By Paul Dervis
Albert Finney was the greatest interpreter of England’s gift to the world of contemporary theater, the Kitchen Sink Drama.
The general public will remember actor Albert Finney (who died at the age of 82 on February 7) for his turns in the Bourne franchise films. Maybe as Daddy Warbucks in the movie version of the musical Annie. If one goes back far enough, you will discover he secured his film star status via 1963’s Tom Jones. And, of course, he was featured in other major blockbusters, such as Erin Brockovich (another Oscar nomination…after all, he garnered five), Murder on the Orient Express (he was Agatha Christie’s favorite Poirot), and his final film, the James Bond thriller Skyfall.
But the evidence of this actor’s brilliance cannot be found in these works. He was, after all, the greatest interpreter of England’s gift to the world of contemporary theater, the Kitchen Sink Drama.
He wasn’t the first ‘Angry Young Man’… That would be Kenneth Haigh in the role of Jimmy Porter in the London premiere of John Osborne’s landmark Look Back in Anger (1957). Nor the last great one … that distinction belongs to Malcolm McDowell of Lindsay Anderson (If, O Lucky Man) fame.
He was merely the best.
Classically trained, with a pocketful of Shakespeare productions on his resume, Finney had his breakthrough year in 1960. He was cast in the film version of Osborne’s other classic drama, The Entertainer, as the son of Laurence Olivier’s Archie Rice. Sharing the screen with these two giants were fledgling giants in their own right, Joan Plowright and Alan Bates. This movie was director Tony Richardson’ s follow-up to his fine film version of Look Back in Anger.
That same year, Finney was cast as the lead in Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, directed by Karel Reisz. The storyline delved deeply into a factory worker’s dreams and nightmares along with an exploration of his relationship with two diverse women. The movie swept the British Academy Film Awards, with Finney receiving ‘best newcomer’ as well as being nominated for ‘best lead actor.’
Both Finney and the genre were firmly established.
The actor followed this success up with Tom Jones, Night Must Fall, and the bittersweet cult classic Two for the Road (1967) with Audrey Hepburn.
Then came his directorial debut…and I must admit, one of my two favorite British films of all time, 1968’s Charlie Bubbles.
Written by Shelagh Delaney, (A Taste of Honey), the movie is a dark, brilliant tour de force for the actor/director. Finney plays Charlie, a successful writer from a Manchester working class background who has lost his way. He has to go back home to see his ex and child … demons beset his consciousness. IMDb’s childish description of this amazing piece is “a married writer has an affair with his secretary.”…..PLEASE!!
Finney’s stage work included two plays by Peter Nichols, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg and Forget-Me-Not-Lane. I myself directed a production of Joe Egg in 1979, and it received ‘Best of Boston’ accolades from 3 newspapers, the Boston Globe, the Boston Phoenix, and the Ledger. It wasn’t the direction, it was the script. That Nichols trusted Finney with the lead in his brilliant play is all you need to know.
You will be missed.
I majored in drama, and my field of study was ‘Contemporary British Drama, 1957-1973 … because of your work, Albert, because of you.
I wrote on Facebook the day Albert Finney died “…his passing has taken my youth with it.” Too true. Too true.
Paul Dervis has been teaching drama in Canada at Algonquin College as well as the theatre conservatory Ottawa School of Speech & Drama for the past 15 years.