Albert Finney had an acting legacy including triumphs on stage and television. He was primarily known worldwide for his career, which lasted over half a century, as a film actor, equally adept in lighthearted musicals and complex dramas.
Finney’s work has been heralded in all three media. He won London’s Olivier Award for “Orphans” on stage, and won an Emmy, Golden Globe and BAFTA Award for his performance as Winston Churchill in TV’s “The Gathering Storm.” But it was in film that Finney was most honored. In 2000, Finney scored a rare double at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, winning Best Supporting Actor for his work in Steven Soderbergh‘s “Erin Brockovich,” and even though he had little more than a cameo part in Soderbergh’s “Traffic” later that year, the role was big enough for him to win a second SAG Award that night as part of the film’s ensemble cast. In addition, in the course of his career, Finney earned five Academy Award nominations, two Golden Globe Awards (from eight nominations) and a BAFTA Award (from nine nominations). His five Oscar noms were for “Tom Jones,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” “The Dresser,” “Under the Volcano” and “Erin Brockovich.”
So let’s raise a glass in tribute to the remarkable career of this singular actor. Take a tour of our photo gallery, which ranks his 12 greatest film performances from worst to best.
12. SKYFALL (2012)
Director: Sam Mendes. Writers: Neil Purvis, Robert Wade, John Logan. Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Albert Finney.
For his final film role, Finney took a small but juicy part in “Skyfall,” the 23rd James Bond film. Here he plays Kincaide, the gamekeeper at Skyfall, who usually has some pretty dull days with no Bond family members around, but when James (Daniel Craig) shows up with his boss M (Judi Dench), all hell breaks loose. They’ve got the henchmen of cyberterrorist Silva (Javier Bardem) on their tail, so Kincaide joins them in setting up booby traps all over the estate. Their hard work pays off when most of the bad guys are blown up, but M is wounded in the melee, so Kincade takes her through a secret exit to safety. Truth be told, it’s a nothing role but Finney makes the most of it, and to see actors of the caliber of Finney, Dench and Craig in total sync is an utter joy.
11. ANNIE (1982)
Director: John Huston. Writer: Carol Sobieski, based on the musical by Charles Strouse, Martin Charnin, Thomas Meehan. Starring Albert Finney, Carol Burnett, Aileen Quinn.
In John Huston’s adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, Finney stars as Oliver Warbucks, a bald-headed billionaire during the Great Depression. Warbucks’ public image is lousy, so he is talked into fostering an orphan, Annie, to demonstrate his paternal side, but, much to his surprise, he soon falls for the red-haired moppet. Eventually he proposes adopting her, but Annie resists, wanting instead to be reunited with her parents whom she knows are out there somewhere. So Warbucks begins a nationwide search for Annie’s parents, which brings out some very shady types. Though he is best known for being an actor in serious dramas, Finney is no stranger to starring in musicals (1970’s “Scrooge”), and his Warbucks here is one of the best things about the film.
10. BIG FISH (2003)
Director: Tim Burton. Writer: John August. Starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Jessica Lange, Helena Bonham Carter.
Finney earned his eighth Golden Globe nomination and his ninth BAFTA nod for his performance as Edward Bloom, a former traveling salesman and known storyteller, who is dying and trying to reconcile with his estranged son Will (Billy Crudup). In an effort to establish a bond with Will, Edward begins to spin a tale of his life on the road as a young man (Ewan McGregor), the various colorful characters whom he has met along the way, and how much they impacted his life and turned him into the man he is today. Edward is essentially a wrap-around role, appearing and the beginning and end of the film, but the joy and the enthusiasm that Finney’s Edward has for his tales are just heartbreaking.
9. SCROOGE (1970)
Director: Ronald Neame. Writer: Leslie Bricusse. Starring Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, Edith Evans, Kenneth More.
Finney was only 33 years old when he took on the legendary character, old-man skinflint Ebenezer Scrooge in this musical version of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” What’s striking about Finney’s performance is that, while everyone around Scrooge can, on occasion, kick up their heels to sing and dance, Finney approaches the role as if it was a dramatic film. At first, it seems like an unusual interpretation of the role for a musical, but later, after he sees the light after the visits from the three ghosts, his joy at rediscovering the Christmas spirit makes the moment even more impactful. For his performance as Scrooge, Finney won his second Golden Globe Award.
8. MILLER’S CROSSING (1990)
Director: Joel Coen. Writers: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen. Starring Gabriel Bryne, Marcia Gay Harden, John Turturro, Albert Finney.
Finney taps into his tough guy side in this early Coen Brothers gangland saga set during the days of Prohibition. Mobster Leo O’Bannon (Finney) is a powerful gangster in addition to being a fearsome political boss, but he risks a mob war with a rival gang when he extends his protection to a nebbishy bookie (John Turturro) whom the other side wants dead. Leo is doing all of this because the bookie is the brother of his girlfriend Verna (Marcia Gay Harden) and Leo will even risk war to protect her. Finney’s Leo is intriguing mixture of hypermasculine authority and sensitive love in a complex performance that seems par for the course for this actor.
7. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (1974)
Director: Sidney Lumet. Writer: Paul Dehn, from the novel by Agatha Christie. Starring Albert Finney, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery.
