Wednesday, February 20, 2019

When the best disguise is age: Deceased Artiste Albert Finney

Although Albert Finney became a movie star around the time of his “hellraising” contemporaries, his desire to keep his private life private connected him more closely with other colleagues, like Alan Bates and Tom Courtenay (his later “dresser”). The “angry young men” definitely split into two camps: the first was comprised of the ones who closed down pubs and were very publicly drunk; the second were actors who generally hid from the public and paparazzi.

There was indeed a dearth of gossip about Finney on this side of the pond. Aside from the much-discussed affair that sprouted between Albert and Audrey Hepburn on the set of Two for the Road in 1967, his name was not a gossip column staple (like, say, Richard Burton).

With second wife Anouk Aimee.
According to a Daily Mail article that appeared after his death, Finney’s love life was a topic of much discussion in the British press. According to the article: “Gossip columns reveled in his liaisons with the likes of singers Joan Baez and Carly Simon, actresses Samantha Eggar, Jacqueline Bisset, Jane Asher, Jill Bennett and model Erica Creer.” Yet, on the other hand, Finney was such an intensely private person that no one knew he had developed cancer in 2007 until he came back to work in film in 2011 and mentioned it himself.

So, when discussing Finney, his work takes centerstage. One can speculate what turned his handsome face of the Sixties into the hardened mask he bore from the Eighties onward — he seemed to have lived a particularly hard life in those two decades — but he was not the kind of gent who manifested his vices publicly. An interesting take on this was part of Malcolm McDowell’s recent comments on Finney in The Hollywood Reporter: “He was quite a ladies’ man, and he loved food and he loved wine. He would gorge himself at restaurants, but when a part came, he'd check into a fat farm and get back into fighting weight.”

He began as a stage actor, studying at the esteemed Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. His first big break came when he understudied Laurence Olivier in a 1959 production of Coriolanus and went on when Olivier was sick. Finney discusses the moment in this interview clip:

Two films turned him into a star. The first was the “kitchen sink” classic Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). The film is the most stark (along with This Sporting Life) of the Angry Young Man pictures, although it does also adhere to the “you put a bun in her oven, lad!” plot twist that defined a lot of these films (as wonderfully pointed by “SCTV” in the sketch “SCTV British Film Festival: Look Back in a Bloody Rage”). 

Look Back in Anger (1959) might be the best written of this type of film, but Saturday Night and Sunday Morning has hard-hitting emotion that makes it a U.K. equivalent to Rebel Without a Cause (albeit with an older lead character). Finney’s Arthur Seaton is the perfect sympathetic antihero for the start of the Sixties, a young man who believes there’s something better than the world he inhabits, but he’s not sure how to get there, so a drunken spree and a quick shag will suffice in the meantime.

Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963) made Finney a bona fide movie star (before appearing in it he had already turned down the lead in Lawrence of Arabia, which made Peter O’Toole a bankable box-office name). A charming, playful adaptation of a classic light novel by Fielding, the film set the pace for many sex comedies to come — it could be argued that it is one of the two most imitated British films of the Sixties (the other being A Hard Day’s Night).

The remake of Night Must Fall (1964) showed Finney stretching, as he played a monstrous killer (equipped with a never-to-be-forgotten hat box). The character, of course, is charming as well as homicidal.

As mentioned above, the only time Finney’s name heavily appeared in the gossip columns on these shores was when he had a real-life affair with costar Audrey Hepburn on Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road (1967). The film is an engaging study of a relationship that is unraveling. As is the case with so many celebrity romances, the love affair of Finney and Hepburn didn’t last much longer than the shooting of the film.

One of his finest pictures is Charlie Bubbles (1968), which he also directed. It’s a masterful character study of an author going through a mid-life crisis. He’s able to cavort in public with his best friend (Colin Blakely) and can get away with anything, but he doesn’t care. He feels affection only for his son and his ex-wife (the amazing Billie Whitelaw), both of whom are doing fine without him. 

Charlie is the perfect end to the “kitchen sink” cycle of films, in that its working-class hero has risen up in society and is an empty shell (he only seems alive when challenged by his best friend or his ex). It was noted in some online bios and obits for Finney that, while he wasn’t in love with acting in the movies, he did like the wealth it provided. The film seems to reflect this, and its beautifully poetic finale says that “escape” is the only thing that one wants when one has it all.

