring with Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road, a revolutionary romantic comedy with shifts back and forth between various times in a couple's marriage. The film was a big hit, and he could easily have continued as a romantic comedy lead but did no more. Instead, he produced and directed Charlie Bubbles (1968) about a lower-class man like himself who becomes a celebrity and finds success hollow. It was a personal project developed by his own production company. He could have continued as a director but, stung by the film's critical success and financial failure, directed only once more (The Bilko Inquest for television in 1984), and instead took on leading parts that were more like character roles such as the title part in the musical Scrooge (1970), for which he won the Golden Globe award as best actor in a musical, singing in the voice of an old man and thus disguising his robust  baritone, and the flamboyant detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), for which he was Oscar-nominated. He could easily have played Poirot in six more films, which his successor, Peter Ustinov, did, but found the makeup that turned him into a fat, balding Belgian detective, confining. He returned to the stage and played Shakespeare's Hamlet and Christopher Marlowe's all-but-unplayable Tamburlaine. In the 1980s, he came back to films, doing eight in the decade, including Daddy Warbucks in Annie (1982), in which he sang in his own voice, and The Dresser and Under the Volcano (both 1984), for both of which he was Oscar-nominated for best actor. In the next three decades, he played in independent films and innovative teleplays by Dennis Potter, won a best supporting actor nomination for Erin Brockovich (2002), and an Emmy and British academy award (BAFTA) for his television performance as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm (2002). Overall, he received five Academy Award nominations, 13 BAFTA nominations and one win, and nine Golden Globe nominations and two wins. Quite a record.

One of Finney's last major roles was as the father in Tim Burton's Big Fish (2003) in which Ewan McGregor played his younger self. It's heartbreaking in a way to see Finney, once a handsome and athletic young actor, as a dying, overweight teller of tall tales who embarrasses his son. But Finney was never concerned about his looks and gives a heartfelt performance as a man who never lied but embellished with no other motive than to make people happy. It's a wonderful film that I can see again and again.

I can't think of a single film in which Finney played that is an embarrassment, which is unusual in that most actors have a howler or even three or four in their filmography. It's also indicative of his careful selection of acting projects. He had no agent and so made all of his own decisions.

True to his pattern of following his own path, Finney declined a knighthood in 2002, saying such honors only perpetuated snobbery. He didn't appear to like talking about his craft. "My job is acting," he said, "and that is why I hate interviews or lectures, explaining myself to an audience." But when he did give interviews, sometimes he offered little gems about acting, such as that, when there are difficult moments between actors in the rehearsal process, "sometimes you just have to play jazz," which could also have been a description of his approach to his career. He was helpful to other actors and filmmakers: he did a brief cameo in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes Smarter Brother (1975), actor Gene Wilder's debut as a director, and took a small role in director Ridley Scott's first film, The Duelist (1976),  lending his name value and accepting as payment only a case of champagne because the budget was a small one. He even took an unbilled cameo in Steven Sodenbergh's Ocean's Twelve (2004) starring George Clooney. Finney also leant his clout to get The Biko Inquest on stage in 1984. Using the actual trial transcripts, it portrayed the trial examination of the death of Steven Biko, an anti-apartheid activist who was beaten to death in a South African prison. Finney played the attorney for the family on stage and co-directed the film in which he repeated his role.

Finney's career was rich and unconventional, evidently by choice. Throughout CBS News' onscreen obituary, the words "Big Fish" appeared throughout, clearly referencing the movie in which he appeared, but also an appropriate tribute to an actor who shaped his own career at his own pace and by making his own decisions.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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