The curious case of Albert Finney[Inspector Gregory] "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
[Sherlock Holmes] "To the curious incident of the dog in the night time."
"The dog did nothing in the night time."
"That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes"
- "Silver Blaze" [From the "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"].
Perhaps the above extract is not entirely appropriate in this context, but it always is a point of surprise when someone does not do something that is taken for granted of him or of his type. For some time now, I have had a similar wonder for the actor Albert Finney.
I first heard of Albert Finney while reading the well-known director David Lean's autobiography. But before that, if you haven't heard of this British actor, here's a quick marker. Remember Ed Masry, the lawyer who's also the boss of the sassy Erin Brockovich in the eponymous film? The man playing Masry is Albert Finney. Recently, he was also seen in Big Fish. Perhaps you know him from Murder on the Orient Express.
The fact that he is not a famous person is essentially the point of this post. For, from Lean's autobiography, I learnt that it was Finney who was the first choice to play the title role of Lawrence of Arabia. It seems that Finney was unanimously hailed as the best British actor of his generation, the man to carry the torch after Olivier and Guinness. Astonishingly, he turned down the chance, apparently on the notion that he couldn't (or wouldn't) cope with the fame that was inevitable with that major part. Or he perhaps didn't want to be beset with all the attention that would come with it. The part went to Peter O'Toole, who despite all the body of work later, is still known for being "Lawrence".
I don't profess to know anything about Finney apart from these facts and what I little I have read of him so I have no clue as to whether my inferences about him are in anyway true. However since Finney is not a big name, one may not understand or share my awe for that decision. As an analogy perhaps, if Irfan Pathan announced that he would not play in any overseas tours saying that he didn't want the attendant fame that accompanied successful cricketers, most of us would be surprised at such a decision - for he would have thrown away not only the secondary offering of long lasting adulation and the chance to enjoy good financial rewards, he would also have reduced his chances of playing at the highest level consistently. Any artist or sportsman typically wants to display his art and talent to the public. That is part of his ego, and the reactions of his audience to his skill is one of the primal highs for the artist. So would anyone throw away the chance to be part of the biggest and the best in their profession?
I am of course measuring Finney's success by the traditional yardsticks - look at the number of film blockbusters against his name (hardly any), Oscars (none), recognition (not outside UK or limited US audiences) etc. Compare this to O'Toole who atleast had one major blockbuster that will somehow live on as a classic (unwieldy, though it may be) and reasonable recollection among people. Considering what Olivier and Lean have said about Finney and given his vast success on the stage, Finney had evidently got all that it took to be a "superstar" (which, unlike becoming an "actor", has more to do with the media and the personality). But he refused. Till this day, since he's probably slotted in as a "character actor" who can be relied upon to give an assured performance, I wonder how he feels about being denoted as a "could-have-been".
That is assuming Finney cares at all. A quick web search revealed very little out of the usual list of filmographies. This interview promoting Big Fish has him talking about his film selections, how he never has been to the Oscars despite being nominated 5 times and why he feels his career lies in England only. I'd of course like to read an autobiography, but Finney rules out writing one! There is mention of an unauthorised biography though.
It's a theme that struck me some time back that to advance in many professions calls for certain kinds of lifestyles and personalities. For instance, jobs that require pumping people for information (such as some journalists or intelligence officers!) would require one to be coercive, persuasive, wheedling, canny and perhaps fluent with the language of the drink. High powered executives cannot be those who see socializing events as a waste of time, for networking is vital in that sphere. Introverted people or those who may not wish to be myopic to hypocrisy may find it difficult to perform these additional actions that come along with the territory. Cricketers and film-wallahs need to learn how to handle the mass of people around them. It may be lonely at the top, but you are surrounded by people when you are at the top.
Its difficult to stick to what you know best, for at the higher levels, it seems like the other "skills" take over. Is leading a life at the higher echelons impossible without requiring a high-energy orbit?
Back to Finney. It always strikes me greatly ironical that both Finney and O'Toole have never won an Oscar in open competition. Finney has had 5. O'Toole with 7 still has the record for not having won an Oscar despite the many nominations. Several people have taken home Oscars for a lot lesser. The irony is because the root of this reflection was in Finney's unwillingness to be Lawrence. O'Toole wasn't so reluctant. In the end, looking at their lives in broad highlights from a distance, the way things turned out are somewhat similar. I wonder if any of those two thinks about what may have been if one had chosen differently? What part cynicism, what part pragmatism and what part romanticism lay in Finney's decision?