×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Remembering Five-Time Oscar Nominee Albert Finney, Who Played Iconic Roles With a Wink

'Tom Jones' made him the face of modern British cinema, but it was the twinkle in his eye that defined the star's unique bond with audiences.

Albert Finney was not yet 50 when he earned his third Oscar nomination playing a volatile ball of ego and insecurity in Ronald Harwood’s brilliant backstage drama “The Dresser.” At one point, the character — a high-maintenance Shakespearean stage actor slowly collapsing in upon himself like some kind of dying sun — bellows, “I can’t do it anymore! I have nothing more to give!”

That was 35 years ago. His character Sir may have been primed to expire after more than 200 performances as King Lear In “The Dresser,” but Finney, who died Thursday, still had at least half of his career — and two more Oscar nominations — ahead of him: as the epically self-destructive drunk in John Huston’s “Under the Volcano,” and the surly boss-turned-champion in “Erin Brockovich.”

Younger audiences probably know the 82-year-old British actor best as the baritone-voiced mastermind behind the shadowy CIA operations in the first two Jason Bourne sequels, or else as the groundskeeper of James Bond’s estate in “Skyfall.” I grew up thinking of him as Daddy Warbucks in Huston’s 1982 screen adaptation of “Annie,” while a previous generation of kids saw him a dozen years earlier as the miserly Ebenezer in Ronald Neame’s “Scrooge.”

But Finney’s most significant contribution occurred a decade prior, when the dashing young star did his part to evolve what we think of as great acting. Though he had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art as a Shakespearean leading man, Finney went a completely different direction in film, playing contemporary rapscallions and characters of ruthlessly modern sensibility. His style also diverged from what was happening on the American stage and screen at the time, where Marlon Brando and his peers had been innovating “the Method” on the other side of the Atlantic. Instead of embracing Stanislavski’s system, Finney married technical mastery with a kind of spontaneous, unpredictable energy, resulting in characters who felt simultaneously representative of the moment and almost radically ahead of their time.

After seeing Finney deliver a pair of magnetic performances in “The Entertainer” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” director David Lean reportedly wanted him to play the title role in “Lawrence of Arabia,” but Finney declined. And so, the part that effectively launched his screen career was the lead in “Tom Jones” — a runaway phenomenon whose massive popular success (Tony Richardson’s 1963 film won four Academy Awards, including best picture, and earned Finney his first Oscar nomination) sprung from its radically irreverent handling of a respected British classic, a combination perfectly suited to Finney’s unique screen persona.

Richardson’s go-for-broke adaptation connected with audiences as few films had, revolutionizing British cinema, even as it helped to spark a massive cultural shift that would set London swinging in the ’60s. Characterized by bawdy sexual escapades and a raucous attitude that prized youthful indiscretion over centuries of class-based propriety, Tom Jones was, quite literally, a “lucky bastard,” and Richardson’s go-for-broke approach called for a dashing young actor to dismantle the tradition of polite period performance in favor of something wild, anarchic, and gleefully self-aware.

Clearly, no Method actor could have done the job, if only because the film’s radical view of honesty in performance depended not on accessing raw emotional truth deep within, but a kind of sly sort of acknowledgement between audience and star that everyone was in on the same joke. To drive that home, Finney breaks the fourth wall at several points, gazing directly into the camera to acknowledge the absurdity of the situation at hand.

It was there, in “Tom Jones,” that audiences first caught what would become the signature twinkle — and figurative, conspiratorial wink — in Finney’s eye, visible in varying forms in nearly every role he’s played since. You catch it in his blood-chilling turn as the Irish crime boss in “Miller’s Crossing,” a next-best variation on Brando’s iconic mafia pater familias in “The Godfather.” And it’s clear in the scene where Finney delivers a $2 million bonus to Julia Roberts in “Erin Brockovich,” holding back a smile for the audience’s benefit as he endures her tirade about being undervalued at the firm.

That cheeky brand of self-awareness is the defining quality in what I consider to be Finney’s best role, as the hitchhiking womanizer who picks up Audrey Hepburn (or is it the other way around?) in Stanley Donen’s 1967 “Two for the Road.” Whether sneaking sideways smiles at the camera or giving his best Humphrey Bogart impression, Finney puts his charms in service of a character who’s constantly in seduction mode, even long after meeting — and marrying — the woman of his dreams, finding the arc in a character who goes from being “a bad-tempered, disorganized, conceited failure” (in the words of Frederic Raphael’s Oscar-nominated script) to “a bad-tempered, disorganized, conceited success.”

Though underappreciated at the time, the rip-roaring two-hander still feels cutting-edge today, in part because it approaches the ups and downs of marriage in honest, adult terms, but also thanks to the nearly-whiplash-inducing way it ricochets through a dozen years — and several trans-European road trips — in the span of a couple’s relationship (the average shot is something like seven seconds in this rapid-cut marvel). We all have our favorite Finney performances, but “Two for the Road” is the one that I imagine comes closest to the man himself, the role where rueful honesty aligns most perfectly with the way he could enlist an audience in confederation with his characters.

Over the course of a more than six-decade screen career, Finney gained and lost weight for his roles, transformed his appearance, and shaved his head as he deemed necessary to create an unforgettable character. All the while, he continued to work in theater, even stepping away from the screen for a nearly-seven-year stretch — following his eccentric, Oscar-nominated turn as Hercule Poirot in “Murder on the Orient Express” — during which he tackled Hamlet, Macbeth, and Uncle Vanya on stage.

He gave and he gave, and though many of us were never fortunate enough to see him walk the boards, because so much of his work was captured on celluloid, we are left with an indelible record of so many of those great performances, that spark in his eye never to be extinguished.

 

More Film

  • DF-10193 – L-R: Ben Hardy (Roger Taylor),

    'Bohemian Rhapsody' Leads MPSE Golden Reel Awards for Sound Editing

    “Bohemian Rhapsody” followed up love from Cinema Audio Society sound mixers with a pair of honors at the Motion Picture Sound Editors’ 66th annual Golden Reel Awards Sunday night. The musical biopic scored wins for dialogue and ADR as well as sound editing in a musical. The film is nominated for sound editing at the Oscars [...]

  • Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" in

    Writers Guild Makes It Official: This Is the Most Wide-Open Oscars Race Ever

    For the record, we’re in uncharted territory this Oscar season. While we still have the costume designers’ ceremony to get through on Tuesday, the Writers Guild Awards put a bow on the major guild kudos circuit Sunday night. The results have yielded what is, unequivocally, the most wide-open Oscar field in history. The major guild [...]

  • Melissa McCarthy as "Lee Israel" and

    WGA Awards 2019: 'Can You Ever Forgive Me?,' 'Eighth Grade' Win Screenplay Awards

    In a pair of upsets, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has won the Writers Guild of America’s adapted screenplay award for Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty and Bo Burnham has won the original screenplay award for “Eighth Grade.” The major television trophies went to “The Americans,” “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” “Homeland” and “Barry” for the [...]

  • Alita Battle Angel

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel' No Match for China's 'Wandering Earth' Overseas

    Hollywood movies like “Alita: Battle Angel” and “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” are doing respectable business overseas, but they’re proving no match for foreign titles at the international box office. The Chinese New Year is bringing in huge business in the Middle Kingdom. China’s sci-fi epic “The Wandering Earth” pulled in a [...]

  • ABA_062_DAU_0060_v0409.87501 – Rosa Salazar stars as

    Box Office: 'Alita: Battle Angel' Wins Dismal President's Day Weekend

    Fox’s sci-fi adventure “Alita: Battle Angel” dominated in North America, but its opening weekend win isn’t leaving the box office with much to celebrate. Tracking services estimate that this will be one of the lowest grossing President’s Day weekends in years. Ticket sales are on pace to be the smallest bounty for the holiday frame [...]

  • Bohemian Rhapsody

    'Bohemian Rhapsody,' 'Marvelous Mrs. Maisel' Among Cinema Audio Society Winners

    Queen biopic “Bohemian Rhapsody” won the Cinema Audio Society’s top prize for sound mixing at Saturday night’s 55th annual CAS Awards. The film is Oscar-nominated for sound mixing this year along with “Black Panther,” “First Man,” “Roma” and “A Star Is Born.” In a surprise over heavy-hitters “Incredibles 2” and “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Wes [...]

  • Oscars Placeholder

    Make-Up and Hair Stylist Guild Applauds Academy's Stance on Airing Every Oscar Winner

    Rowdy boos were followed by triumphant cheers at the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild Awards on Saturday in Los Angeles, as the Hollywood union touched on a week of controversy over a reversed decision to hand out four Oscars during the show’s commercial breaks. Hair and makeup was one of the four categories that would [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content