Remembering Peter Finch

Best known for his classic turn in Network, Peter Finch's career was full of other powerful films, as Aliya reminds us...

For his best known roles, in brave films such as Sunday Bloody Sunday and Network, he wasn’t the first choice of the directors. But once he inhabited a character, it belonged to him. He had a sense of normality in his acting, as if he naturally sprang from the setting, whether it was the Dorset countryside, an American TV station, a Malayan POW camp, or the Arctic circle.

Often Finch’s acting was the opposite of showy. He just seemed to fit; there was no effort. His roles often involved waiting for something to happen, but when he exploded into love or anger it was devastating. The high hairline and the hooded eyes conveyed a careful intelligence with which he reacted to the world of the film. He was an iceberg of an actor, with so much under the surface. It’s rare to find such complexity, and he used it to great effect in films that demanded more from the viewer than just their attention.

A Brief Biography

Frederick George Peter Ingle Finch was born in London on 28 September 1916. His parents divorced when he was two years old; he found out years later that his mother’s adultery with the Indian Army Officer who turned out to be his biological father was the cause of the divorce. But at the time his legal father gained custody and he was raised by members of his extended family, first in France, then in Australia.

Finch started work with a local theatre in Sydney in 1933, and worked in all sorts of roles, leading to early radio and film experience. He was an anti-aircraft gunner during World War Two, but after the war he returned to acting, and became a very popular radio star. But he continued to work in theatre, and it was a theatrical performance that brought him to the attention of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh, who were touring Australia with their own theatre company. They encouraged Finch to move to London in order to further his career, and he arrived back in London in 1948.

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Olivier gave him a theatrical contract, and continued to aid his career even when Finch began a long-running affair with Vivien Leigh. Stage fright was always a real problem for him, and he began to work more often in film, and in 1954 the Rank Organisation put him under contract with plans to make him a major star. They succeeded – a number of popular movies followed, and he became a box-office draw not only in the UK, but also in the US, with films such as Elephant Walk (1954), A Town Like Alice (1956), and The Shiralee (1957 – filmed back in Australia). 

Finch took ever more challenging roles and worked with some of the great directors of the sixties and seventies, such as Fred Zinneman, John Schlesinger, and Sidney Lumet. His last role was in Lumet’s Network – for his role he won the Best Actor Academy Award posthumously. He died of a heart attack on 14 January 1977 in Los Angeles. He was 60 years old.

Six of his Best Roles

Network (1976)

It’s not possible to talk about Peter Finch without mentioning Network, which is one of those strangely prophetic films that has only gained in status since its release. With black humour and a sharp focus, it looks into the world of the TV network and how far it will go to gain viewers. It turns out that TV executive Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) will allow obviously unstable anchorman Howard Beale (Finch) to go on air and vent his rage and despair at modern life, and people start to respond to it – but inevitably his ratings begin to slide, and she sees that something even more sensational is needed.

Network feels like a violent film; a film that is savage in intent. The threat in the air is due to Peter Finch’s performance. I think Dunaway looks so smooth, so glossy, so soulless, that Howard Beale’s sweaty anger comes across as an epiphany. It’s the contrast between them that drives the film, and they both won Oscars for their roles.

There’s something so uncomfortable about the way Beale’s heartfelt statement of, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” becomes a catchphrase for light entertainment that when you watch Network you feel bad that you’re sitting in front of a screen yet again. Which is a good thing, I suppose. If difficult for film geeks.

The Nun’s Story (1959)

A 149 minute film about a Belgian nun – when you put it like that, it sounds pretty boring, even if the nun, Sister Luke, is played by Audrey Hepburn. Hepburn had an eternal, illuminating face that suited this part. She always looked so alone in her innocence, and I never really bought her love interests in a lot of her films. From the improbable Fred Astaire to the earnest Gregory Peck (with the possible exception of George Peppard in Breakfast At Tiffany’s, maybe), she was just too perfect for all of them.

