“To be a character who feels a deep emotion, one must go into the memory’s vault and mix in a sad memory from one’s own life” – Albert Finney, 1936-2019.
Finney was part of a post-war wave of English performers, including Tom Courtenay, Richard Burton, Peter O’Toole, Alan Bates and Oliver Reed, who made a quite a splash on the big screen in the early ‘60s. The much-admired actor, who was nominated for five Oscars spanning four different decades yet never won one, died at age 82 on Thursday.
Finney first earned awards attention as a hard-drinking, philandering and disgruntled member of the working class in the 1960 British release “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” which was emblematic of a genre called the “kitchen sink drama.” But it was his charming rogue who proved irresistible to women in 1963’s “Tom Jones,” a bawdy, boisterous picaresque that blew the dust off of period pieces, that was the source of his first Academy Award nomination. The scene that would be his calling card was the lust-riddled meal shared with the lascivious Mrs. Walters (who could have been his mother) as they tear into their food like amorous carnivores. The film would win four Oscars: Best Picture, director for Tony Richardson, adapted screenplay and score.
He was at ease with larger-than-life iconic characters and brave enough to venture forth as the singing title character of 1970’s “Scrooge,” based on Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” and also as the bald Daddy Warbucks in the 1982 musical “Annie.” But he left an indelible stamp on Agatha Christie’s finicky detective Hercule Poirot in 1974’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” the source of his second Oscar nomination. So much so that he feared being typecast, griping that “people do think I weigh 300 pounds with a French accent.” He also won an Emmy for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2002 BBC production of “The Gathering Storm.”
But I was always most fond of his more intimate, emotion-driven roles opposite the likes of Audrey Hepburn (1967’s sweet-and-sour love story “Two for the Road”), Diane Keaton (the devastating “Shoot the Moon”) and Jacqueline Bisset (1984’s “Under the Volcano,” in which Finney gives one of the most nuanced performances of an alcoholic ever captured onscreen and the source of his fourth Oscar nomination). As for 1983’s “The Dresser,” which provided his third Oscar try, it was a different kind of love story shared by two men, a bombastic old-style Shakespearean actor (Finney) who is beaten down by age and Courtenay as his loyal personal assistant, who calls him “Sir.”
His final Oscar nomination was a supporting one, as Julia Roberts’ lawyer boss who inspires his legal clerk to become an environmental activist in 2000’s “Erin Brockovich.”
Truth be told, Finney was never too comfortable with celebrity-hood, especially when awards were involved. As he said of the Oscars, which he never attended, “It’s a long way to go for a party, sitting there for six hours not having a cigarette or a drink. It’s a waste of time.” He even turned down knighthood in 2000.
Among those paying tribute to Finney was Daniel Craig, his co-star in the 2012 James Bond adventure “Skyfall.” “The world has lost a giant,” he said. “Wherever Albert is now, I hope there are horses and good company.”
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