While the film strikes one as a “guy’s movie,” Finney’s key collaborators were women. Whitelaw is terrific as Charlie’s down-to-earth ex-wife and (the polar opposite of Whitelaw) Liza Minnelli is quite good in her grown-up movie debut as Charlie’s American secretary.

The woman whose contribution to the film was most important wasn’t onscreen. Shelagh Delaney, who scripted the 1961 kitchen sink classic A Taste of Honey, wrote the screenplay. Thus making Charlie one of the two greatest male mid-life crisis movies written by women, the other being Five Easy Pieces (1970), scripted by “Adrien Joyce” aka Carole Eastman. 

Both films in fact end the same way — with an “escape” sequence in which our antihero takes off and seems to have left an American/British character study and entered a very European art film.

It’s a shame that this was Finney’s only work as a director (besides a telefilm), because Charlie is an accomplished piece of work. And in case one wonders whose films exerted an influence on Finney, Charlie is seen reading The Films of Antonioni at one point.

He appeared in a few movies in the Seventies, continuing his intermittent pattern from the Sixties – working on films when they offered him a very interesting role while also appearing with some regularity on the British stage. He only did two plays on Broadway, Luther and A Day in the Death of Joe Egg; he never appeared in American theater after 1968.

The Daily Mail article contends that Finney had a “lazy” side, which meant he took time off from acting because he preferred laying around. When you think about it, though, what better moment to take time off from your work than when you’re young, handsome, rich, and having a busy love life?

At this point he started assembling a portrait gallery of odd-looking characters — he was still quite handsome at this point, whereas in later years he was a dyed-in-the-wool character person, as his face was a hardened mask. The first instance of this change in his movie work was the musical Scrooge (1970), one of the best post-Sim adaptations of A Christmas Carol.

Finney makes a perfect Scrooge, and the makeup augmented his exquisite acting. His singing isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly good and the songs are not spoken, in the manner of Burton, Harris, and Rex Harrison. Perhaps the high spot — besides the scary Ghost of Xmas nightmare and Alec Guinness’s turn as Jacob Marley’s Ghost — is this sublimely pre-punk anthem of misanthropy.

Following that, Finney recorded an album that was released in 1972 on Motown Records (!). I have the LP and it’s fairly listenable, but Albert lacked Jimmy Webb to supply him with material and so the record sank without a trace.

His two finest “made-up” roles were most certainly Winston Churchill in the telefilm The Gathering Storm (2002) and his amazing incarnation of Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express (1974). The film was perhaps the best — along with And Then There None (1945) — Agatha Christie adaptation, thanks to several factors: the insanely perfect ensemble gathered for the picture, Sidney Lumet’s deft direction (proving that he wasn’t just a “New York director”), and Finney’s sublimely sharp (and somewhat grotesque) performance as Poirot.

Finney did consent to interviews but purely for purposes of promotion, Thus, there is no record of him addressing the fact that the Eighties saw him dive headfirst back into movies — in fact, working in so many that he began doing genre pictures in addition to A-level “prestige” productions.

So, for every Annie (eh), Shoot the Moon, and The Dresser, there were several movies like Wolfen, Looker, and Loophole (all 1981!). I have fond memories of some of the genre titles, but it is fascinating that Finney starred in these films while turning down major honors — he refused royal titles not once but twice and didn’t care whether he got an Oscar nomination.

On never turning up to the Oscars, Finney reasoned: “It seems to me a long way to go just to sit in a non-drinking, non-smoking environment on the off chance your name is called. It’s as if you are entered into a race you don’t particularly want to run in.” Yet he was fine with acting in sub-part movies and an increasing amount of TV works, both in the U.K. and the U.S. 

Annie (1982) is a lopsided movie musical, primarily because John Huston was not a musical director. Shoot the Moon (1982) had some beautiful moments but is an oddly paced drama. The Dresser (1983) is the best picture in this period of his career and, curiously, is the only time he did Shakespeare on screen. (He did a lot of it onstage in his early years and was branded “the next Olivier” by some critics.) As “Sir” in The Dresser he had to ham it up heavily, as his character is anything but subtle.

