Today the renowned English actor Albert Finney turns 78. A five-time Oscar nominee over the course of the last fifty years, he has been fortunate enough to have the glamour and acclaim of a star yet also the ability to be a character actor (sometimes helped by makeup), even while still a relatively young man. To celebrate this great day, let us recall five of his most memorable cinematic performances.
Tom Jones (1963, dir. Tony Richardson) – Based on Henry Fielding’s bawdy 18th-century tale, this delightful gem cemented Finney’s fame both at home in the UK and abroad. With a vigorous lust for women and a similar appetite for food and drink, Finney’s Tom must have been as fun to play as he is to watch.
Murder on the Orient Express (1974, dir. Sidney Lumet) – Finney shines in another tour de force as Agatha Christie’s most fêted detective, Hercule Poirot. Sporting an impressive mustache and speaking in a Belgian French accent, the character is a joy to behold as he solves one of the most complicated mysteries of any Christie whodunit.
The Dresser (1983, dir. Peter Yates) – As an ailing Shakespearean actor (only ever referred to as “Sir”) attempting to get through a stage production of King Lear during World War II’s London Blitz, Finney is magnificent. He is matched by Tom Courtenay, who plays Finney’s long-suffering assistant (and dresser), Norman.
Erin Brockovich (2000, dir. Steven Soderbergh) – While Soderbergh’s biopic is essentially Julia Roberts’ show (and she won a Best Actress Academy Award for her efforts), Finney steals all his scenes as Roberts’ boss, earning a Best Supporting Actor nomination as a result. (Finney received other Oscar nominations in the Best Actor category for Tom Jones, Murder on the Orient Express and The Dresser, as well as for the 1984 drama Under the Volcano.) Little comic touches and facial expressions prove that Finney doesn’t need to be young or look like a sex symbol in order to exhibit his acting talent. And, might I add, his American accent is terrific.
Big Fish (2003, dir. Tim Burton) – In one of Burton’s most heartfelt films, Finney plays a dying man intent on telling his life story, fantastical and silly as it often sounds, to his skeptical, grown-up son. As the film’s tagline says, it is “an adventure as big as life itself,” a journey in which Finney (or his younger self, played by Ewan McGregor) uses the magic of storytelling to open his son’s eyes to the beauty of life. It’s quite a touching story, especially in its depiction of the marriage between McGregor and Alison Lohman, the latter of whom becomes Jessica Lange (pictured) when portrayed as an older woman. As with my favorite Burton film, Edward Scissorhands (1990), Big Fish succeeds because you care about the characters. That comes not just from the strength of the writing but also from the strength of the acting.