Thursday, July 30, 2009

An appreciation of Albert Finney

In the 1960s, a passel of actors from the United Kingdom and Ireland got their start in the movies playing rogues and cads, men who were catnip to the ladies. Actors from the Isles had been having success in Hollywood for generations, and the trend of hiring leading men who were ladies' men from across the pond wasn't new either, whether it was Cary Grant in the 1930s or Richard Burton in the 1950s. But the number of actors from the 1960s who fit that description is remarkable. An incomplete list off the top of my head would include Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Terrence Stamp, Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris, David McCallum, Alan Bates, Roger Moore and Michael York.

The careers of these actors follow many different paths. As many of them were hired to be younger versions of Richard Burton, it is not surprising that some fell into Burton's bad habits with booze. Some went on to be big film stars while others shone for a short while and faded.

The list is certainly incomplete because I left off Albert Finney. Finney lands the plum role of Tom Jones, the rakish hero from the comic novel by Henry Fielding. But just as he gets his big break playing one of the sexiest characters in English literature, within a decade he is playing Ebenezer Scrooge, one of the unsexiest characters in English literature, and follows that just a few years later with the role of Hercule Poirot, a largely asexual character. Unlike the other actors, Finney put on some weight and accepted being a character actor very easily.

I, for one, am glad he kept working and took on a larger variety of roles. I love his work. The 1970s version of Murder on the Orient Express is like an old friend to me and I've seen it countless times. Orient Express is a combination of two film genres that both contain a lot of cheese, Agatha Christie adaptations and films with all-star casts. Note that two of the actors from the 1960s British cad list are also in the film. Sean Connery, six years Finney's senior, plays the dashing military man in love with the lovely Vanessa Redgrave, while Michael York, six years his junior, plays the handsome European count in love with the luminescent Jacqueline Bisset. They get to play roles reserved for leading man types, while Finney gets the lion's share of the screen time playing the fussy Belgian detective.

I also love Finney's work in Miller's Crossing, an early Coen Brothers movie I reviewed in my very first month as a blogger. He plays an Irish mob boss in some unnamed American town, much of the action filmed in New Orleans. In this movie, Finney does what he does best. He listens. He plays perfectly off of Gabriel Byrne, who is the star of the piece and gets to play scenes cool. But in any film where the hero is cool, you need an actor to play a hothead, to show just how cool the hero is, and the hothead role fell to Jon Polito, a favorite of the Coen Brothers. Finney plays off Polito perfectly as well. As if I didn't love Albert Finney enough already, on the DVD commentary for the film, they show that Finney dressed up in drag to play an extra, one of the scandalized women who exit a ladies room when Byrne's character barges in to talk to a dame who is causing trouble.

I chose to write this piece because I have just finished watching Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, a recent crime thriller starring Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke as brothers involved in a robbery gone bad. Finney plays their father, and once again, he is great in every scene. He doesn't need lines, just time on camera. Whether it's a close-up or Finney listening to another actor or a scene where he is an old man no one will pay attention to, he never plays a false note. He's one of the most skilled film actors of the last fifty years.

I haven't seen everything Finney has ever done. I'll leave it to my readers to tell me how he was as Daddy Warbucks in Annie, for example. I just wanted to take a few minutes to write down my opinion that however good a movie is, it's a little bit better when Albert Finney is in it.


Margaret Benbow said...

I saw him first as the working-class cad/lover/brawler in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning--this was near the beginning of his career, and he played it brilliantly. (Yes, it probably helped that he himself was workingclass.) As you say, he has always been able do more with a glint of his eyes than most actors could manage with five hundred words and a klieglight. His lack of vanity is remarkable. In The Playboys, he's an overweight, over-the-hill village cop inarticulately and hopelessly in love with a young girl. He has very few lines,he's not a conventionally "sympathetic" character, but he shows the man's suffering and agonized frustrated rage so masterfully that this audience member at least couldn't take her eyes off him and found herself on his side.
You're right, Matty Boy--he's a great master, and I'd agree he deserves much more attention, except that that's probably the last thing he would want.

CDP said...

Nice should consider doing a Highlight Reel for him! He's also the best thing about Erin Brockovich, if you haven't seen it (I like the movie anyway, but Albert Finney is great as Julia Roberts' boss).

Anonymous said...

I loved him in Tom Jones.

Suzan said...

Not to mention his star turns in:

The Dresser

Two for the Road

Shoot the Moon

Under the Volcano

He's been my favorite actor since I saw him in Tom Jones when I was 12.

Oh yeah!

Thanks so much for the review.


Matty Boy said...

Thanks to my big brother for spotting an error. Errol Flynn was Australian, so I took him out of the post.

Margaret: Thanks for the tips. I'm going to look for what's available of his on Netflix.

CDP: He would be a good choice for a Highlight Reel, though I pick "He's Always Good" in advance. Also, he's exactly the kind of actor where people should be able to add their favorite performances, because there are so many.

Z&M: I agree.

Suzan: I forgot about The Dresser! I loved that movie.

dguzman said...

I love him.

Melinda said...

For the person looking for his stuff on Netflix, be sure to look for "A Man of no Importance" and if they have the BBC series "My Uncle Silas", series (or seasons) I and II. All the other films mentioned in these comments are also great. He has a small part in Amazing Grace (2006), and one of his scenes is the most mesmerizing in the movie. If it doesn't move you, you are stone. He is the most brilliant actor ever!