Remembering Albert Finney

Earlier this month the world said farewell to British film, television and stage actor Albert Finney who died at the age of 82. A graduate of The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Mr. Finney entertained audiences for over fifty years in a diverse range of roles. Many of his performances earned him critical accolades and award nominations, others were fan favorites, and a quite a few could (and do!) fall into either category.

Over the course of his career, Finney received Oscar nominations for five very different roles.  He was recognized for his lead performances as the bawdy, raucous Tom Jones (1963), Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), a volatile Shakespearean actor in The Dresser (1983) and a self-destructive drunk in 1984 ‘s Under the Volcano(It’s said that actor Nicolas Cage studied Finney’s performance in preparation for his Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas.)  His last nomination came in 2000 for his supporting role as Erin Brockovich’s gruff employer.

In television, he was most decorated for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the 2002 HBO film The Gathering Storm. Finney brought home an Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA for that role.

The video below features clips of most of the aforementioned performances plus a bonus one from the film Charlie Bubbles, which was also Albert Finney’s directorial debut.

Lest we forget his theater work, Finney was Tony nominated for his work in two Broadway productions; Luther in 1964 and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg in 1968. In 1986, he won the Olivier Best Actor statue for his role as an aging gangster in the West End production of Orphans. I was fortunate to experience his enthralling performance when I was in London on a college semester abroad. A film version was made the following year with Finney reprising his role from the play.

For some of you, hearing that Albert Finney died may have brought to mind his turns in musical films such as Scrooge (1970) or as the shiny-domed Daddy Warbucks in the 1982 film adaptation of Annie.

In the last decade of his acting career, he appeared in a variety of movie projects such as Big FishA Good YearBefore the Devil Knows You’re DeadAmazing Grace and the Bourne film franchise. His final on-screen appearance was in the 2012 Bond feature, Skyfallin which he played the caretaker of James’ family estate.

When I do profiles like this, I almost always discover work by my subject that I haven’t heard of before. In the case of Mr. Finney, I have unearthed a handful of films that I’ve already added to my to-watch list. I’ve you’ve not seen them, you might want to take note as well.

Finney’s  first starring film role was in the 1960  “angry young man” drama Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. He played Arthur Seaton, a rebellious, two-timing, hard-living factory worker. His restless and charming portrayal earned him the BAFTA for Most Promising Newcomer.

In 1967, Finney appeared opposite Audrey Hepburn in Two for the Road. (How have I never seen this on TCM?) Anyway, they play a troubled married couple on a road trip who look back on previous journeys that have contributed to the ups and downs in their relationship. Have I already requested this one from my library? Have you seen how handsome Albert is in the clip? Then the answer is a resounding “Yes, I have.”

I’ve also not seen the Cohen brothers’ 1990 gangster film Miller’s Crossing which featured Finney as Leo O’Bannon, a stubborn Irish crime boss caught in a power struggle with another local mobster during the Prohibition era. The bravado required for this role could only be pulled off by an actor of Finney’s caliber.

My final discovery from the Finney catalog is the 1994 film, A Man of No Importance. Albert plays Alfie Byrne, a mild-mannered Dublin bus conductor. Though his sister is always trying to find him “the right girl”, Alfie lives for his passions – amateur theater and Oscar Wilde in particular.

Most of these films can be tracked down on Hulu and Amazon Prime (sometimes through add -on channels), YouTube Movies, iTunes or other similar services. Public libraries are also good places to find obscure older titles.

Albert Finney embodied an authenticity, an intensity and, dare I say, a cheekiness that defined his performances. It is said that he turned down the title role in Lawrence of Arabia and Laurence Olivier’soffer to succeed him as head of Britain’s National Theater. Apparently that sort of independence endured throughout his career and his spirit will be missed. Please feel free to share your memories about these and any other of Albert Finney’s performances in the comments.

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