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Substantially Similar--A Blog on IP Issues, Writing and Film

Ash Wednesday and Thoughts of a Lenten "Groundhog's Day"

by John Aquino on 03/06/19

On Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent on the Roman Catholic calendar, my thoughts were turned not only to the path to Easter 2019, when Lent ends, but to Lenten inspiration from the 1993 Harold Ramis' comedy Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell. 

The service on Ash Wednesday allows the congregation to stand and have  ashes placed on their foreheads as the priest or Eucharistic minister says, "Remember, man, that though are dust and onto dust though shalt return." Actually, that passage was the only one read during the distribution process when I was growing up. Today, there is an alternate passage, which was the one read to me today: "Repent and turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel." The older sentence is a stern reminder to the congregation after they have celebrated (or over-celebrated) the night before in Marti Gras festivities on Shrove (or Fat) Tuesday. The modern passage instructs the listener to repent but also provides a ray of the hope of salvation if he or she follows the Gospel.

In the homily at Mass today, the priest urged us to not limit the Lenten things we do--penitential thoughts, contributions to the poor, periodic fasting and abstinence--to Lent but that we do them throughout the year. It is similar to the urging in a Christmas sermon not to confine Christmas thoughts to Christmas, or, as sung by Bing Crosby playing a priest in the 1959 movie Say One for Me in the title song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmie Van Heusen, "It's not the things you do at Christmastime, /But the Christmas things you do all year through."

But the priest's suggestion, for some reason caused my mind to think of the film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray relives February 2nd, Groundhog Day, over and over, for months if not years, until he becomes more generous of spirit. I wondered about a "Catholic Lenten Groundhog Day" in which an individual wakes up and finds it is Lent every day. Every day there is little joy, the colors are drab, the day consists of fasting and penitential thoughts, and there is hope but it seem a long way off. Groundhog Day is a parallel version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and its many film versions where Scrooge learns to be more generous after being visited by three ghosts on Christmas Eve. (Murray had starred in a modern version of A Christmas Carol called Scrooged in 1988.) Perhaps the idea of a Catholic Groundhog Day is a modern conception of purgatory, the Catholic doctrine of the place where people who do not deserve to go to hell but whose sins on earth to not merit a place in heaven. There is, however, hope of heaven in purgatory, just as the second passage recited during the distribution of ashes offers hope. And perhaps heaven is a Christmas or Eastern Groundhog Day, where there is joy and hope the whole year through. Just a thought.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

The "Evaporation" of The Washington Post's Style Section and What It Means

by John Aquino on 03/04/19

The February Washingtonian Magazine ran a story on the Washington Post's Style Section "Is the Style Still in Style?", by Andrew Beaujon. He asks and goes on to explore the question, "But what if the important issue with Style isn't that it has gotten worse but that--at least in one important sense--it no longer exists?" The article meant something to me because the Post is my hometown paper and because I am a former contributor to the Style section.

My contribution appeared over 30 years ago on a Sunday. It was an article on the 100th birthday or the actor John Barrymore and included analysis of his film acting and how he influenced generations of actors. The article was a lengthy one--a column on page one of the section and a page and a half following. The Style section ran articles of that length on Saturdays and Sundays then and an number of articles on weekdays on the arts and "style." I remember visiting the bar named "Barrymore" in midtown Manhattan a few years later and seeing my article framed there. I am proud of that. Regular writers for the Style section included Tom Shales, Sally Quinn, and Judith Martin.

I wrote other articles that were published in the Post a decade and a half ago--one on fictionalization in fact-based films and another on the copyright for fictional characters, but they appeared in the Outlook section, never again for Style, although I tried. Most recently, seven years ago, I submitted an article to Style on the 50th anniversary of the premiere of Irving Berlin's last musical, Mr. President, in Washington, D.C. on its way to Broadway where it subsequently failed. The editors hemmed and hawed and finally rejected it, saying it was too lengthy and about something that happened too long ago. I finally posted it on this blog. Nowadays, a weekday Style section can have one mid-sized and two short articles, one or two op-eds, tidbits, and maybe a book review. On Sundays, the Arts and Style section will have are a few broader appeal articles, and perhaps a Q&A with a performer or director who is coming to town. I can go through a weekday Style in three minutes and, unless the Sunday section is on the Academy Awards or something, finish it in five.

The change in the Style section was part of a trend. In 2009, the Post stopped running its Sunday Book World as a stand-alone section. Book reviews now appear in the weekday Style section and the Sunday Outlook section. Beaujon's article notes that the change in the Style section has been gradual. It started with the decline in newspaper advertising. In 2012, Marty Baron, who was portrayed in the movie Spotlight on the Boston Globe's breaking of the Catholic Church's pedophile scandal when Baron was Globe's editor, became executive editor of the Post in 2013. He couldn't understand the Post's siloed coverage--separate movie reviews on Fridays in the Style and Weekend. In 2014, a major reorganization combined Style, Food, Travel, Weekend, the Sunday magazine, and other departments into the Features section. Articles tend to be first posted online. Beaujon suggests that this online approach works for some sections of the paper but not for the Style section. You can't find the print Style section online. Some op-eds, reviews of books, and articles from the Features department that are posted online ultimately find their way into the Style section of the print edition so that the print Style still, technically, exists.

In my three-plus decades of publishing, I have developed and been subject to a number of reader surveys. There's always a group of readers who complain that the articles in our publication are too long and they don't have time to read them. This complaint has grown as subscribers say they read articles on their phone or tablets. I and editors I worked for have, dutifully, implemented policies shortening the maximum length of articles and promoted this change to readers and advertisers. As an editor, I've never seen any increase in circulation, advertising or online hits after having made and promoted these changes. And in the next reader survey, there was a group of readers complaining that the articles were too long. 

The New York Times has retained its stand-alone book section on Sundays and continues to have reasonably-sized weekday and weekends sections covering the arts and style. Other newspapers have de-emphasized style, arts, and books sections. This gets into the discussion of the death of the print media, which has, I think, been exaggerated. There's no question the Internet has brought about decline in newspaper advertising and that some people prefer to read newspapers online on their phones and tablets. But the Post also gives away a free print version of the paper called the Express that subsists on advertising. You can go onto a bus or subway and see lots of people reading the physical Post paper and the Express. I seldom see people read newspapers online on the bus or subway, probably because of wifi issues. People have also been predicting the death of newspapers and bookstores due to a combination of people being able to order books on Amazon.com and reading newspapers and books on their phones and tablets. But Amazon has opened physical bookstores, and, according to the American Booksellers Association, independent bookstores are thriving.

My wife and I read the Arts and Book sections of the New York Times on Sunday and subscribe to the weekly London Times Literary Supplement. In February 2018, bookseller.com reported that TLS's circulation grew by 20% "as people value longer reads." I remember not so long ago reading TLS on the subway, and a teenager wearing a Cardoza high school jacket sitting next to me kept looking at the newspaper and finally asked, "Mister, what kind of paper is that?" I showed it to him, explaining that it was, basically, an entire newspaper devoted to reviews of books on all subjects. I said that I could sit on the subway and learn through long articles about books on biology, literary criticism, history, politics, almost any subject area. I asked if he would like to take it with him. He said, yes, and as the train pulled away I could see him out the window standing and reading the TLS. I like to think it perhaps spurred some interest.

I miss the having a substantial Washington Post Style section and Book World. The world is less informed and less literate because such sections are disappearing, just as it is because articles are running shorter. My hometown newspaper is a lesser one because of this loss.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

More Thoughts on WWI and "They Shall Not Grow Old"

by John Aquino on 03/01/19

Peter Jackson, director of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Hobbit trilogy, and King Kong (2005), looks back and ahead in the documentary They Shall Not Grow Old, back at providing human faces and voices to World War I and ahead to future films using 21st century technology. 


