Reel Dad: Remembering Albert Finney

Albert Finney in Erin Brokovich.
Albert Finney in Erin Brokovich.

From the start, his smile lit the screen.
And in that first moment Albert Finney appeared on film — in a small role in Laurence Olivier’s The Entertainer in 1960 — his smile found a way to reach through the screen to magically connect with the audience.
The actor died Feb. 8 at age 82.
Over more than 50 years, whether playing broad comedy or serious drama, his command of facial expression continued to enable this accomplished actor to create a gallery of memorable characters on screen, television and stage.
Here’s a look at the best of Albert Finney on film.

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960)
Finney grabbed our attention with his brittle, brutal portrayal of a down-on-his-luck factory worker trying to balance all the demands of an unpredictable personal life. The actor demonstrated an uncanny ability to get inside a character and share what he discovered.
Tom Jones (1963)
The actor captured his first Academy Award nomination for his outrageously funny interpretation of a fun-loving adventurer in this Oscar-winning adaptation of Henry Fielding’s classic novel. Finney’s broad approach to the character made a period piece feel current. And the film’s popularity made him a movie star.
Two for the Road (1967)
In what may be the actor’s strongest screen performance, Finney shined as a philandering architect in Stanley Donen’s smoldering examination of the realities of marriage. The actor never hesitated to share the character’s darker sides in a series of powerful conversations with co-star Audrey Hepburn, also doing her best work.
Scrooge (1970)
Finney surprised his fans by showcasing his skills as a song-and-dance man as he gracefully aged on screen in this musical adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. His range to play Ebenezer Scrooge through many years gives the actor many opportunities to shine. And he showed he can sing, too.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974)
Sporting shiny black hair, and a waxed moustache, Finney had a field day playing detective Hercule Poirot in this all-star adaptation of Agatha Christie’s thriller. While some critics complained he may have over-acted in the role, Finney relished the film’s success at the box office and nabbed his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
Shoot the Moon (1982)
How the Academy overlooked both Finney and costar Diane Keaton at Oscar time is an awards mystery. They are unforgettable as a married couple who let their bitterness poison the family they share. Finney dared to show all the layers of this troubled man whose anger defines every step he takes and each word he says.
Annie (1982)
While John Huston may not know how to direct a musical, and the overdone production numbers swallow the touching moments, Finney proved his earlier song-and-dance success as Scrooge was no movie fluke. He worked his magic to turn what could be a one-dimensional Daddy Warbucks into an insightful man who simply needs to connect with others.
The Dresser (1983)
Oscar nomination number three goes to Finney for this exaggerated exploration of a veteran actor’s efforts to make it on stage performance after performance. The actor has a field day in a part that called upon his many years of playing Shakespeare on stage in England, including a lauded Hamlet at the Old Vic in the 1970s.
Under the Volcano (1984)
Once again, Finney found himself in the Oscar race for Best Actor for recreating one harrowing day in the life of a depressed man who uses alcohol to escape. The actor makes us believe how a man so accomplished can become so dependent. The performance reminds us how powerful Finney was playing any role he is given. And he made it all look so easy.
Erin Brockovich (2000)
Yes, Julia Roberts attracts most of the attention and, yes, she wins the Oscar. But her Erin works because Finney establishes the film’s foundation as Ed, the crusty attorney who figures Erin out before she gets to know herself. The actor seemed to relish the opportunity to play such a rich supporting role and, one more time, Finney found himself a nominee on Oscar night.
Thank you, Albert Finney, for a lifetime of classic work.
Even in small parts — such as Skyfall or the Bourne films — you make the most of every moment on screen, always letting us know that we are in the company of greatness.
Rest in peace.

Albert Finney at the Oscars

He was nominated for an Oscar five times during his career. But Albert Finney never won the elusive Academy Award. How close did he get? Let’s look at each of his chances.

1963: Tom Jones

Albert Finney is the man of the moment in the picture of the year. And, many years, that would be all an actor needs to make it to the stage to accept an Academy Award. But Finney has two obstacles to overcome in 1963. Tom Jones is a comedy and performances in comedies rarely get Oscar attention. And Sidney Poitier captures a lot of attention for his movie about race relations, Lillies of the Field, at a time when emotions in the country are high. At Oscar time, while many think Finney may prevail, Poitier emerges the victor. Other nominees include Richard Harris (This Sporting Life), Rex Harrison (Cleopatra) and Paul Newman (Hud).

1974: Murder on the Orient Express

Finney is, for some, a surprise nominee for his rendition of Hercule Poirot. When the film opens, some critics complain that he plays the part too much as a caricature, rather than a character, with a vocal approach criticized for its artificiality. But Finney has so much fun in the role that Oscar voters can’t overlook the opportunity to acknowledge the work. And the movie makes a lot of money. While he is never a serious contender for the final award — that surprisingly goes to Art Carney for playing an old man traveling with his cat in Harry and Tony — the nomination adds to the actor’s reputation. And he is in good company with fellow nominees Jack Nicholson (Chinatown), Al Pacino (The Godfather Part II) and Lenny Bruce (Lenny).

1983: The Dresser

This movie version of Ronald Harwood’s play becomes a surprise hit at the box office and a nominee for Best Picture, Director, Actor (Finney and costar Tom Courtenay) and Screenplay. While the acting Oscar goes to Hollywood favorite Robert Duvall, for his kind hearted performance in Tender Mercies, Finney captures a lot of interest for his exaggerated portrayal of an aging Shakespearean actor. Little do moviegoers know that, over the years, Finney remains as devoted to working on the stage as to making movies, a balance other actors claim but rarely accomplish. Also in the running for the year’s Best Actor Oscar are Michael Caine (Educating Rita) and Tom Conti (Reuben, Reuben).

1984: Under the Volcano

Many believe this could be the year for Finney to finally win the Best Actor Oscar. After all, it’s his fourth nomination and his second in two years. And his role as an alcoholic diplomat in Under the Volcano is showy enough to give Finney the chance to shine. Plus conventional wisdom suggests that two Best Actor nominees from the same film — F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce from Amadeus — should cancel each other out. But Abraham scores the win leaving Finney, again, in the wings along with fellow nominees Jeff Bridges (Starman) and Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields). Years later, many continue to believe that Finney should have won.

2000: Erin Brockovich

By this point in Finney’s career, he shines in supporting roles that create the foundation and backdrop for many a star performance. As Julia Roberts acknowledges on Oscar night, when she wins Best Actress, she could not do what she does in the part without Finney’s support. Many think he may finally win this Oscar as much for the body of his screen work as for the magic he creates in the film. But the Oscar goes to Benicio del Toro for what many think is a leading role in Traffic, also directed by Steven Soderbergh who directed Brockovich. Other nominees are Jeff Bridges (The Contender), Willem Dafoe (Shadow of the Vampire) and Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator).