Today’s film industry seems to allow little room for anyone to be larger than life. Watching the speeches veer between politely dull and uncomfortably self-aggrandising at last night’s BAFTAs, you can’t help but pine for the unpredictability – for better and worse – of yesteryear’s more vividly drawn stars. I didn’t know Albert Finney, who sadly passed away on Thursday, but there was little about the man that ever came across as blank or boring. Finney the man always seemed as fascinating and vivacious as Finney the actor.
He was heralded as the next Olivier, but seemed far more at home and far more interested in the working class roles that reflected his own upbringing. A Salford lad, Finney came to the fore at the same time that realism did in British cinema. And despite a career that ran the gamut from directing at the Old Vic to playing Daddy Warbucks in Annie, Finney will be forever remembered for his one of his earliest performances in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and a line that, in hindsight, feels so utterly appropriate: “Whatever people say I am, that’s what I’m not.”
Finney was an actor in the truest sense. With his boxer’s face and outsized presence, he couldn’t look like anyone else but Albert Finney, yet his honesty and talent allowed him to disappear convincingly into any role, making him impossible to pigeonhole. Tom Jones, Murder On The Orient Express, The Dresser, Under The Volcano, Erin Brockovich – it seems impossible that he was Oscar nominated five times and never won, fuel to the fire of the irrationality of film awards. For my generation, his performance as the lovestruck mobster in Miller’s Crossing is indelible, Finney playing a tough man torn asunder by his heart and his sentimentality, unable to find the assholery that comes so naturally to his duplicitous right-hand man, played by Gabriel Byrne.
Daniel Craig, Finney’s co-star in Skyfall, paid tribute by saying, “Wherever Albert is now, I hope there are horses and good company.” It’s the former that led to my one and only meeting with the great man. One mother’s day, I was sat in a restaurant in a rural Irish town with my parents and my grandmother. Finney strolled in with my uncle – who trained horses for him – and his good friend Tom Courtenay. Albert came over to our table, introduced himself, charmed my uncharmable grandmother and then declared that he was off outside for a cigarette, if anyone cared to join him. I’d recently made very public and very false claims that I’d quit smoking, so was forced to decline, watching from inside as one of my heroes stood outside on the street, smoking alone. I’m left wondering what we might have discussed out there on that cold March day. I’d probably have embarrassed myself by gushing excessively and accidentally calling him Arthur. Rest in peace Albert. I wish I’d bummed a smoke.