Albert Finney obituary: an icon who stayed true

The talismanic young star of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning never lost touch with his roots, or indeed the youth in all of us, and was gracious a collaborator as he was graceful an actor.

9 May 1936–7 February 2019.

Thirza Wakefield
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Albert Finney was a private man. He volunteered relatively little information about himself over the course of his career. He was not much smitten with Hollywood, never tempted to attend an awards ceremony, even when nominated. There exists no autobiography, and few interviews with press. He withdrew from cinema at intervals to take up work on the stage. As Sidney Lumet observed in his memoir Making Movies (1995), of the many illustrious actors who appeared in Murder on the Orient Express (1975), only “Ingrid Bergman and Albert Finney bridged both worlds” of the theatre and the movie industry.

So it falls to Finney’s work to speak for him, and the work that speaks loudest of the man is Charlie Bubbles, his 1968 feature that came nearer his experience than any other films before or after.

Finney met his doppelganger in Shelagh Delaney, a Salford-born working-class writer of similar age, who was, like him, “sort of successful quite young”, as he worded it, with characteristic modesty. Upon reading her outline for Charlie Bubbles, he “just bit at the idea”, electing to direct as well as take the starring part. Their development of the screenplay together resulted in something of a communal biography: the story of a celebrated male writer whose fame dispatches him to a world in which he has no hope of belonging, and separates him, irrevocably, from his working-class kith and kin.

Albert Finney directing Timothy Garland in Charlie Bubbles (1961)

Albert Finney directing Timothy Garland in Charlie Bubbles (1961)

Finney’s Charlie is dead-eyed and leaden. He drifts, devoid of purpose, from business meeting to parental commission, before making a bid for freedom – or self-annihilation. Finney later confirmed his identification with Charlie: “I felt very close to what Shelagh was trying to explore.” His enthusiasm for the project, and the earnestness of his performance (“a little heavy”, he would later pronounce it), go some way to explaining his silence on matters personal.

Central to Finney’s enjoyment of directing was the shift of focus it effected. Speaking with Stephen Farber, he said, “One of the drawbacks about being an actor is that it’s a very subjective profession. You go to the studio and look at yourself being made up. Then you look at yourself in costume. You rehearse and worry about your lines and your character. There’s a lot of self in it: me, me, me. Directing is wonderful, because you worry about everything and everyone else.” The chance to direct was, for Finney, relief from the self-involvement of acting.

Gumshoe (1971)

Gumshoe (1971)

If Finney never directed again, he nonetheless found other ways to water down the self-regard intrinsic to his work. Under the auspices of Memorial Enterprises, Finney’s production company, which he co-ran with actor Michael Medwin, he put his weight behind the first cinematic releases of Stephen Frears (Gumshoe, 1971) and Tony Scott (Loving Memory, 1971).

He chose ensemble work: Tom Jones (1963); Murder on the Orient Express (1974); Big Fish (2003). And in a career notable for its variety, what is constant is the breathing room, the room to work, that he habitually afforded his cast mates. Finney was singularly careful with his co-stars, mindful, possibly, of the insight he gleaned while working behind the camera: “how vulnerable and strange a job” is acting, he learned of crossing the divide. His partnering of Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich (2000) and of Diane Keaton in Shoot the Moon (1983) are but two signal instances of his professional generosity.

Annie (1981)

Annie (1981)

This quality was never more noticeable than in his work with young performers. Finney made mincemeat of W.C. Fields’ wisdom, “never work with children or animals”. He had the distinction of working often with young actors given complex parts to play, parts that demanded an emotional range equal to, even exceeding, the typical adult film role.

In Shoot the Moon, he was George, a successful writer, and less successful father, whose infidelity hastens a separation from his wife. George and Faith are parented – comforted and chastened – by their four young children. At the film’s opening, the girls vie to dress and apply makeup to their mother as she gets ready to accompany George to an awards ceremony. Later, sensing their father’s dismay at their initially lacklustre responses to the beach-side situation of his lover’s home, they chorus their approval, “very pretty”, to placate him.