The single best role he had in the “later” part of his career (acknowledging that he kept acting for nearly 30 years after it) is the lead in Huston’s Under the Volcano (1984). He’s superb in the role and the film is an example of Huston at his best, depicting a man at the end of his rope. Death hangs over him throughout the picture and there’s never a false note from Finney.

When genius teleplaywright Dennis Potter was devising his final work — a pair of interlocked miniseries called Karaoke and Cold Lazarus (both 1996) — while suffering from terminal cancer, he found his alter-ego in Finney, who plays a Potteresque writer in the series. The two shows are not as utterly perfect as Pennies from Heaven and The Singing Detective (then again, what is?). 

Cold Lazarus contains one of Potter’s ultimate images of the writer’s place in the pop culture hierarchy: the head of writer Daniel Feeld (Finney) has been kept alive so that his thoughts and memories can provide new programming for TV. When he asks to be disconnected and finally die, his request is denied because his memories are getting such excellent ratings.

One of his forgotten performances is a masterstroke of casting that was unfortunately in a film where the star was miscast. Alan Rudolph’s Breakfast of Champions (1999) starred Bruce Willis, who was outshone by both Nick Nolte as his transvestite employee (a used car salesman) and a grubby Finney as Vonnegut’s greatest creation, the pulpsmith Kilgore Trout, who has the answers to cosmic questions hidden in his short stories, published only in men’s magazines.

Trout is a sublime character — a workaday Joe whose fiction contains transcendent truths. Finney is wonderful in the role, to the extent one wishes the whole film were about him (and Nolte).

Finney’s last movie role was a supporting part in the Bond film Skyfall (2012), but his last significant part after a productive decade where he had scene-stealing supporting roles on British TV and in films like Miller’s Crossing and Erin Brockovich —  was as the vengeful father in Sidney Lumet’s terrific last picture Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead (2007). Albert could definitely be a scary guy onscreen, and in Devil, he is that indeed. As the dad of Ethan Hawke and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, he looks to find the people behind the killing of his wife, not realizing that his sons were responsible for the death.

As if his nearly five decades of fine acting wasn’t enough, we can also be grateful to Finney for investing in several films that might not have been made without his help. He was an uncredited producer on a few films he starred in, such as Night Must Fall and Gumshoe. Even more importantly, the man who starred in one of the seminal kitchen sink films was a financial backer of two of the filmmakers who pointed the way to the next movement in rebellious British cinema.

He invested in Lindsay Anderson’s If... (1968) and O Lucky Man! (1973), which together served as farewells to the Angry Young Man character in U.K. cinema. He also was the key investor in the first feature from another native son of the town of Salford, filmmaker Mike Leigh.

The aptly titled Bleak Moments (1971) is far from Leigh’s best, but it served as a “calling card” of sorts for the many Leigh telefilms that followed, which crystallized his style and themes. From a wonderful reminiscence that Leigh wrote for the Guardian: “As a backer, Albert’s behaviour was impeccable. No interference of any kind, only full support and warm enthusiasm. He would visit the rehearsals occasionally, quietly watching improvisations, murmuring with excited amusement. Similarly, he would show up now and again on location, spreading his unique bonhomie and goodwill to a tired and overstretched young cast and crew. In post-production, he was gently encouraging at all times.”

Leigh was a significant member of the “next generation” of filmmakers who chronicled the lives of working-class characters, echoing the concerns of the films of the late Fifties and Sixties but also addressing the nuances of urban (and suburban) life in the Eighties and Nineties.

There is no other way for me to end this piece than to include the very quiet and beautiful ending of Charlie Bubbles (apologies for the crap visual quality). This finale resounds through the years.

Friday, January 18, 2019

In the writers’ room: the late 1980s Steve Allen radio show, with Bob Einstein and others

Mitch O'Connell's great drawing
of Steve Allen
Hearing really smart people being really silly is a rare delight. One of the smartest and silliest comedians in American TV history was Steve Allen, who (like the equally sublime Sid Caesar) was keen to surround himself with really funny writers. So it came as no surprise that when he returned to radio at the end of the Eighties he invited on his show not only standups and singers (he hosted each show with a piano in the studio) but also an ample amount of comedy writers.

