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Albert Finney: actor, 1936-2019 | Financial Times

Albert Finney: actor, 1936-2019 | Financial Times

February 08
22:57 2019

He tucked into acting roles as if they were square meals and he was setting about them with elbows spread and robust glee.

His best-known film moment is still that famous eating scene in Tom Jones: a libertine flirtation disguised as a roistering repast.

But Albert Finney, who died on Friday aged 82, was an unlikely costume star — which perhaps gave that 1963 commercial mega-hit, directed by Finney’s early mentor Tony Richardson, its paradoxical appeal.

Born in Salford, Lancashire, in 1936, he was anointed early as a leading actor in the social realist mode. His father a bookmaker, he became a working-class hero in movies and plays. His first films, both made in 1960, were The Entertainer (directed by Richardson) and — his breakout role as a movie matinee idol — Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

He was the foremost figure in the “Kitchen Sink” generation that emerged in the 1960s, with a pack of talented regional actors, also including Tom Courtenay and Alan Bates, supplanting the British stage and screen’s ageing champions of elocution. In the theatre, Finney played the title part in Billy Liar before Courtenay took the screen role. He brought the same sinewy, Everyman style — assertively proletarian but with hints of mischief and rebellious misfit pride — to playing John Osborne’s Luther on stage (1964).

Albert Finney in Scrooge © REX/Shutterstock

He might have worked similar wonders with Lawrence of Arabia, a role for which he was director David Lean’s first choice before Finney bowed out, disliking the contract ties he would have to sign, and left the film to Peter O’Toole.

He was never anything but his own boss. That meant quirky, sometimes alarming career choices. His first film as director, Charlie Bubbles (1968) was a critical success: an unexpected gem, praised for its elliptical narrative style, serio-comic panache and visual assurance.

But no one understood then, nor even quite now, why Finney devoted equal care and artistry to playing Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974), an overdressed potboiler stuffed with stars, or to singing and dancing, with no discernible expertise in either, in Scrooge (1970) and later Annie (1982).

He still caught the eye and ear of audiences, and the praise of many critics. And he could swerve back to base in dramatic roles. But after The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano these increasingly became showman cameos for directors he loved or admired: for the Coens, for whom he played an American gangster in Miller’s Crossing; for Steven Soderbergh in his 2000 Erin Brockovich (whose star Julia Roberts insisted from the stage in sharing her Oscar with him); for Tim Burton in Big Fish (2003).

Albert Finney with Jessica Lange in ‘Big Fish’ © REX/Shutterstock

Just as Finney’s films often seemed to bear no relation one to another, his stage appearances were spectacularly unpredictable. He was an early stalwart of Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre company, in plays from Much Ado About Nothing to Miss Julie. He barnstormed his way, to cheers from some reviewers, through a rare production of Marlowe’s epic Tamburlaine the Great. In more modern dress, he won an Olivier Award in Orphans (1986) and lent his stellar lustre to Art.

He was nominated for Oscars several times, though never won one. He was awarded an Emmy for his widely praised performance as Winston Churchill in the BBC-HBO television drama The Gathering Storm.

It seemed typical of the Lancastrian who refused to do the bidding of either the old-school British theatrical establishment or the Hollywood star system that he should turn down a CBE and, in 2000, a knighthood.

If Finney was a star, he shone and blazed when he chose; and seemed scarcely to resent, but rather to encourage, those rival stars in-the-making, such as Courtenay or O’Toole, who eclipsed him by taking the motion-picture roles that had seemed his for the asking. For an actor with — sometimes — a high and ironic “actorish” style, he was one of the least actorish performers, seeming to keep his distance from vanity, publicity and the machinery of fame.

He was married twice, to British actress Jane Wenham, with whom he had a son, Simon, who works in the film industry as a camera operator, later to French film star Anouk Aimée.

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