George’s relationship with his first-born Sherry is – as Pauline Kael noted in her rapturous review of Parker’s film – a love affair all its own, and the scene that marks the point of no return for Sherry and her father is the film’s best and most appalling. The violence-repentance routine George inflicts on Sherry in this bedroom scene he performs again with a dining chair as he makes to leave the house. Wrenching the chair free of the front door, where he had wedged it moments before, he uses too much force, so that it topples on its side. Carefully, he rights it, and touches his fingers to the chair back with a penitent tenderness he has forfeited the right to lay on his eldest daughter. It is testament to Finney’s physical ingenuity that the viewer has no need of seeing George’s face; his shame is manifest in his rigid frame, as he departs the family home, disgraced.

Shoot the Moon (1983)

Shoot the Moon (1983)

A good percentage of the scenes Finney plays in Shoot the Moon involve no other adult performer. Too few screenplays, especially those not intended as family entertainment, give child actors the chance to show children as capable of feeling as their grown-up counterparts; as able to be devastated, as intuitive. One wonders whether Finney was attracted to such roles as George in Shoot the Moon and Daddy Warbucks in Annie for the respectable ration of character and dialogue these films allowed to their child performers.

Or perhaps these roles appealed to Finney because he recognised that the way in which a person interacts with a child – whether he listens to or only humours the children in his midst – is loud-and-clear indication of the type of person he is. Possibly, Finney made it his business as an actor, whose job it is to interest himself in the workings of human behaviour, to hold in mind the child’s facility for reaching past the grown-up integument to the child inside; to hold in mind that our child selves are not so transformed by the lessons of adulthood as we care to think.

With Tom Courtenay in The Dresser (1983)

With Tom Courtenay in The Dresser (1983)

Certainly, Finney grabbed at opportunities to show the child inside of the man. Arthur Seaton hurls himself at sexual activity with the fervour of a person only lately come into independence of his parents. Orphan Annie calls, siren-like, to the child in Daddy Warbucks. The formidable ‘Sir’ of The Dresser (1983) regresses to a childlike state of dependency, his dresser’s maternal devotions of decades – the cosseting, the sponge baths, the steadying of nerves, the being ready with a Guinness at curtain-call – prefiguring his master’s distraction of mind and its symptomatic infancy. Faced in this condition with a performance of King Lear, his grave-faced, stentorian-voiced actor wants only to be held.

Even the meanness of Finney’s Scrooge (1970) has something of the playground about it; of the child’s pre-emptive self-exile at the prospect of being excluded. Finney’s misanthropist quakes like a boy before the first of four ghosts, and, confronted with his youth by the second, must restore to himself its innocence that he might experience the joy of Christmas, like his nephew and his clerk.

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Finney introduced the child into the character of Hercule Poirot, a precedent that Peter Ustinov and David Suchet would not take up. Finney’s Belgian detective is petulant, incontinently loud, and has the appearance of being worn by his costume of bowtie and lacquered black hair in Murder on the Orient Express. The character’s waxed moustache leaves exposed Finney’s full bottom lip, so that he looks to be pouting his way through a party of his parents’ hosting, and, indeed, it so happens that Poirot is, in this story, the only innocent.

It is clear that Finney will be best remembered for the film that made his name, Karel Reisz’s classic of the British New Wave movement, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). Finney gave Nottingham a great gift when he stepped into the role of Arthur Seaton. He was not himself from Nottingham, but near enough a match for the character to content its denizens for an eternity: he had emerged from a working-class regional community, and had a differentiating accent. Neither his voice nor his place of origin had been served by the medium of cinema up to that time.

The cast of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Louise Dunn and Norman Rossington – in Market Square, Nottingham

The cast of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Albert Finney, Shirley Anne Field, Louise Dunn and Norman Rossington – in Market Square, Nottingham

For over 60 years, Finney’s Seaton has been a talismanic point of comparison for the people of Nottingham, male and female. His charisma, his perpetual youth, his mardiness, his talent for dressing, his coincident need of money and mutinous sensibility, his walking perforce a tightrope between rebellion and conformism, holds a mirror to the Midlands-born and -raised, and raises our game immensely. The pride he confers on a place so underserved cannot be overstated.

In one promotional photograph taken at the time of filming, Finney strolls arm-in-arm with his co-stars through Nottingham’s Market Square. It’s been raining, and their reflections stretch sheer into the concrete. When it rains, Finney’s image swims in Slab Square’s glassy surface, a reminder to all who cross and re-cross it that we’re us and nobody else.

For this, Albert, and the rest, our immeasurable thanks.

 

In the Sight & Sound archive

Spring 1961: Albert Finney and Mary Ure talk about acting

 

Winter 1970/71: David Robinson on the set of Gumshoe

 

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