eric robert/sygma/getty images
eric robert/sygma/getty images
The Hollywood Foreign Press Association members recognized the brilliance and promise of the young British actor Albert Finney when they voted him a co-winner of the “Most Promising Newcomer- Male” Golden Globe award in 1964 (a discontinued Globes category) for his leading role in the Tony Richardson comedy, Tom Jones, an adaptation of Henry Fielding's bawdy 18th Century novel. That year he was also nominated as Best Actor-Comedy or Musical, but di not prevail in a crowded field of nine, that included Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra.
Finney played a charming, devilish, sensual English rogue. Audiences worldwide discovered and fell in love with the blue-eyed, handsome leading man, making him an international star. But in his native Britain Finney was already an established actor in an entirely different style of cinema, the so-called 'angry young man' films which reflected the zeitgeist of a grim, existentially barren existence in post world war II Britain, with the working class as its heroes.
Finney's first film role, alongside Laurence Olivier, was in The Entertainer, (1960), also directed by Richardson. Based on a play by John Osborne, it was done in the new gritty style of British film making, later labeled “kitchen sink drama”, often set on the backdrop of hard-scrabble working class, industrial northern England, exploring themes of social alienation.
In Finney's next film that year, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, he was the lead: a young Nottingham factory worker, disillusioned with his life. Based on a novel by Alan Sillitoe, the film featured then novel themes of extramarital sex and abortion, causing controversy and censorship. It was all familiar to Finney. He was born near Manchester, his father was a bookmaker, the family working class. He never forgot his humble roots. "It's part of you," he later said. "It's in the blood really."
Yet he was attracted to the stage from an early age, and with no connections managed to get admitted to London's prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first love was theater, and an early break came a year later when the young Finney was at Stratford and he replaced an ill Laurence Olivier in the role of Coriolanus. Critics called him the next Olivier. When major movie offers came, Finney grabbed the brass ring- but let go. Director David Lean considered him for the title role in Lawrence of Arabia, but after acting in a four-days-long screen test, Finney turned it down and opened the road to stardom for fellow RADA graduate, Peter O'Toole. The 1962 hit was nominated for nine Golden Globes and won six, including Best Drama, Best Direction- and Most Promising Newcomer for O'Toole.
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Finney did not pursue publicity and fame. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Tom Jones but did not attend. Instead, he took time off to travel and went back to the London stage. He returned to a movie studio only in 1967, for Two for the Road, opposite Audrey Hepburn, who was nominated for a Best Actress Golden Globe. In 1971 Finney won his second Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical, showing that he could sing, playing the title role in Scrooge.
A decade later the HFPA nominated Finney three years in a row for Best Actor in a Drama, playing a trifecta of dark, troubled characters: a writer whose marriage is collapsing in Shoot the Moon (1982), an embittered actor past his prime in The Dresser (1983) and a heavy drinking British diplomat living in Mexico in Under the Volcano (1984).
16 years later Finney again captured the American audiences attention in his Golden Globe-nominated supporting role as Julia Roberts' boss in Erin Brockovich, the investigative lawyer in a contaminated water scandal. Two years later, Finney won his third Golden Globe, for playing Winston Churchill in the TV movie The Gathering Storm (2002), about the British leader's pre WWII years, as he was raising the alarm about Hitler and the impending war, a perfect role for the powerfully built actor, with the resonant voice honed in decades of acting on stage.
Finney was a magnetic presence in his private life, and off screen too. "I'm a born flirt and that will never stop"," he said, "but I would take things no further. I am loyal and content." He was married three times and had affairs with a gallery of celebrities, including Joan Baez, Carly Simon, Billie Whitelaw, Jacqueline Bisset, Shelley Winters, and Anouk Aimee, who became his second wife.
When he finally married his third wife, he told the BBC that he admitted to only two vices - wine and horse racing. Throughout his rich and productive life, with all his success and fame, Finney was true to his roots and often ignored the celebrity lifestyle. He refused the honors of becoming CBE in 1980 and a knight in 2000. "I think the Sir thing slightly perpetuates one of our diseases in England, which is snobbery," he said at the time.
Finney needed no titles. Goodnight, sweet prince.