Tonight’s Saturday Night Cinema feature is a tribute to Albert Finney, who passed away yesterday.
SNC regulars are long familiar with his work and the affection we hold for him, especially in the sweet and wrenching Two for the Road. Finney leaves behind an awesome body of work.
Nominated for five Oscars, Finney’s range include is best known for a variety of roles from Tom Jones, Scrooge and Poirot to Churchill and Kincade in James Bond epic Skyfall. He leaves behind an incredible boy of work, and so I chose two movies — bookends, actually. First we have Finney’s breakthrough film, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, a black-and-white low budget 1960 film “steeped in smoggy vistas of smokestacks and deprivation,” in which Finney achieved early stardom.
The film is one of a series of “kitchen sink drama” films made in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as part of the British New Wave of filmmaking, from directors such as Reisz, Jack Clayton, Lindsay Anderson, John Schlesinger and Tony Richardson and adapted from the works of writers such as Sillitoe, John Braine and John Osborne. A common trope in these films was the working-class “angry young man” character who rebels against the oppressive system of his elders (in this case, the character of Arthur).
In 1999, the British Film Institute named Saturday Night and Sunday Morning the 14th greatest British film of all time on their Top 100 British films list.
Churchill, which earned Finney his first and only Emmy Award. “Churchill was the English bulldog and Finney was an English bulldog of an actor.”
Variety: Albert Finney was destined to play Winston Churchill. That was the view of the producers behind the 2002 HBO movie “The Gathering Storm,” which earned Finney his first and only Emmy Award. Finney, who died Thursday in London at the age of 82, was envisioned for the role of Churchill in “Storm” from the outset, according to producer Colin Callender, who ran HBO’s movies and miniseries department at the time Ridley Scott’s Scott Free Productions made “Storm.”
Finney brought to the role both the physical attributes of Churchill — “Churchill was the English bulldog and Finney was an English bulldog of an actor,” Callender observes — as well as the charisma that is so important to any statesman.
“Finney had all the right sensibilities,” Callender says. “He could bash the table and then smile and get away with it.”
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.
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