I have incredibly fond memories of this radio stint by Steverino, which began in 1986 on local WNEW-AM (the one-time home of “the Make-Believe Ballroom” and “the Milkman’s Matinee,” of William B. and the wonderfully versatile Gene Klavan). I had a tedious data-entry job at the time and was laughing out loud from the flow of one-liners and puns — thankfully that job allowed Walkmans (I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now). It later was syndicated on the NBC radio network and sadly became less listenable, since the long stretches of silly conversation between Steve and his friends was broken up by many, many commercials and Steve himself seemed bored by the process.

That’s my memory of the show, but that memory has been challenged by a generous YT poster’s uploading of several episodes from the syndicated show. Said uploader had access to the satellite feed for the program and has woven the off-air breaks in where the commercials used to be. So instead of the agony of endless commercials we now can hear Steve gabbing with his guests and indicating what really fascinated him (or just noodling on the piano when it’s clear he’s bored that day).

The program was initially done in NYC with Steve and his cohost Mark Simone (now a right-wing talk-radio host, his earlier radio comedy on local stations like WPIX-FM predated the “shock” of Stern and his successors). Then Steve did the show in L.A. via satellite with Simone holding down the fort back in NYC – this was the formula later used by Air America: a comedian assisted by a radio person who could keep the show running on time and let the host know when he or she was about to hit a “hard break.”

At its best, this was the natural precursor to today’s comedy podcasts in that it was really a “show about nothing” that just consisted of Steve riffing with whatever guest came by that day. If no celebrity guest was booked, it was just Steve chatting about random topics with his comedy writer friends. Among those who came on with the most regularity were: Herb Sargent (SNL mainstay and the scripter of Funhouse favorite Bye Bye Braverman), Sheldon Keller, Larry Gelbart, and the recently departed “Super Dave Osborne,” aka Bob Einstein. When the mood was right, and Steve’s mind was cooking, it was indeed like listening in to a writer’s room of comic greats.

Bob Einstein (left) on Steve's TV show.
The best segment hands-down was “the Sleazy News,” in which Simone would read utterly ridiculous stories from supermarket tabloids to allow Steve and company to make up lines as they went along (and do some very nice call-backs later in the show). Sargent was deadpan as hell and spoke the least of the group, but could usually top whatever was said before him. Einstein was in peak form on the show, mostly because he kept the conversation on the edge, an edge that sometimes went into “adult areas.”

At this time Steve, a renowned liberal for decades, had not yet slipped into his final depressing identity as an advocate of “clean humor” and right-wing values. But he was already in his “clean that up!” mode, so his infamous teacher’s bell was rung quite often in reaction to Einstein’s jokes, which Steve considered somewhat risque. 

As a listener I believed this was a bit Steve was doing, but in the off-air moments edited into these tapes by the YT poster it becomes clear that he really was concerned about Einstein’s “questionable” jokes. (Although Einstein’s “bad boy” persona on the show kept Steve alert and vital, which resulted in some very funny moments.)

This was also the period where what a friend called Steve’s “professorial” mode truly came to the fore. The comedy writers and Simone had to keep the mood light because Steve, an inveterate research-addict, would suddenly stop the flow of comedy to look up a word that had been used or try to seriously discuss a topic that had been joked about.

These interludes, along with the fact that Steve is audibly heard yawning and conducting business with his secretary (including signing checks on-air), makes one wonder what was really going on with him at this point – he was only 65 but sounded at points like he was heading toward retirement (but he wasn’t, since he continued to make TV appearances and do live speaking gigs until the time of his death at 78).

Perhaps he had become so dispersed in his fascinations that he had a mild form of ADHD, since he could be so easily distracted from the show’s conversational threads — a major pace-killer was when he would stop the proceedings to play through a new melody he had thought of, in hopes it would be his next song. It might just be that Steve, a comedian whose mind was razor sharp, couldn’t constantly be functioning at full tilt, deconstructing the language and playing with ideas and expressions.

But let’s not dwell on the odder aspects of Steve’s hosting skills in the late Eighties. He was one of the greatest natural wits to ever grace the airwaves (ample evidence can be found in his books Bigger Than a Breadbox and Schmock-Schmock!). So when his short-lived radio show (from ’86 to ’88) was at its finest, it was unabashedly silly and delightfully amusing.

