Albert Finney, the distinguished British thespian and five-time Oscar nominee, died Thursday at 82. Although he retired from the screen several years ago (his final film appearance was in the 2012 James Bond film “Skyfall”), he left behind a rich variety of astonishing roles from a career that spanned nearly six decades: the working-class “angry young men” of British films like “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”; the flawed middle-age men of “Under the Volcano” and “The Browning Version”; and his unforgettable roles in big-budget movie musicals like “Scrooge” and “Annie.”
Luckily, many of his most acclaimed performances are streaming right now. Here’s where to find some of his very best.
‘Tom Jones’ (1963)
How to watch: Rent it on Amazon and iTunes.
Finney received his first best actor Oscar nomination for this best picture winner. And although it was made with his fellow “angry young men” Tony Richardson (the director) and John Osborne (the screenwriter), “Tom Jones” was a noticeable diversion from much of all their earlier, socially conscious work. Finney stars as the title character, an 18th century ne’er-do-well with a lust for life (among other things). Watching him throw off the shackles of the Serious Actor this early in his career and engage in some good old-fashioned winking and mugging is a blast. This is a cheerfully ribald picture, with hearty doses of sex and slapstick: The Times’s Bosley Crowther called it “a roaring entertainment that develops its own energy as much from its cinematic gusto as from the racy material it presents.”
‘Murder on the Orient Express’ (1974)
How to watch: Stream it on Amazon; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney’s next Oscar nomination came over a decade later and for a markedly different role, in which he led the peerless ensemble cast of this all-star adaptation of the Agatha Christie novel, directed by Sidney Lumet. Donning a French accent and an appropriately pointed mustache, Finney takes on the persona of Christie’s beloved super-sleuth Hercule Poirot, which he seems to see as an acting dare: Can one convey the ornate theatricality inherent the role without overplaying to the camera? Unsurprisingly, he’s up to the challenge, finding humor in the character’s brilliance, anchoring him in something resembling reality, and (perhaps most important) convincingly dominating a room of stage legends and Oscar winners.
‘Shoot the Moon’ (1982)
How to watch: Rent it on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney is by turns, fragile, monstrous, vulnerable and impossible in the complicated role of a novelist who chooses to leave his wife (Diane Keaton) and four daughters for his mistress. But this is no simple breakup: His wife’s subsequent relationship revives jealousy and passion he thought were long gone, and preserving his bonds with his children proves more difficult than he imagined. The film, and Finney’s work in it, brilliantly capture the trickiness of masculinity in its era, in which forward-thinking sensitivity and cave man machismo seemed in constant conflict. Finney’s scenes with Keaton are emotional minefields, but the most heartbreaking moment in the picture finds Finney trying, and failing, to give a birthday gift to his oldest (and angriest) offspring. The Times critic Vincent Canby wrote that Finney “gives the kind of anguished, biting, full-length performance one associates with his best work.”
‘The Dresser’ (1983)
How to watch: Rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney and Tom Courtenay both picked up Oscar nominations for this adaptation of the stage play by Ronald Harwood: a two-hander that stars Finney as the veteran stage actor and manager of a Shakespearean company and Courtenay as a longtime backstage dresser who also serves as the actor’s confidante, nursemaid and punching bag. Finney (47 at the time, playing a man much older and more weathered) spent enough time in these provincial English theaters to know his character through and through, and the film feels like a story told from the inside out, full of lived-in moments and offhand accuracy. It’s an actor’s showcase, in which Finney shows us both the virtuosity of the workaday thespian and the demons that drive him.
‘Miller’s Crossing’ (1990)
How to watch: Stream it on Starz; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney’s juiciest role of the 1990s came to him from the Coen Brothers, who placed the actor (and his considerable gravitas) at the center of this throwback gangster movie. As Leo O’Bannon, an Irish crime boss and political puppeteer, Finney conveys the character’s long-held power in every impatient look and gesture. But he also lets you glimpse, right behind his steely eyes, that he knows it is all slipping away. The Coens indulged Finney’s playful side, not in the role of the tough gangster, but in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo, disguised as an aging female maid who crosses herself when Gabriel Byrne bursts into a ladies’ dressing room.
‘Erin Brockovich’ (2000)
How to watch: Stream it on Starz; rent it on iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney’s fifth and final Academy Award nomination was for this drama from director Steven Soderbergh, based on the true story of Erin Brockovich, who led a successful class action suit against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California. As Brockovich, Julia Roberts won the Oscar for best actress, and understandably so: It’s a showstopper of a performance, full of big acting moments and emotional high points. But Finney’s quieter work is just as revelatory, capturing the head-down doggedness of this lifelong and (until then) small-time attorney who suddenly finds himself dealing with the both the case of a lifetime and a force of nature intent on seeing it through. Finney deftly captures the character’s frustrations, tenacity and (particularly in his priceless closing scene) good humor.
‘Big Fish’ (2003)
How to Watch: Stream it on Hulu and HBO; rent it on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu and YouTube.
Finney found one of his last great roles in Tim Burton’s visually arresting adaptation of the Daniel Wallace novel, fitting comfortably into the baggy pants (and convincing Southern drawl) of Ed Bloom: lover, fighter and spinner of tall tales. The narrative is propelled by his son (Billy Crudup), who hopes to understand who his father really was on the eve of the old man’s death. But the elder Bloom is a bit of a fabulist, and his baroque, convoluted history (starring Ewan McGregor as Finney’s younger self) gives Finney plenty of charming speeches to chew on. And his onscreen death — as well as his funeral, attended by the many colorful characters he brought to such vivid life — feels especially poignant now.