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- June 21, 1982
- Vol. 17
- No. 24
England's Actor-Curmudgeon Reluctantly Tours for Annie, Winks at the World and Certifies His Reputation as a Rascal Without a Cause
There is a network interview. Then the Dallas press corps will be herded into a cocktail party, which means Finney must again pose, stogie in hand, next to a cardboard cutout of War-bucks and pontificate for perhaps the 100th time about 5 o'clock shadow of the skull. Then he has to go to the North Park Cinema and grace yet another "premiere" of the Columbia musical about America's First Orphan. Finally Finney is to appear at a shopping center, where thousands will be served "Daddy Warbucks cocktails" to wash down "Annie crepes."
"I suppose that 'Annie crepes' are all red and full of hair," Finney says in a tone a good deal drier than a Daddy Warbucks cocktail. The publicity glitzkrieg laid on by a nervous studio is taxing. Nor is the actor ecstatic that 10-year-old Aileen Quinn, who plays Annie, gets mobbed all over the country while Finney, his shorn skull now a chilly memory, often goes unrecognized (in fact, in Dallas two giggling adolescents thought this veteran of stage and screen was a star of TV commercials). "I will go to the theater, and then I will leave before the film starts," Finney announces suddenly. "What I want to do is have a good dinner, and what I do not want to do is sit through that movie yet again."
So that evening, leaving a conspicuously empty seat at the premiere, the actor hies himself off to dinner. Cheeky? Unquestionably. But then, consider how Finney behaves in the sanctified presence of Herbert A. Allen Jr., 42, the investment banker who is also chairman of the board of Columbia Pictures. Allen detests smoking, but Finney sits next to him blithely puffing one filter tip after another.
"The habit of a filthy animal," snaps Allen, fanning away smoke.
Finney's brows soar skyward. "I smoke because Picasso smoked. And because Hitler didn't."
"Huh?" mutters Allen, but he is a beaten man. Later, smiling tenderly, Finney approaches the chairman and blows into his quivering nostrils a special cloud of stink from a Montecruz cigar. Allen can only laugh sheepishly.
Clearly, Albert Finney has no intention of pleasing everybody. He is pliable and amiable up to a point, but that point is ringed by electric wire. Even at his seemingly most revelatory moments—when confessing, for instance, to having had a passionate offscreen romance with Audrey Hepburn while they were starring in 1967's Two for the Road—he maintains a cool, polite distance. Yet Finney's slow smile, quick wit and profligate charm (part natural, part contrivance) never desert him. At press luncheons for Annie, some female reporter will invariably ruffle his hair or lay a light hand on his kneecap. "Met a most interesting woman," the actor announces to anyone who will listen. "She just wrote a book called Fantasy Unfettered." He muses with obvious relish about turning this intriguing subject into a movie: "It will be quite interesting scouting for locations, don't you think?"
At 46, Finney looks as though he has scouted a bit too often and too thoroughly. The face is fleshy, the chin nearly doubled, the dimples diminished, and as he digs into a hefty dinner of scallops, calf's liver and wine, he no longer retains the look of an imp awaiting enchantment. "I don't yearn for how I used to look," Finney bristles. "I don't think I'm particularly handsome. I think maybe I'm attractive. I remember with Tom Jones being very concerned to tell people that I was not just another pretty face, and that's why I took all those character roles. Why I played Luther on Broadway, for instance. All those character roles were perhaps an overreaction to being treated like some kind of sex symbol."
Indeed, from 1974 through 1978 Finney concentrated on straight theater in England, mostly with the National, in such plays as Macbeth, Hamlet and The Cherry Orchard. Yet when he finally returned to films ("If you're not in the movies, people think you've either died or are in a sanitorium"), it was to make five in a row. The first three, Loophole, Wolfen and Looker, proved unholy disasters, but last year's Shoot the Moon, with Diane Keaton, was a critical hit. "The reason I agreed to Annie," explains Finney, "was because I thought I still looked cute enough, and my charm was not totally chipped away." The word is he was not producer Ray Stark's first choice; that Sean Connery was unwilling to appear totally bald (despite a head start), and that even the elderly Cary Grant was approached. Today Stark says, cryptically, "You know what it took for Finney to play Daddy Warbucks? It took courage." It also took a salary reported at $1 million.
The youngest of three children, Albert Finney Jr. grew up in the northern English town of Salford in a family that worked its way up to lower middle class. His dad, he says, was a bookie, "which was then, although not strictly speaking legal, a nonetheless tolerated profession." Even as an enfant Albert was distinctly terrible, managing in late adolescence to flunk five out of five subjects. "I never did believe in homework. I felt it to be an infringement on my freedom. It was sheer laziness, and I still am lazy." His redeeming interest, developed at age 9, was acting; Finney starred in such memorable school plays as Bell the Cat ("I played the Mayor of Ratville") and in puppet shows ("I didn't do the puppets, I did the voices—and I discovered I had an ability to mimic rather well"). When it came time to leave school, his headmaster informed Albert that about all he was fit for was the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.
