Tuesday, February 14

Peter Finch

When in 1954 I heard that Elizabeth Taylor and rampaging pachyderms were going to split open the silver screen in Elephant Walk, we know I had to go.  I was a wee bit of a thing but I knew a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon.  Playing her rather childish, boozy husband was Peter Finch.  I had no idea who he was and he's lucky I paid any attention to him at all considering his competition.  His character seemed bedeviled and oh so moody.  I guessed that the actor was that way, too.  I thought I was on to something.

I discovered he was a rather brilliant actor. I wonder if he ever taught acting... perhaps just a class.  What a lucky bunch of students they would have been.  He seemed to know everything there ever was about his profession.  He belonged to a very select circle of great actors and certainly right up there with the best from the British Isles.  He appeared suave, dignified, in control and always exuded an air of worldly grace.

I think I may have gotten it right on the bedeviled and the moody, too.  A brainy actor on the big screen, off screen he was a serious alcoholic, had a bent for smarting off and getting into all kinds of trouble and was, as I said in an earlier piece, a serial womanizer.

He was born in England in 1916 to what he believed for years was an Australian father who was a university professor.  In his 40s, however, he learned that his real father was the man he thought of as his stepfather, an Englishman.  His mother was divorced as a result of the affair.

He spent his earliest years in France.  At 10 he was taken by his grandmother to India where he did much studying with a Buddhist priest.  India, however, did not last for long and he was sent to live with cousins in Australia where he would reside until early adulthood. After graduating high school he went to work at a newspaper but soon made a decision to pursue acting.  

After a turn in the Australian military Finch organized a touring company of actors that put on classical plays in little theaters.  He also did some radio and began appearing in a few Aussie films and some shorts.  In 1948 Laurence Olivier was touring Australia in his own play and happened to catch Finch's work and was impressed enough with him to encourage him to return to England and appear on the stage.  

Finch did just that.  Another thing he did was begin an affair with Mrs. Olivier, Vivien Leigh, which would last, on and off, for several years through both of their marriages. Finch's first marriage (of three), essentially ended because of his affair with Leigh. Olivier put Finch under contract and they acted together on stage, as Finch also did with Orson Welles and Edith Evans.  He had always suffered terrible stage fright and decided to forego the stage and concentrate on movies.

With roles like the priest in The Heart of the Matter (1953) and the villain in Father Brown (1954) he was gathering quite a following in England. But he was looking for international stardom and when Paramount Pictures came calling, he jumped at the chance to work in an American film.  It was Elephant Walk, to be filmed in Ceylon. He would play a rich plantation owner with a new British bride who was having trouble adjusting to life in the jungle.  Dana Andrews would have the male lead but Finch's character would be married to none other than his real-life mistress, Vivien Leigh.

 Andrews, Leigh and Finch departing for Ceylon and Elephant Walk

Unfortunately, it didn't work out so well. Leigh's mental illness was in full bloom, she caused many problems and was fired.  She was replaced by Elizabeth Taylor who had her hands full with two full-blown alcoholics like Finch and Andrews.  It may be the only time Taylor was second choice for a leading lady.  Finch was so soured over how Leigh was handled that he never again felt right making American films and, in fact, made very few and fewer still in Hollywood, a town he loathed.

Returning to England at the time his contract with Olivier was expiring, Finch elected to sign with the Rank Organisation because they envisioned turning him into a major star. In 1955 Rank put him into Simon and Laura, a weak comedy with the delicious comedienne, Kay Kendall, with whom Finch began a very publicized affair.  It didn't go without mention that the randy one was not only cheating on his wife but on his mistress. If that weren't juicy enough, he cheated on Kendall with Swedish actress Mai Zetterling. She described him as an outlaw who despised becoming an actor.

I always thought Finch looked uncomfortable on the screen.  I say this despite regarding him as a great actor.  When his characters were also uncomfortable for any reason, he absolutely lit up the screen.  I think he had those creative genes in him, alright, but they may have been better served had he become a novelist or a playwright.  He could have sat at home, open bathrobe, teeth unbrushed, hair messy, cigarette dangling from his mouth, ashes on the floor, a highball glass and a bottle on the table, right behind his trusty Remington.  No one would have to watch him work and he could easily turn his attentions to the bedroom... and whoever was waiting in there.

