Oscar Profile #505: Peter Finch

Born September 28, 1916 in London, England, Peter Finch was the subject of a custody battle between his mother and her husband who was not his actual father. His “father” won, and the child was kept from his mother who later married Finch’s actual father. He never met his mother until he was 33, and his real father until he was 45. He was brought up by relatives of his “father” in France, India and eventually Australia.

After graduating from North Sydney Intermediate High School in 1929, Finch went to work as a copy boy for the Sydney Sun. Gravitating toward acting, he made his stage debut in 1933 in a play called Caprice. He made his film debut two years later as Prince Charming in the short, The Magic Shoes. Alternating between the Australian stage and films, he joined the Australian Army in 1941 and remained a soldier to the end of World War II in 1945. He married ballerina Tamara Tchinarova in 1943 with whom he would have one child.

Encouraged by Laurence Olivier on a tour of Australia in 1946, Finch moved to England in 1948, leaving Australia permanently behind. Success on the British stage and in British films was immediate. By 1950, he was appearing in films made buy U.S., as well as British, companies. Among them were The Miniver Story, The Story of Robin Hood and His Merrie Men, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Heart of the Matter, Elephant Walk and The Detective. He received the first of his eventual seven BAFTA nominations and his first of five wins for 1956’s A Town Like Alice. He received his second nomination for 1957’s Windom’s Way.

Finch was divorced by Tchinarova in 1959 when she learned of his affairs with Vivien Leigh, Kay Kendall and others. Later that year he married actress Yolande Turner with whom he would have two children. The couple would divorce in 1965. During this period the actor was nominated for his third BAFTA for 1959’s The Nun’s Story, won the Best Actor award at the Moscow Film Festival for 1960’s The Trials of Oscar Wilde for he won his second BAFTA, and 1961’s No Love for Johnnie for which he won his third. He also starred in such films as The Sins of Rachel Cade, I Thanks a Fool, In the Cool of the Day, The Pumpkin Eater, Girl with Green Eyes and The Flight of the Phoenix.

1967’s Far from the Madding Crowd earned Finch the Best Actor award of the National Board of Review but his career went into decline after the flop of 1968’s The Legend of Lylah Clare. It rebounded with 1971’s Sunday Bloody Sunday for which he won his fourth BAFTA as well as Best Actor awards from the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics, and for which he received his first Oscar nomination.

Finch married third wife Ethena Barrett in 1973 with whom he had a fourth child. With flops like the musical version of Lost Horizon, The Nelson Affair, and The Abdication, his career was once again in decline until 1976’s Network put him once again in awards competition. Alas, the rigor of an Oscar campaign proved too strenuous for the 60-year-old actor who died of a heart attack while waiting to appear on a TV show on January 14, 1977. He won a Golden Globe, an Oscar and his fifth BAFTA for his performance posthumously.

ESSENTIAL FILMS

THE NUN’S STORY (1959), directed by Fred Zinnemann

Audrey Hepburn gave her most powerful and moving performance ever as Sister Luke, the nun who leaves the convent after a crisis of faith when she is told by her superiors that she must put her love of medicine behind her love of God. The film features extraordinary supporting performances from Edith Evans as the alone-at-the-top Mother General of her order of nuns, Peggy Ashcroft as her Mother Superior in the Belgian Congo sequence, Mildred Dunnock, Ruth White, Colleen Dewhurst and many others. Finch as an Italian doctor and Dean Jagger as Hepburn’s father are the only male actors of any consequence.

THE TRIALS OF OSCAR WILDE (1960), directed by Ken Hughes

1960 saw two biopics about Oscar Wilde released at the same time. This version with Finch in the film’s title role is the more cinematic of the two. This one may look better, but the more simply titled Oscar Wilde with Robert Morley recreating his great stage performance is, is the more powerful possibly because of Morley’s long association with the material. James Mason, Yvonne Mitchell and John Fraser have the roles played in the Morley version by Ralph Richardson, Phyllis Calvert and John Neville as the prosecutor, Wilde’s wife, and his young lover, respectively. Both should be seen.

FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967), directed by John Schlesinger

Thomas Hardy’s novel has been filmed many times, first as a silent film in 1915 and more recently as a TV mini-series and Hollywood remake. This version with Julie Christie as the willful farm woman juggling three suitors – Alan Bates, Terence Stamp and Finch, pales in comparison to Thomas Vinterberg’s2015 version with Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Tom Sturridge and Michael Sheen, but was well like at the time, especially by the National Board of Review which gave it awards for the year’s Best Film and Best Actor (Finch). It was nominated for an Oscar for its Score.

SUNDAY BLOODY SUNDAY (1971), directed by John Schlesinger

Schlesinger’s intelligent romantic drama about a young artist (Murray Head) juggling affairs with a male doctor (Finch) and a female office worker (Glenda Jackson) won five out of eight BAFTA awards for Best Film, Actor, Actress, Director and Editing, losing its bids for Best Screenplay, Cinematography and Soundtrack. It lost all four of its Oscar nominations for Best Actor, Actress, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Jackson lost as expected to Jane Fonda in Klute but Finch’s loss to Gene Hackman in The French Connection was both unexpected and puzzling.

NETWORK (1976), directed by Sidney Lumet

Finch finally won an Oscar as a deranged TV anchor in this satire of modern TV that proved all too prophetic, but he had to die to get it. The film was nominated for ten Oscars including Best Picture and Director, winning four including Best Actor (Finch over co-star William Holden), Actress (Faye Dunaway), Supporting Actress (Beatrice Straight) and Original Screenplay. Finch was the fourth actor nominated posthumously behind Jeanne Eagels James Dean (twice) and Spencer Tracy, and the first to win. Heath Ledger in 2008’s The Dark Knight is the only actor to win posthumously since.

PETER FINCH AND OSCAR

  • Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) – nominated – Best Actor
  • Network (1976) – Oscar – Best Actor

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