Friday, February 22, 2019

Albert Finney: A Rogue By Any Other Name . . .

When I read about the death of Albert Finney, at age 82, I realized how many of his later roles I’ve seen. He was the gamekeeper in on the action in Skyfall (2012), the sinister father in Before The Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007), and the whimsical yarn-spinning dad in Big Fish (2003). His last of five Oscar nominations came from playing Julia Roberts’ attorney/boss in Erin Brockovich. Whatever the film, he was convincing in a variety of moods and with a variety of accents. But I was always surprised, in those later films, to see what a solid, sturdy man he was. That’s because, when I think of Albert Finney, I can’t help remembering him as a lithe young rogue in the title role of Tom Jones.

The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling will be recalled by English majors as a classic British novel, written by Henry Fielding back in 1749. It’s the picaresque tale of a roguish young lad who goes out in the world to seek his fortune, as well as his parentage. One of my great achievements in college was reading the entire novel (some 700 pages long) in a single week, because I couldn’t bear to have the ending spoiled when I walked into my class on the 18th century novel. I’m not sure who got the bright idea that Ton Jones would make a good movie, but the 1963 film written by playwright John Osborne (of Look Back in Anger fame) and directed by Tony Richardson was a triumph. In an era when we were all starting to go bonkers for anything British (like miniskirts, Angry Young Men, and the Beatles), Tom Jones proved to be cheeky, sexy, and above all stylish fun. None of us would soon forget how the droll voiceovers, the Keystone Kops pacing of some of the action, Tom’s winking asides to the audience, and the most suggestive of dining scenes turned the stodginess of most costume dramas upside down. (I wonder, in fact, if the makers of 2018’s The Favourite, looked to Tom Jones for comic inspiration.)

In the title role, Finney (a screen newcomer to most of us back then) was a charmingly boyish mischief-maker. And that roguish glint in his eye continued to serve him throughout his career. The film I personally cherish is from that magic movie year, 1967. That’s when Stanley Donen directed Finney and Audrey Hepburn in a before-its-time movie about love and marriage, Two for the Road. Frederic Raphael (an Oscar winner for Darling) wrote a provocative out-of-sequence script featuring a very young English couple who meet and then proceed to fall in and out of love during a series of road trips through the French countryside. Two for the Road is notable for its candor about sex, fidelity, and the  tarnished promise of happily-ever-after. The scrambled time scheme requires us to bounce back and forth between the fun of first attraction, the joy of commitment, the challenges of child-bearing, and the mixed blessings of financial success. Throughout it all, the two leads remain stunningly attractive, even while their hairstyles change and their modes of transportation become increasingly posh. I don’t think Hepburn has ever looked more winsome, and Finney is fully the perfect match. So perfect, in fact, that rumors abound that their real-life affair on the set of this film is what ended her marriage to actor Mel Ferrer.

Finney turned down a knighthood, and steadily refused to attend Oscar shindigs, even when nominated. Vanity wasn’t part of his nature, but variety certainly was. 

No comments:

Post a Comment