Jackson recounts the genesis of his new film in a prologue. He was approached in 2014 by the Trustees of the Imperial War Museum (IWM) in the UK to utilize its vast archives of film that was shot during the war (1914-1918) as part of the centenary of the war's end. There were many technical issues that Jackson took back to his studio in New Zealand to solve. Silent films were shot at various speeds from 10 to 20 feet per second (fps) compared to the modern film speed of 24 fps. And so, silent film speeds have to be converted to a modern film format. The IWM films were shot at the full range of silent film speeds, and a big challenge for Jackson and his team was determining the speed of each film, which was done, he said, by the laborious process of watching people walk in each piece of film and slowing down or speeding up the film until they walked naturally. The IWM material was, course, silent and in black and white. Modern technology allows for the addition of voices and sound effects and for colorization, a process that generally provokes criticism because it ignores the choices made by a director, either to shoot the film in black and white rather than color and, having chosen black and white, to set up his shots to their best advantage in black and white. Jackson decided that, in 1914, those making films of battles didn't have the choice to shoot in color and would have if they could have. Another criticism of colorization is that those deciding which colors to add to a black and white film don't have the time to make the right choices. A colorized film starring Frank Sinatra, for example, gave him green eyes rather than blue. Jackson, however, had the time to research the issue thoroughly.

Jackson said the film was developed over four years. His achievement is quite remarkable. The film begins in black and white, showing soldiers in training, and, when they are depicted as moving to the front, it changes to color. Sound was added to allow us to hear the creak of vehicles, the footsteps of marching soldiers, the firing of cannons, and, most of all, the voices of the soldiers, supplied by actors speaking words as determined by lip-readers. Some of  the archive material was so dark no images could be seen and consequently had been ignored by previous documentary filmmakers. Jackson said that he and his team were able to restore the images, meaning that these previously dark images are being seen for the first time.

They Shall Not Grow Old has been criticized by some because it manipulates what is shown, something that is frowned on in documentaries. In a 30-minute short following the 1 hr. and 39 min film, Jackson, evidently aware of the concerns, lays out the details of the measures he and his team took: he traveled to Belgium, where much of the original material was filmed, and took thousands of photos of the land to ensure that the ground and grass were properly colorized; they determined what outfits the soldiers in particular shots were from to ensure that the uniforms were shown in the proper colors; for the voices, he hired actors from the region of the United Kingdom where the soldiers were from; they used cannons and rifles from the period to create these sounds; for a scene in which the lips of an officer reading a notice could not be clearly seen, Jackson and his team tracked down the notice and, reading it aloud, matched it to the officer's lips; and the only narration is from oral histories of WWI veterans acquired from the archives of the IWM and the BBC.

The effect is touching. The camera pans over a group of soldiers and one points at the camera and says, "Here it comes. It's pictures" and then the soldiers smile and pose. Jackson comments that the soldiers in the footage are continually noticing the camera, for in all likelihood they had never seen one before. They pose for it as they had posed in civilian life for still cameras until someone tells them to move. Jackson's film brings these soldiers back to life, a century after many of them died.

The film has its limitations. The archives are full of materials shot during the war, but none show actual fighting. Because the cameras were hand-cranked, the cameramen would have been sitting ducks in the middle of a battle. A WWI-buff, Jackson had acquired a collection of a serial publication titled "The War Illustrated" in which artists depicted battles for families at home.  Jackson used these images because they were from the period, although, he admits, the drawings were mostly imaginary and generally propagandistic, with depictions  of heroic British soldiers and cowardly Germans. The film does depict other horrors--rotting corpses in the mud, rats, and trench foot with blackened toes. A four-minute clip from the film is at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DUReYO2n06w and shows the final results of the wizardry of Jackson and his team.

I had written on this blog at http://www.johntaquino.com/Blog--Substantially-Similar.html?entry=thoughts-on-veterans-day-wwi of another WWI documentary made for the centennial, Pershing: Paths of Glory, which makes an interesting companion to They Shall Not Grow Old.

A recent book provides an ironic coda of these thoughts on what was termed the "war to end all wars." In The Trial of the Kaiser, William A. Schabas describes attempts to bring German Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II to trial for crimes as the war's aggressor. There was agreement, but no preparation, between the winning powers to do so, and, after failed attempts to capture him, the kaiser remained in seclusion in neutral Holland for the rest of his life. Schabas suggests that, if WWI had resulted in a war's aggressor's being tried as a criminal,  this deterrence could have, perhaps, averted the next world war, rather than postponing the revisiting of this issue until Nuremberg 16 years later.