I was surprised to learn that this Sidney Lumet version of the classic Agatha Christie mystery is the first time the novel has ever been adapted to film. Although ace detective Hercule Poirot’s appearance might seem to be flamboyant, Finney’s performance is anything but, as he creates an investigator who is determined to find not only whodunnit but why. For his performance as Poirot, Finney received his second Academy Award nomination and earned yet another BAFTA nod.
6. SHOOT THE MOON (1982)
Director: Alan Parker. Writer: Bo Goldman. Starring Albert Finney, Diane Keaton, Karen Allen, Peter Weller, Dana Hill.
Writer George Dunlap (Finney) and his wife Faith (Diane Keaton) aren’t merely a dysfunctional couple — as their marriage deteriorates, each will stop at nothing to make sure that the other suffers before their inevitable divorce. George and Faith aren’t victims, of course — the real losers in this situation are the couple’s four children who must sit and watch their family being torn apart. Both Finney and Keaton are fearless in their determination to present this sad couple the way their kids experience them. For his performance as George, Finney earned his fourth nomination for a Golden Globe as well as a BAFTA nod.
5. UNDER THE VOLCANO (1984)
Director: John Huston. Writer: Guy Gallo, from the novel by Malcolm Lowry. Starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, Anthony Andrews.
Finney earned his fourth Academy Award nomination and his sixth Golden Globe nod for his performance as Geoffrey Firmin, the former British consul now living in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Geoffrey, an alcoholic who has given up not only on his own life but also the future of the world around him, yearns for the return of his wife Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset) who left him a year earlier. When Yvonne suddenly returns, Geoffrey is beside himself, but when he heads out on a road trip with Yvonne and journalist Hugh (Anthony Andrews), strange forces begin to play with his head. This is a brave performance from Finney, because he is unafraid to go where the character leads him.
4. TWO FOR THE ROAD (1967)
Director: Stanley Donen. Writer: Frederic Raphael. Starring Audrey Hepburn, Albert Finney, Eleanor Bron, William Daniels.
Frederic Raphael’s brilliant Oscar-nominated screenplay is lays the groundwork for one of the very best romantic comedies of the 1960s. Architect Mark Wallace (Finney) and his wife Joanna (Audrey Hepburn) are traveling to Saint-Tropez in their Mercedes roadster when it becomes apparent to us that there is trouble in paradise. After the fight, they look back on six time periods of their relationship to try to figure out where it all went wrong. Finney and Hepburn have chemistry that’s off the charts, so much so that when it becomes apparent that their marriage might not make it, we as an audience care so much about the characters that we would do anything to keep them together.
3. THE DRESSER (1983)
Director: Peter Yates. Writer: Ronald Harwood, based on his play. Starring Albert Finney, Tom Courtenay, Edward Fox, Eileen Atkins.
Though he’s known in the States mostly as a film actor, Finney has also had a distinguished career on the stage, winning an Olivier Award in London and being nominated for two Tony Awards on Broadway. Finney’s career both on film and on the stage come together in “The Dresser,” the film version of Ronald Harwood’s Tony-nominated play about life in the theatre. Finney portrays “Sir,” an old-school Shakespearean actor whose mental capacities are rapidly declining and who is kept on track only by his personal dresser Norman (Tom Courtenay) who has devoted the past few decades serving The Great Man. Behind the bombast of “Sir,” Finney masterfully reveals the actor’s insecurities, and for that performance, Finney earned his third Oscar nomination, his fifth Golden Globe nod and a BAFTA nomination.
2. TOM JONES (1963)
Director: Tony Richardson. Writer: John Osborne, from the novel by Henry Fielding. Starring Albert Finney, Hugh Griffith, Susannah York, Diane Cilento, Edith Evans.
Finney burst onto the international movie scene in Tony Richardson’s “Tom Jones,” which won the Oscar as the Best Picture of 1963. As the title hero of the classic Henry Fielding novel, Finney plays Tom as a fun-loving rake who, although popular with the ladies, gives his heart only to the gentle Sophie Weston (Susannah York) whose squire father (Hugh Griffith) has forbidden their romance. For his performance as Tom, Finney won a Golden Globe Award as Most Promising Male Newcomer. In that same ceremony, he earned a second Globe nomination, this one for Best Actor. In addition, his work in “Tom Jones” brought Finney his first Academy Award nomination.
1. ERIN BROCKOVICH (2000)
Director: Steven Soderbergh. Writer: Susannah Grant. Starring Julia Roberts, Albert Finney, Aaron Eckhart.
Finney’s greatest triumph in his later career was for his work with Steven Soderbergh and Julia Roberts in this dramatic biopic of crusader Erin Brockovich. Finney portrays the real-life lawyer Ed Masry, who hires Erin (Julia Roberts in her Oscar-winning performance) for office work, but she uses her job instead as a platform to investigate Pacific Gas & Electric which she claims knew that they were polluting the water supply of a small town. Ed is initially frustrated by Erin’s dogged devotion to the case, but he soon becomes her biggest champion. For his performance as Ed, Finney won his first Screen Actors Award. He also received his fifth Academy Award nomination, his eighth Golden Globe nod and a BAFTA nomination.