- Golden Globe Awards
Tomorrow’s Stars Yesterday: Albert Finney, 1964
Between 1948 and 1983 Golden Globes were awarded in a special category of “New Star of the Year” conceived to recognize young actors making a mark in their early roles. In this series, the HFPA’s Phil Berk highlights those that would follow their auspicious starts with distinguished careers.
Peter Fonda and Alain Delon were New Star of the Year nominees in 1964, and if that wasn’t enough, so was Albert Finney. His first screen appearance was as Laurence Olivier’s son in The Entertainer, followed by the role that would make him famous, as a working-class hero, in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
From then on he was never less than a star, and he behaved like one. Devilishly handsome, he was pursued by some of the most beautiful actresses in the world, but by the time he was 40 he allowed himself to become podgy and plump which limited him to playing character roles.
After Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he was Tom JonesTony Richardson’s Oscar-winning movie, so you’d think he’d capitalize on his success? But no, he turned his back on movies and returned to what was always his first love, the theater. Which is where it all began for him. Fresh out of public school he won a scholarship at RADA, and after a season with the Royal Shakespeare Company, he was offered a contract by the Rank organization, which, of course, he turned down.
He found time to do some television work, but he preferred doing Shakespeare at Stratford, and it was there while understudying Laurence Olivier and replacing him in Coriolanus when he fell ill, that director Tony Richardson recruited him to play Olivier’s son in film version of The Entertainer, which in turn convinced Karel Reisz that Finney was the actor for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which became both a surprise critical and box office hit and which he later told the HFPA at a press conference was his favorite role.
So instead of cashing in on that success, he returned to the theater with Billy Liar, in which he scored a personal triumph, but when it was later filmed, it was Tom Courtenay who got the role, which no doubt didn’t bother him at all, for one simple reason: he was now recognized as the best theater actor of his generation, and so, not surprisingly, David Lean and Sam Spiegel offered him Lawrence of Arabia.
But again, the idea of being film tied to a five-year contract had no appeal for him; so, he turned it down which allowed his good friend Peter O’Toole to play the role which would make him famous. All was not lost, however. Back on stage, he earned rave reviews for playing Luther, a role he also did on Broadway, at which point Richardson cast him as Tom Jones, for which he was named our New Star of the Year and for which he won his first Golden Globe as Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy. The film also earned him the first of five Oscar nominations, and as an unexpected bonus, 10% of the film’s profits. When the film won the Oscar as Best Picture it made him a rich man, but instead of capitalizing on his box office cache, he took a year off and went sailing in the Pacific.
Returning to London he accepted the lead in the remake of Night Must Fall for MGM, but it ended up so poorly received, he was back at the Royal National Theatre where for three years he played Don Pedro in Franco Zeffirelli’s Sicilian take on Much Ado About Nothing (with Maggie Smith and Robert Stephens), the lead in John Arden’s Armstrong’s Last Goodnight, Jean in Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the outrageous Harold Gorringe in Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy, and most notably, his double-dealing, split-personality Chandebise in Jacques Charon’s definitive production of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear.
It was no less than Stanley Donen who lured him back into films casting him as Audrey Hepburn’s love interest in Two for the Road. He might well have become the screen’s new heartthrob, that’s how handsome he was, but swimming against the tide he formed a production company with his best friend and fellow actor Michael Medwin. The company, Memorial Films, was responsible for bankrolling some of the better films of that decade including Lindsay Anderson’s If … and it offered opportunities to new directors who later became successful including Stephen Frears (Gumshoe) Tony Scott (Loving Memory) and Mike Leigh (Bleak Moments). Memorial also produced Charlie Bubbles in which Finney tried his hand at directing and in which Liza Minnelli made her screen acting debut. Gumshoe offered him a virtuoso role. So finally he made up his mind to take his film career seriously, and right away he hit the jackpot playing the title role in a musical version of ScroogeBy now he didn’t mind playing much older than he was, so when he was offered his most famous role-playing Agatha Christie’s Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot in the film Murder on the Orient Express, he grabbed it. Result: he earned his second Oscar nomination as Best Actor. But it didn’t last long, and he returned to the National Theatre where for another three years he played Hamlet, Macbeth, Tamburlaine, and other great roles.
Returning to screen acting he needed to correct the impression audiences had of him as being a 300-pound actor with a French accent, he made three minor thrillers, Loophole, Wolfen, and, all in Hollywood, but again it was an English director who was able to rescue his career. Shoot the Moonwas a prestige picture directed by Alan Parker which offered him and Diane Keaton superb roles. Both were nominated for Golden Globes.
As a reward John Huston offered him the year’s most coveted role, Daddy Warbucks in the film version of the Broadway smash Annie. Even though Finney was credible in the part, the film was a dud, and he retreated to England where he played an over-the-hill Shakespearian actor in Peter Yates’The Dresser, for which he was both Oscar and Golden Globe-nominated as Best Actor. So was his costar Tom Courtenay who years earlier had won his Billy Liar role. John Huston used him again in Under the VolcanoOrphans. The Coen Brothers cast him in Miller’s Crossing and Bruce Beresford in Rich in Love, both memorable. After that, he spent the next eight years doing TV and independent British films until finally rescued by Steven Soderbergh who gave him a scene-stealing role as Julia Roberts’ mentor in Erin Brockovich, for which he was considered a shoo-in for Best Supporting Actor that year, but it was not to be. Julia walked off with all the acting honors, and once again he was left empty-handed.
After that he had a walk-on in Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic, he was a superb Churchill in the TV movie The Gathering StormBourne series and Sam Mendes’Skyfall.
At his last HFPA press conference (for Big Fish) when asked if he anticipated the career he had or if it exceeded his expectations, he replied, “In a way, it has, in as much as it’s taken me to people and places I’d never dreamed of when I was younger. I suppose in that way I feel very fortunate, but in another way, it feels like it’s almost fated. You’re just following some path that’s laid out for you by fate. You don’t quite know – you just follow the whims of the world. I don’t know where I’ll be in five weeks time, or what I’ll be doing, and I like it that way.”
His classic performances, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Shoot the Moon, Murder on the Orient Express, Erin Brockovich and many others, you name them.