Albert Finney: Farewell to a king
The death of actor Albert Finney last week unleashed an outpouring of tribute and praise to an actor, whom many considered among the Greatest Actors of All Time, and I’m in no position to argue, because I’ve been a huge fan all my life – even before I embarked on a professional career as a film critic and historian.
In 2000, I had the opportunity to attend the New York press junket for Erin Brockovich, the Steven Soderbergh drama in which he starred with Julia Roberts; it was not an opportunity I took lightly. (Indeed, my participation in that junket was the subject of a feature article in the May 2000 issue of Premiere Magazine.)
Early in his career, when he was taking the London stage by storm, Finney was being hailed as the heir apparent to Laurence Olivier or Richard Burton – a great talent on the threshold of super-stardom. However correct the last part of that sentiment, he wasn’t the next Olivier or the next Burton. He was the one – and only – Albert Finney. Unpredictable and versatile as an actor, unpretentious as a person. There will never be another like him.
At the Erin Brockovich roundtable, in which a group of journalists engage talent on a rotating basis, Albert Finney buoyantly bounded into the room and immediately started shaking hands with each and every person, working the room like the master he was.
“I’ve worked with some great, great people – and she’s right up there,” he said of his leading lady. “I’ve got nothing but praise and admiration for her – and for Steven, don’t let’s leave him out.”
When a reporter commented on the chemistry between Finney and Roberts in the film, he rolled right with it. “Mention it to Julia if you see her because I’d love to get ahold of her coattails and go for the ride. You know, a few handouts or small character roles for an aging British juvenile would be very welcome!”
The praise was reciprocal. Everyone involved in Erin Brockovich, whether co-star Aaron Eckhart, producers Danny DeVito and Stacey Sher, Soderbergh or Roberts, expressed both admiration and adoration for him. Julia Roberts was pretty much the biggest star in the world at the time, and she gushed over him like a schoolgirl. Soderbergh brought him back for sharp cameo roles in Traffic (2000) and Ocean’s Twelve (2004).
Finney famously turned down Lawrence of Arabia (1962), which made Peter O’Toole an international star. Not that it mattered, because a year later Finney did likewise in Tom Jones. He played Hercule Poirot – an unforgettable performance – in Murder on the Orient Express (1974) after Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield were unavailable, but didn’t return for Death on the Nile (1978), opting instead to play a small role in Ridley Scott’s feature debut, The Duellists (1977) – reportedly for a case of Champagne!
He won an Emmy and a Golden Globe playing Winston Churchill in HBO’s The Gathering Storm (2002) – and if you think Gary Oldman’s Oscar-winning turn in The Darkest Hour (2017) was the definitive Churchill, think again – but didn’t reprise the role in 2009’s Into the Storm, so Brendan Gleeson picked up an Emmy for the role.
On the other hand, Finney appeared in the London production of Lyle Kessler’s Orphans yet reprised it for Alan J. Pakula’s vastly overlooked 1987 film version – giving a devastating performance in a film that has yet to truly be rediscovered. Finney’s performance as the doomed, alcoholic British consul in Geoffrey Firmin in John Huston’s adaptation of Under the Volcano (1984) is, in my opinion, one of the single best screen performances of the 1980s, and his role as the bombastic but vulnerable Shakespearean actor “Sir” in The Dresser (1983) not far behind.
In short, Finney was his own man. He followed his own whims, charted his own course, and genuinely seemed to enjoy wherever the journey took him – and along the way forged a career as impressive for its longevity as its variety.
During the junket, I also arranged to have a one-on-one interview with Finney, which is exactly what it sounds like. This was also an opportunity I wasn’t going to take lightly, although I couldn’t help but be star-struck. Living in New Jersey as a kid, watching Murder on the Orient Express or Scrooge (1970) – or managing to talk my father into taking me to see the R-rated Wolfen (1981), another film ripe for rediscovery – did I ever think in my wildest dreams I’d be sitting across from an actor I so admired? Not in a million years.
Given how much enjoyment and entertainment he’d given me over the years, I simply had to thank him – and I knew the perfect way. Knowing that he was a connoisseur of cigars, I’d purchased an expensive one at the hotel gift shop and at the conclusion of our talk, presented to him with my sincerest thanks. He smiled, embraced me, and announced: “I shall smoke this tonight, thank you!”
It was the least I could do.
Finney was five-for-five at the Academy Awards. Nominated five times (Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express, The Dresser, Under the Volcano, Erin Brockovich), he never won. What’s more, he never even attended the ceremony – any of them. He joked that he couldn’t sit still that long without going outside for a smoke, but the truth is that he had a healthy, even refreshing, disregard for hype and hoopla, pomp and circumstance. It’s well-known that he turned down a knighthood more than once, and I couldn’t help but ask at the end of our interview: “Are we going to see a ‘Sir’ Albert Finney?”
“No, no, no,” he said with a smile. “‘Albert’ or ‘Mister’ is just fine.”
See Mark Burger’s reviews of current movies on Burgervideo.com. © 2019, Mark Burger.