This proved not entirely ignoble advice. Finney won a scholarship and joined the likes of Peter O'Toole, Alan Bates and Brian Bedford, all then attending London's most prestigious drama school. Charles Laughton saw him play Macbeth at the Birmingham Repertory. "You were bloody awful," growled the older actor, who nonetheless signed Albert for a production in London. Finney's next venture was understudying Laurence Olivier in Coriolanus. Soon a knee injury knocked Olivier off the boards. A great groan went up all over Stratford when the manager announced this calamity, but Finney substituted creditably. "I had," he says succinctly, "nothing to lose."
That attitude did not change. In 1960, fresh from his smashing portrayal of the working-class rogue in the film Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Finney declined the title role of Lawrence of Arabia and, with it, a five-year Hollywood contract. Three years later, following his deliciously ribald success in Tom Jones, which brought him the first of two Oscar nominations (the second: as Hercule Poirot in 1974's Murder on the Orient Express), Finney dismayed his fans—not to mention his agent—by taking off for Hawaii, where he had a girlfriend. By the time they returned, having traveled around the world, a year had passed.
In addition to wanderlust, the actor for a while bet heavily on horses (today he owns eight Thoroughbreds). He was equally passionate about drinking, too. "But my digestive tract couldn't cope," he says. "After a few whiskeys I used to throw up—but I'd come back to the party and drink more Pernod anyway. Then my appendix burst. I got peritonitis and realized I couldn't take it. It was what I call 'the John Barrymore syndrome,' " Finney adds sardonically, pouring himself another glass of Chassagne-Montrachet. "You know—you're more interesting and romantic if you seem bent on self-destruction. There may even be some ladies drawn to you who suffer from 'the Florence Nightingale syndrome.' And then, you see, if you don't live up to their expectations, you have the get-out clause."
Starting from his first, and brief, marriage to British actress Jane Wenham (by whom he had a son, Simon, now 23), Finney's attitude toward love has seemed, if not exactly cavalier, at least slightly breezy. "One of the terrible things about the sense of permanence is that you're not open to possibilities," he says. "I find possibilities very pleasurable and sensual and exciting." In 1975, when his second marriage, to Anouk (A Man and a Woman) Aimeé, floundered over her desire to explore pleasurable possibilities with Ryan O'Neal, Finney remained philosophic. "No, I wasn't devastated or jealous," he explains. "I wasn't hit by ego. I felt she had done the right thing, and the relationship was getting a bit tired."
Just how deep do his emotional ties lie? "I suppose I do need to be in love all the time," Finney says. "I have a response to someone and commit to someone, but maybe the time will come when I have to commit to some-one else." Analyzes Annie co-star Carol Burnett, "Oh, he's charming—he makes you think you're the only girl around. But I certainly never took him seriously. And I don't think he expects you to take him seriously."
Finney's closer companions, however, are not nearly so sanguine. Diana Quick, who has shared his London town house since 1976, flew to San Francisco during the filming of Shoot the Moon, reportedly because she was distraught over rumors of a Finney-Keaton affair. While there, Quick, who starred as Julia Flyte in TV's Brides-head Revisited, fainted and, says Finney, fell on her face, fracturing her jaw and breaking off six teeth. The actor denies the liaison with Diane, but when asked why Diana fainted, he replies slowly, "I don't know. I just don't know. I'm perfectly prepared to take the blame for it. But I don't think it was my fault." He gazes into the distance. "I don't flaunt my infidelities. And most of them are rumors."
There seems to be a curious similarity between how Finney approaches romance and work. "Exactly!" he agrees. "Wrap up your emotions, put on your tap shoes.... I'm loyal to a subject like Shoot the Moon for 14 months. I made that commitment. Then I commit to a whole new set of circumstances." Already his commitment to Annie is fading. "I think it's review-proof," says Finney, but he isn't all that concerned: "It isn't my money, after all." He is looking, as ever, for the next enticement, "for something that says, 'Act me.' Not for fame, necessarily. Fame is incidental, illusory. It comes and it goes. If it comes at all."
At the moment it's coming. At the Dallas restaurant, the Columbia publicist interrupts dinner; it's time to return to the screening, which is almost over. Meekly, Finney follows her to the limo. In the car, they review the agenda: The actor is to accept a Stetson and a certificate proclaiming him an Honorary Sheriff. The limo slithers up in front of the theater. Albert Finney steps from it and breathes deeply. "I have come," he suddenly announces to the startled usher, to the idlers in the theater lobby, to no one in particular, "I have come for the applause."
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