Watching the young Albert Finney in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and as Laurence Olivier’s son in The Entertainer, it’s possible to see the force he would become, the bull that treated china shops and pens equally. Round-faced, cherubic almost, Finney was nevertheless impossible to cast as an average blonde leading man. Tom Jones was his breakthrough, for which he received the first of five futile Academy Award nominations for Best Actor or Supporting Actor. Tony Richardson’s adaptation of the Fielding classic takes a frenzied, almost panicked approach to the material reflecting the times in which it was made; it’s stuck between plodding Hollywood fidelity to a war horse novel and the new freedoms allowed by the disintegrating studio system. Finney’s winking, earthy performance in the title role is all this Best Picture winner has going for it; his eating-as-sex scene with Joyce Redman and his breaking the fourth wall are its highlights.
Casting Finney proved difficult. Cast as the rake and rogue opposite Audrey Hepburn in 1967’s Two for the Road, I’m not sure whether director Stanley Donen realized how sour and charmless Finney was — was this intentional? Nor was he up to the challenge of staying awake as a twinkling, smirking Hercule Poirot through the elephantine adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express, the Nixon era’s version of Grand Hotel without the spritz. Indeed, every time he imitated Olivier by wearing fake noses and guts he couldn’t pad on artificially he looked imprisoned: think of Scrooge (1970); of his Daddy Warbucks in Annie, at the time one of the most expensive films ever made and a mainstay of cable television during the eighties; or in Wolfen (1981).
Then Finney became a middle-aged man, unspared and worn. Unexpectedly his acting in film gained range and vitriol. First, in Shoot the Moon as an acclaimed novelist divorcing the wife he still loves and separating from the four girls he adores. Playing opposite Diane Keaton unleashed something in Finney. This underseen film is the definitive portrait of deluded manhood and a marriage film to rival anything by Ingmar Bergman. He got back to back Oscar nominations for The Dresser (1983) and Under the Volcano (1984). The latter, another collaboration with Annie‘s John Huston, is a disaster, a literalizing of a notoriously baroque novel, but Finney triumphed as the sodden alcoholic counsel. He kept going: the boss in the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990); the bemused grieving widower in Rich in Love, also unseen; as a porcine Dr. Sloper in Washington Square (1997).
Unacknowledged and no doubt overworked, casting directors deserve their own guilds. Bouquets to Margery Simkin, who thought Finney and Julia Roberts would be Tracy and Hepburn. As a third-rate senior partner in a podunk Californian firm whose unmown eyebrows sink in despair whenever another hundred thousand from his million-dollar retirement fund goes out the window defending victims of PG&E’s disinformation campaign, Finney is a dry, crumbly delight in Erin Brockovich. Roberts, challenged by her co-star, stares down this lard-assed palooka. Sniffed by critics who thought Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic released in time for awards was a Serious Film drug trafficking, Erin Brockovich remains one of the great films about labor, eagle-eyed about the intersections of gender and class. Perhaps it would give Simkin and Soderbergh too much credit to cast Finney, the star pupil in the Angry Young Man Class of 1959, in a film cognizant of the woes of proletariat life, the travails of people untouched by Bill Clinton’s boom-boom policies.
The Brockovich Oscar nod led to the bigger paychecks that came with key supporting work in the Bourne films and Skyfall; also his ravaged patriarch in Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead with Ethan Hawke and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Strictly cheeseball, yet Finney plays his part as if it were in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (speaking of, what a hell of a James Tyrone he could’ve been). He was rather sweet in Tim Burton’s Big Fish and much lauded for his portrayal of Churchill in The Gathering Storm, but one must have a stomach of brass to endure another one of those in 2019.
Glancing at his filmography, Finney didn’t work himself to death. He was rarely cited in lists naming the greatest living actors. In life he might’ve been a holy terror like the Consul and Shoot the Moon‘s George Dunlap. It’s clear now that in his mind he had a through-line, reflected in his choice of parts. To find gradations in being “angry” and a “man” allowed flexibility, especially if you were indifferent to the “young” part.