I don't think he ever had a great early passion for acting... he saw it as lucrative and I believe easy, too.  At least it came easily to him most of the time.  He was somewhat embarrassed by being an actor, finding it a bit femme, and dressing up for films didn't suit him. Perhaps that's a reason why he always loved his radio days. He rarely complained about his comely costars, however. That and the money were on the upside of his chosen profession.

The few films Rank starred him in caused no stir so he decided to return to Australia when he was offered the lead opposite Virginia McKenna in A Town Called Alice (1956).  He plays a prisoner of war who helps a wealthy woman aid villagers during WWII.  Finch would win the first of his five BAFTAS for this role.  While Down Under he made The Shiralee (1957), which he said was his favorite of all his films.  Oddly, he plays the cuckolded husband who takes his young daughter with him on a journey when his marriage collapses.

In 1959 the international stardom Finch had been seeking finally arrived when he signed on to play an atheist doctor in the Congo in director Fred Zinnemann's highly-acclaimed The Nun's Story.  It was an atypical role for Audrey Hepburn which helped propel the film to majestic heights worldwide.  It has long been one of my favorite roles for Finch.

I thought he was great fun opposite young James MacArthur in the Disney presentation of Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped in 1960 and he would win his second BAFTA the same year for his brilliant portrayal of Oscar Wilde in The Trials of Oscar Wilde. His third BAFTA would come the following year for No Love for Johnnie where he played an opportunistic Parliament member looking for love.

Finch had a penchant for black women, enjoying numerous affairs and marriages with them.  His most famous was with singer Shirley (Goldfinger) Bassey.  She has kept mum over the years about the paternity of her two daughters but it has long been rumored that Finch was the father of one of them.

Elizabeth Taylor was again to be his co-star when in 1961 he signed on to play Julius Caesar opposite her in Cleopatra.  Stephen Boyd was aboard as Marc Antony.  It's probably just as well that things didn't work out as planned because if Finch thought he already hated being an actor, he would have been suicidal on this one. After one long delay after another and a temporary shutdown, Finch and Boyd became involved in other projects and were replaced by Rex Harrison and Richard Burton (oh?).

He then made three American films, none of them particularly well-received and none of which were actually made in the States. The Sins of Rachel Cade (1961), trying to ride on the coattails of The Nun's Story, costarred Angie Dickinson and was filmed in Africa.  I Thank a Fool (1962), opposite Susan Hayward is an improbable caretaker melodrama shot in Ireland.  In the Cool of the Day (1963) was filmed in England and is a tale of infidelity (he could have phoned this one in) with Jane Fonda.  I love flicks shot in Africa and any film with Hayward and Fonda, so I was good to go on this trio of forgettable films.  At this point, Finch was among my favorite actors, top 10 certainly, and I would see most of his films from then on.

His 1964 offerings had some definite interest and were far better than the last batch and no surprise that he played adulterers in both. He first joined Anne Bancroft and James Mason for The Pumpkin Eater, a tough look at a fecund marriage, with magical acting all around.  Rita Tushingham had some brief fame as Girl with Green Eyes and Finch was the older married man showing her the ropes. Snicker if you must.

The Flight of the Phoenix (1965) just tickled my fancy bigtime.  It concerned a downed cargo plane in the Sahara and a small contingent of disparate men to get it flying again.  Finch is fine in a less showy role with Hardy Kruger the best in a very splashy part. Considering others were James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Dan Duryea and George Kennedy, it was a casting delight.  I love my all-male tales of survival and this is a classic for my tastes.  It also happened to be the best U.S-based film Finch had yet made because California's Buttercup Valley stood in for the Sahara. 

I was at my little local art house theater to catch 10:30 P.M. Summer (1966).  A married couple and a female friend are traveling through Spain on holiday when the wife becomes obsessed with a local murder. While she's sleuthing, her husband and the friend get very naughty.  Hmmm, why did they think of Finch to play this one?  Like him, if I were married to Melina Mercouri and had a chance to sample Romy Schneider, I'd cheat too.  Oh, I'm kidding... I'm kidding. Now settle down.  Anyway, I really enjoyed it although I am sure I'm the only person in the world who's seen it. Or have you?

In 1967 Finch enjoyed another flush of celebrity when he joined Terence Stamp and Alan Bates as the three suitors of Julie Christie in director John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd.  It is one of those lush, romantic, English period things that people who like such things never miss.  Hmmm, Finch, Bates or Stamp?!  Let me think about this... for a second.