In addition to looking backward, the work of Jackson and his team provides interesting ideas for other film projects. Theoretically, other silent films can be colorized and dubbed with the consultation of lip-readers. The problem is that most silent film actors, knowing that they could not be heard, didn't exchange dialogue with another actor but instead spoke platitudes (parodied in the film Singing in the Rain by Gene Kelly, playing a silent film actor in his first talkie saying, "I love you, I love you, I love you" over and over), gibberish or even, according to some lip-readers, obscenities. There may be some exceptions. The first film version of a play by William Shakespeare is 1899's King John, which was recently rediscovered. The actor and manager Beerbohm Tree filmed portions of his stage production of the play. Researchers found several segments, including film of the last minute of the play, John's death scene, which can be seen at  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7lWn99STB1o . Tree, presumably and apparently, speaks the actual Shakespeare lines as he did on stage. The segment could be colorized and dubbed by a Shakespearean actor, using the techniques Jackson and his team employed and turning an historical artifact into an accessible piece of film. There may be other such silent films on which these techniques could be used. It could also be used on film of late 19th and early 20th century speeches, using lip-readers, actors, and perhaps the written texts of the speeches. Just a thought.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

The Issue of Race in Hollywood, the Virginia's Governor's Mansion and George Washington's Kitchen

by John Aquino on 02/27/19

Discussions of race have filled the start of 2019, from the situation of the governor of Virginia, who in February was discovered to have had a photo on his medical school yearbook page of one student in blackface and another dressed as a KKK member; to the Academy award ceremony on February 24, which saw three non-caucasians win major acting awards; to an exhibit that celebrates the story of President George Washington's "celebrity chef."


The latter reminds us, as if we needed reminding, of the deep-to-the-bone stain slavery has left on the soul of the United States. A February 2019 exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library highlights early celebrity chefs, including Hanna Wooley, who wrote what may be the first cookbook in English in 1661. Another celebrity chef heralded in the exhibit is Hercules, a slave of the family of Washington's wife Martha. When Washington became president, he brought Hercules to Philadelphia, where he became the chef of the presidential household and developed a sterling reputation among dignitaries who dined with the president. For all of the attempts of the skilled Folger curators to tout Hercules as a celebrity chef, his status as a slave and its effect cannot be hidden. The exhibit notes that the Washingtons moved Hercules each presidential year from Philadelphia to the Washingtons' home in Mount Vernon, Virginia and back again, solely because if Hercules remained in Philadelphia for six months he would, under law, be freed. When Washington returned to Mount Vernon at the end of his second term, Hercules wasn't rewarded with his freedom for his cooking successes. Instead, he was assigned as a laborer, presumably because the Washingtons wouldn't be entertaining as much at Mount Vernon. At this point, Hercules escaped--the only slave in the Washington household to do so--and vanished from the pages of history. Washington was reportedly angered at Hercules' ingratitude and attempted to buy another slave who could cook. Even if Hercules had remained at Mount Vernon, he wouldn't have been freed at Washington's death, as his other slaves were in his will, because Hercules belonged to Martha's family (see https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/hercules/ ). The Folger exhibit curators are to be commended for calling attentions to Hercules' culinary achievements. But dubbing Hercules a "celebrity chef," however well intended, seems inappropriate because even his owners didn't regard him as a celebrity, just a slave who could cook.

Slavery's stain is also apparent the yearbook of Governor Northam. As a publisher and journalist, I know that photos can sometimes end up on the wrong page or left out completely. I remember, when I was a magazine editor, reading The Washington Post on the bus, and laughing out loud when I saw a box on the page and inside it was the text, "Place photo here." The man sitting next to me looked over at my newspaper to see what had made me laugh. I pointed to the box on the page, he read it, turned to me and shrugged. It's only funny if it's happened to you, and it even happens to pros. But Governor Northam, who denied appearing in the blackface/KKK photo, acknowledged in his press conference that he had appeared in blackface on another occasion. I have written in a blog on the alleged racism behind the Washington football teams use of the name "redskin" that that claim makes no sense to me because people don't name their teams with an appellation they find disparaging. And yet some caucasians schooled in Virginia appear to have donned blackface in what appears to have been a mocking display of superiority. For a century, the name of the University of Virginia's yearbook has been "Corks & Curls," openly referring to the cork used to blacken a white face and the curls in wigs employed in minstrel shows that featured white actors in blackface. Until the 1960s, curricula in the Washington, D.C. and Virginia private and public schools included minstrel shows as potential musical programs for students.

