Over six decades actor Albert Finney has proved himself one of the most durable, adaptable and iconic actors Britain has produced. Born in Salford in 1936, Finney has built a reputation as one of his generation’s finest performers, equally at home on screen and stage.
After a small role in Tony Richardson’s film adaptation of the successful stage play The Entertainer (1960), Finney found stardom with the iconic role of Arthur Seaton, an archetypal early 1960s ‘angry young man’, in the film adaptation of Alan Sillitoe’s novel Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. His mesmerising performance indicating that here was someone to keep an eye on.
Finney would quickly go on to find even more international acclaim with his next film when he took the lead in Tony Richardson and John Osbourne’s adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel Tom Jones (1963). Finney’s twinkling performance in this film earned him the first of his five Oscar nominations. Never happy taking the easy option, Finney followed this success with a darker, more difficult work, Night Must Fall.
Collaborating once again with Karel Reisz, director of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he seems to toy with audiences’ awareness of his developing star persona of the period. An overlooked film, today Night Must Fall seems a work of some substance, driven by a bewitching performance by Finney.
The late 1960s would see Finney move into producing as well as acting. He formed Memorial Enterprises with fellow actor Michael Medwin and the company would go on to be involved in the production of landmark British films such as Peter Watkins’ Privilege (1967) and Lindsay Anderson’s If…(1968) and Oh Lucky Man! (1973).
As well these they produced two of the key works of Finney’s career at this time. Charlie Bubbles (1968) saw Finney assume the director’s chair for the only time to bring a script by fellow Salfordian Shelagh Delaney to the screen. Gumshoe (1971) contains one of his most fondly remembered roles, that of Eddie Ginley, a Liverpool bingo caller obsessed with American crime fiction.
Particularly associated with The National Theatre, for much of the 1970s Finney would focus much of his attention on the theatre whilst only sporadically appearing on film. However, the decade would be noted for another Oscar nominated role as Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s star studded version of Murder on the Orient Express (1975).
Finney would explode back onto cinema screens in the early 1980s, appearing in a number of Hollywood productions. These were as varied as Michael Crichton’s Looker (1981), Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon (1983) and his first collaboration with Hollywood veteran John Huston as Daddy Warbucks in Annie (1982). The 1980s also offered Finney three roles that showcased his skills in widely different ways. The offbeat Wolfen (1981) was a mystical eco-thriller which saw him memorably (for those who saw it) play down-at-heel detective Dewey Wilson.
The Dresser (1983), in which he appeared as an ageing classical actor alongside Tom Courtenay’s faithful dresser, gleaned Finney another Oscar nomination. A similar nomination would follow his second collaboration with John Huston, Under the Volcano (1983). The 1980s would end with another landmark turn as mob boss Leo in the Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing (1990) bringing Finney to the attention of yet another generation of film aficionados.
In the 1990s the now more mature Finney found that whilst he was still able to attract plum lead and supporting roles in smaller films such as The Playboys (1992) and The Browning Version (1994), the opportunity for meatier parts was now coming from television. In that medium he would deliver a memorable turn in the BBC’s adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ The Green Man (1990) as well as playing a pivotal role in the two posthumously produced Dennis Potter series, Cold Lazarus (1996) and Karaoke (1996).
The pattern of undertaking smaller roles in films and more substantial (and award-winning) ones for television would also mark Finney’s career in the 21st century. Whilst gaining plaudits for supporting parts in well-received films such as his Ed Masry in Erin Brockovich (2000) and the older Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003), Finney would continue to deliver masterful performances – as Winston Churchill in The Gathering Storm (2002) and as the lead in the adaptation of H.E. Bates’ s My Uncle Silas (2001-2003) – on television.
If all that weren’t enough, in a 2003 article in The Sunday Times David Leppard and Robert Winnett revealed that Finney had turned down a CBE in 1980 and rejected a knighthood in 2000, quoting him as stating that the system ‘perpetuates snobbery’. Much to admire indeed.
To celebrate this unique career HOME is offering the chance to see a range of Albert Finney’s film work beginning on Sunday 3 June with Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and running throughout June ending with a screening of Big Fish on Wednesday 27 June.
Words by Andy Willis, Professor of Film Studies, School of Arts and Media, University of Salford