The following year there he was as an Otto Preminger-type movie director in The Legend of Lylah Clare.  One of those looks at the behind-the-scenes shenanigans in good ol' Hollywood, it focuses on an unknown beauty who is hired by a controlling director to play his ex-wife, a deceased, flamboyant movie star, in his next movie. The resemblance is uncanny and so is their sicko relationship.  Kim Novak in the lead (as both women) must have thought she was doing a bad update of Vertigo.  There was so much wrong with this movie that it's mind-boggling and you won't, perhaps, be surprised that I thought it was just a hoot.

He ended the 60s with a good adventure film, The Rent Tent, costarring Sean Connery, Hardy Kruger and Claudia Cardinale. Finch played an Italian general who reminisces about a failed 1928 airship disaster in the Arctic.  I attended because of the cast and got a surprise in liking the movie as much as I did. 

I always thought of Peter Finch as a 70s actor, I suppose because he made the two best films of his career during this decade. Seeing them and loving them both as much as I have, it's hard to believe this is a man who didn't like acting.  It simply proves what a good actor he truly was.  Oddly enough, it's the decade in which he also made the worst film of his career.  Go figure...

I just waxed rhapsodic about Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) three postings ago.  It is certainly one of my favorite movies of the decade and one of my favorite gay-themed movies period.  Finch was not the first choice for the role despite having worked for director John Schlesinger in Far from the Madding Crowd.  But his costar in that film, Alan Bates, was the first choice.  A gay actor playing a gay part would have been very daring for 1971.  It was said that Bates withdrew because his current production was running over. Another Finch costar, Ian Bannen, was hired and actually starting filming but he decided he could not do the gay kissing scene and he was fired.  Then Finch got the part.  He also got his first Oscar nomination and won another BAFTA for playing the kindly gay doctor who shares his male lover with a divorced woman in a separate relationship.  

That really atrocious film came in 1973... the musical remake of Lost Horizon.  He headed a large cast that collectively must have gone mad when they originally thought this was a good idea and went into the witness protection program after it was released.  As the star, Finch likely suffered the worst press.

There was more unwanted press the same year when he married for the third time. Eletha Barrett was much younger than Finch and Jamaican-born.  It raised a few eyebrows in 1973. Finch, as always, couldn't have cared less.

The same year's The Nelson Affair (Bequest to the Nation in England) was a good film that should have been more widely seen. It was great to see the two stars of Sunday Bloody Sunday (Finch and Glenda Jackson) be reunited in a story in which they actually acted together rather than the brief single scene they shared in Sunday.  In the newest version of the romance of Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton, it couldn't have escaped his notice that the prior version costarred his old flame, Vivien Leigh.  He got solid reviews for his performance. 

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this anymore.  Who could forget that line and who could forget Network (1976)?  Finch was not the first choice to play deranged TV anchor, Howard Beale (Gene Hackman was) but he wanted the part so much he could taste it... more so than any other role he had come across.  He found Paddy Chayefsky's words thrilling and he felt certain he would win an Oscar.  

I think Network is one of the best movies ever (ever...!!!) and certainly among the best written.  We will discuss it in more detail before we're done with the 70s but for now let's say this savaging of the television industry is also one of the best-acted films ever. Finch, Faye Dunaway, William Holden and Beatrice Straight would all be nominated for Oscars and all but Holden won (and he was never better).  Holden and Finch surprised themselves that they became such good friends.  Brothers of the bottle they were and serial cheaters, too, they might have become long-time pals had death not intervened.

After Network Finch went on to make a decent TV movie, Raid on Entebbe (1976).  After it was finished, he went on a promotional tour for Network.  He hated such promotion but in this case was almost glad to do it because he believed so strongly in the film and (again), he thought he could win an Oscar.  He was pretty excited, drinking way more than he should and tired when on January 13, 1977, he appeared on The Tonight Show.  Johnny Carson and others commented on how worn out he looked but laughed at his jokes, one of which included something about dying of a heart attack.

The following day in the lobby of the Beverly Hills Hotel that's exactly what he did.  Peter Finch dead at age 60 of a massive heart attack.  It had been a hell of a life.  And he was right.  He won the Oscar two months after his death and his fifth BAFTA as well.

He was buried in Hollywood.  One ponders how he would have felt about that.

Next posting:
Always in the bloom

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