Albert Finney, who died Thursday at the age of 82, was an actor of rare versatility, convincing as gruff, refined, lovable and unforgiving, yet always bringing to each role a remarkable and unexpected grace. A five-time Oscar nominee, it is perhaps proper to his character that he never actually won — he seemed to relish remaining a bit of an outsider, as when he twice turned downs honors from the Queen of England, a CBE in 1980 and a knighthood in 2000.
Asked about his attitude towards awards and accolades in a 1993 interview with The Times, Finney said, "That's not my yardstick. It might be yours, not mine… I think it's wrong to get too attached to prizes or to guns, medals and diplomas, either."
A list such as this will inevitably leave out a few key roles, and, with Finney, it would be easy to fill these five slots many times over. In addition to the roles below, he was also notable in “Two For the Road,” “Charlie Bubbles” (which he also directed), ”Gumshoe,” “Shoot the Moon,” “Annie,” his Oscar-nominated turn in “The Dresser,” two of the “Bourne” pictures and “Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.” His last substantial screen role was in the 2012 James Bond movie “Skyfall.”
Finney came from the city of Salford in the north of England, the son of a bookmaker, and went on to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts alongside Peter O’Toole. In his breakthrough performance in Karel Reisz’s 1960 film “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning,” Finney helped to usher in a new kind of British acting, one that combined the training and technique of drama schools and stage work with a rough-around-the-edges feeling and interior emotion that drew from everyday life.
Directed by Tony Richardson and adapted by John Osborne, two of the leading exponents of the British “angry young man” school of film and theater, “Tom Jones” managed to be both realist and a romp — a bawdy period piece. Jones would earn Finney his first Oscar nomination for a performance that perfectly encapsulates the raw sex appeal of his youth and the more thoughtful, emotional depths of which he was also capable. Here bringing heart to what could be a harsh cad, in even his his gruffest, roughest performances, Finney always found an emotional center that allowed audiences in.
‘Murder on the Orient Express’
Finney was only in his late 30s when he took on the role of dandy-ish detective Hercule Poirot in Sidney Lumet’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” seeming to reject his leading man image to dig deep into an oddball character performance. Leading a large ensemble cast, he made Poirot into a strange, droll man who unnerves everyone he meets in one way or another.
In his original 1974 review of the film, Times critic Charles Champlin said “although the roguish Albert Finney of ‘Tom Jones’ or the factory-working Finney of ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’ would be almost anybody’s last pick for the haughty and debonair Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, he is formidable, merveilleux and a bloody delight.”
‘Under the Volcano’
Just a few years after appearing as Daddy Warbucks in John Huston’s adaption of “Annie,” Finney reteamed with the filmmaker for this dark exploration of a man’s unraveling via drunkenness and despair, based on a novel by Malcolm Lowry. Arguably the finest showpiece for all that Finney was capable of on-screen, this performance earned him his fourth Oscar nomination for best actor.
In a 1984 piece on the film, Times critic Sheila Benson noted, “Finney’s performance can’t be absorbed in one viewing, or even two… He seems to be working on three or four levels simultaneously, each perfectly clear to him. He is charming while he is disintegrating before our eyes… I wonder when we’ll have a performance to equal this one in the sum of its intelligence and execution — conceivably not in a moviegoing generation.”
In Joel and Ethan Coen’s gangster-land fantasia, a gloss on the world of writer Dashiell Hammett, Finney played a tough crime boss fighting to maintain his power. In Finney’s most memorable scene in the film, he is at home listening to a recording of “Danny Boy” when he springs into action with a violent counter-attack against enemies attempting to invade his abode.
In her original 1990 review of “Miller’s Crossing,” Times critic Benson said, “There is something about the sight of Finney, alone, at night and on the offensive, his cigar stub jammed into his dressing gown pocket, his crested slippers on his bare feet, his Thompson machine gun spitting sparks into the dark, that is breathtaking — as filmmaking and as characterization.”
Thought the film is dominated by Julia Roberts’ Oscar-winning turn in the title role as a woman who becomes an environmental activist, Finney provides a necessary counterbalance as the lawyer who teaches her the ropes. It was another unpredictable performance from the actor, one with a newfound warmth. He earned his fifth and final Oscar nomination (and only nomination in the supporting actor category) for the Steven Soderbergh film.
In a 2000 interview with The Times for the film, Finney reflected on the versatility of his career, saying, “I've come to realize that it suits me going hither and yon. I think the most important thing for a strolling player like myself is to enjoy what you're working on. Which I mostly do."