The 16 segments that have been posted on YT contain different sublime moments of brilliant, quick humor and all seemingly come from the last week of new episodes. I will point out some highlights and let you check out the rest yourself.

The poster has put these segments up in the order in which they aired. The first one I must highlight is this, in which (at 29:15) Bob Einstein goes that extra mile — doing an impression of Jayne Meadows, Steve’s longtime wife, who seemed to be a real-life Margaret Dumont, existing in a sphere that was prim and proper and miles away from the intellectual and silly worlds that Steve inhabited in his work.

Einstein-as-Jayne is waking up late and trying on different clothing, including a scuba suit. (When he brings the character back later in the show, she asks, “Do you think the shower cap should go under the derby?”)

A prime example of the “Sleazy News” segment, again with Einstein on the phone. Among the topics discussed are stupid things said in courtrooms and a wild Jamaican party that wrecked a Manhattan hotel.

Steve was indeed a modern intellectual, but he also harkened from a different era of show business. So when he decided that he would like to “reason out” what was the problem with Jimmy the Greek’s famous statements about why blacks were so good in sports, everyone in the L.A. and NYC studios kept trying to stop him. It makes for some great swerves, since Einstein, Simone, and Sargent have to keep moving the conversation away from Jimmy the Greek.

A nice “introduction” to Steve Allen (and his many credits) is delivered by Einstein at 13:46.

More discussion of Jimmy the Greek’s remarks, this time with guest Jack Carter. Carter tells an old joke about African-Americans (which isn’t openly racist but is certainly a groaner) and discusses his TV career, which included a late Forties network show that featured performers in blackface!

A fun roundtable discussion and listener phone-in segment, about games the gents played as kids.

A packed house on this episode, as comedy writers Iles and Stein, and the great standup-actor Steve Landesberg join Steve, Mark, Herb, and (of course) Bob Einstein. The last-mentioned gets an “inappropriate” Irish joke in because it’s St. Paddy’s day (at 17:40).

Very interesting discussion off-air with Steve Landesberg about off-color jokes Landesberg used to do in his act (so Steverino *could* listen to jokes with dirty words in ’em; he just got crazy about anything even moderately saucy being said on-air by the Eighties). At that point Allen tells Landesberg he believes Bob is doing more questionable jokes “to bug me.” (Meaning, again, that it wasn’t just shtick when Steve disapproved of what Bob had said).

More of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg episode. Steve does a priest character (“Father Mulcahy”) with a few good lines — Steve’s tossed-off remarks on the radio show were far funnier than the scripted sketches. Einstein does his excellent “Jaynie-bird” impression again at 15:00.

In this part of the same episode, the conversation turns to gag writers for U.S. presidents (of course, Reagan was in office when this show aired).

Even more of the Iles and Stein/Landesberg show. Bob is “warned” about his bad boy behavior by Steve around 3:00 of the next video. For some reason, Steve did let Einstein go anywhere comedically. (Btw, the mentions of picketing have to do with a writer’s strike that was going on at the time.) Iles and Stein contribute to the conversation at 30:00.

A great “Sleazy News” segment around 43:00, but also interesting to hear Einstein asking Steve about the end of the radio show at 26:00. Steve felt it was taking up too much of his time and slowing down his book projects and other engagements. If the show hadn’t become as riddled with commercial breaks as it did on the NBC Network, I would’ve disagreed with his decision.

More group insanity in this segment, including a discussion about gorilla women and alligator men at the beginning. Also, talk of UFO landings and Paul Winchell. Jim and Henny Backus show up as the clip continues and Steve discusses game shows and how they are massive moneymakers (since they cost so little to produce).

One of the most interesting segments here is an off-mic chat in which Steve and Bob Einstein discuss the investments of Merv Griffin.

The final segment features Jim and Henny Backus going over Jim’s career in some detail. Steve notes how the hour they’re in was the final original hour of the program but reruns would be run for several weeks afterward — if I remember correctly these were tapes of the earlier WNEW shows that were wonderfully funny (but were, of course, cut to the NBC Network standard, with the maximum amount of long commercial breaks).