The relative absence of non-caucasian actors and actresses among Academy Award winners over the past 90 years has long been a matter of concern. The first African American winner was Hattie McDaniels, who played the supporting role of a slave in Gone with the Wind in 1939. I've written before how she and her African American date sat at the only table for two at the Academy Award's banquet. And she wasn't a trend setter. It was 24 years before Sidney Poitier won for best actor in 1963, and another 27 years before Denzel Washington won for best supporting actor in 1990. It was another 11 years before Washington won the best actor award and Halle Berry garnered the award for best actress in 2001. Until February 2019, only five African American actors and six actresses had won supporting awards in awards' 90 year history. There has been one Academy Award winning Asian best actor (Ben Kingsley, who is half Indian and half Asian, for Gandhi in 1982), one Asian best supporting actor (Haing S. Ngor for The Killing Fields in 1992), and one winning Asian supporting actress (Miyoshi Umeki for Sayonara in 1957). 

But in February 2019, three of the four acting awards were won by non-caucasians--Remi Malek, a Los Angeles-born actor of Egyptian descent, for best actor; Regina King, who is African American, for best supporting actress; and Mahershala Ali, an American born Muslim, for best supporting actor. The legendary African American director and writer Spike Lee finally won an Academy Award for co-writing for Black KkKlansman, which is based on a true story about an African American police officer's infiltration of the KKK. In addition, the best picture award went to the Green Book. Inspired by a true story, the film stars Ali as Don Shirley, an Jamaica-born pianist who toured the south in 1962, and Viggo Mortensen as Tony Vallelonga, known as Tony Lip, a bigoted, New York Italian American bouncer who served as Shirley's driver and bodyguard on the trip south; both ultimately became friends.

My wife and I saw Green Book on the recommendation of my aunt, who loved it. We grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. I had no real interest in seeing Green Book, feeling it was about things I had lived through and didn't want to remember, but we went, and we loved it too. I thought the lead characters are realistically portrayed and very well acted. It is sometimes shocking, often warm, and sometimes very funny. The characters learn and grow, the film had a happy ending, but the sick world of racism was there. 

The film received good reviews, as of February 24, 2019 had earned $70 million in the U.S. alone against a $23 million production budget , and won the Golden Globe award for best comedy or a musical. But some commentators complained that it wasn't gritty enough for a film about racism. When the Academy Award for best picture was announced, the complaints continued. Complainers called it retrograde. Lee, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Black KkKlansman, compared Green Book to Driving Miss Daisy, the 1989 award winner, a feel-good film that had a fictional plot that is the reverse of Green Book; a wealthy southern lady is driven around by an African American chauffeur and they gain respect for each other.

A writer in the February 26, 2019 Washington Post scoffed that Green Book gave the impression that racism ended on Christmas Day in 1962 when Shirley came to Tony's house for Christmas.

Question to the Post writer: how do you combat racism, by federal edict or by individuals showing respect for each other, as they do in Green Book? We have legislation, but the problem still exists. It's step by step, person by person that it will be solved. Green Book was inspired by a true story. Tony Lip's son Nick was one of the screenwriters and remembers Shirley as a family friend. (Shirley's family says Tony Lip was just a chauffeur and objects that the film is mostly from Tony Lip's, not Shirley's perspective, not surprising because Tony's son co-wrote the script.) Giving Nick Vallelonga the benefit of the doubt, a true story about race relations that ends in friendship is something we should strive for and not diminish. 

Overall, the film industry did well. As the Northam and "Cork and Curls" yearbooks show, we have far to go. But things are better than they were in 1962 when they were better than in 1954 when the Supreme Court was compelled to overturn its 1896 "separate but equal" ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson--a horrible decision chronicled in a 2019 book titled Separate by Steve Luxenberg--and the civil rights movement accelerated.

Racism still exists, but it will only end if we believe that the ending of Green Book can be achieved by all.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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