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But Peter Finch as Doctor Fortunati in The Nun’s Story – that I buy. Perhaps it’s because it’s not a romance at all. He plays the earthy realist out in the Congo who has a practical outlook on Catholicism and love and emotions, worrying away at Sister Luke’s idealism. After an hour or so of watching her struggle not to feel anything but devotion to God, his sudden appearance brings a conflict that energises her.  

Irrespective of whether you like Peter Finch, it’s worth seeing The Nun’s Story for one of the most chilling moments to appear in a non-horror film. Sister Luke is working in a sanatorium, with the dangerous patients, and the worst of them is the woman they call The Archangel Gabriel (Colleen Dewhurst). She’s a deeply scary figure, particularly when she tries to escape, and Sister Luke stands in her way…

The Red Tent (1969)

In 1928 Italian General Nobile set off on an expedition to the North Pole by airship. It all went wrong, and his story of survival is an astonishing one, involving guilt, sacrifice, rivalry, love, and very hungry polar bears.

In this joint Italian-Russian film, Nobile (Peter Finch) looks back on that expedition through a long sleepless night, and tries to make sense of what happened. Many of the people involved visit him as ghosts from the past, including Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, who is played, grave-faced, by Sean Connery. Nobile is a broken figure, where once a great leader stood. Finch plays both aspects with total understanding.

The Red Tent has some amazing shots of the Arctic. It’s the only English language movie made by Russian director Mikhail Kalatozov, and he uses the scenery as a majestic, indomitable presence. Although it takes a while for the action to get going, it is a film that feels very real, and you find yourself putting on an extra jumper during the crash of the airship and the scenes of desperate cold and hunger that follow.

Far From The Madding Crowd (1967)

Thomas Hardy wrote about how we live at the mercy of nature and our own animal instincts, and I can’t think of a film that translates that idea to the screen as well as Schlesinger’s Far From the Madding Crowd. The characters inhabit a countryside that is far from chocolate-box beautiful. The cliffs drop away to the rough grey sea, the winds howl, the crops fail, the animals die. And Julie Christie plays Bathsheba, roaming around this landscape as if she owns it. She will believe that she’s in charge of her own destiny, and there follows a tragedy of her own making.

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Her three love interests are played by Alan Bates, Terence Stamp, and Peter Finch – now that’s a trio of very impressive actors. Terence Stamp gets the flashy turn. His uniform from the film was recently on show during the BFI’s retrospective of his career, and it was still a vivid red, as vivid as his performance. But now I find I prefer the browns and greys of Peter Finch’s performance. The last shot of his face is what stays with me. It’s filled with an understanding of what failure is.

Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)

Made over 40 years ago, this human drama about a love triangle has a maturity that is often still lacking in film. Dr Daniel Hirsch (Finch) is in love with young artist called Bob (Murray Head). So is Alex Greville (Glenda Jackson), and they share him with a kind of weary acceptance. They want to give their artist what he says he needs, but there is always the feeling that they know he’s getting away with treating them badly because he holds all the power. Why do they let him?

It’s a slow-paced film, taking its time over the details of the relationship – the daily events, the lovemaking, the arguments. Daniel’s homosexuality is not the point of the film, or even a point of interest, particularly. The life choices of the characters are not centre stage. We are what we are, and we want someone to accept us on those terms. Director John Schlesinger suggests that finding someone to do that is the impossible search at the heart of our lives. It’s moving and sad, and Peter Finch’s final monologue, delivered straight to camera, is amazing.

A Town Like Alice (1956)

In the US this film was given the much more provocative title of The Rape Of Malaya, but I prefer to stay true to the title of Nevil Shute’s novel. Jean Paget (played by Virginia McKenna) is a good-hearted secretary. When the Japanese army arrives, she fails to escape in time, and ends up with a number of other British women, moving from camp to camp. She meets Australian POW Joe Harman (Finch) and he tells her of his life back near Alice Springs. The thought of it gives them both strength, but their connection will lead Joe to make dangerous decisions.

It’s a very moving film, and the relationship between Joe and Jean really grips you. There’s a scene in which they sit side by side, at night, watching out for the guards, and share half a cigarette each, feeling like free human beings for a few moments. It’s a wonderful bit of acting.

The film only deals with the first half of the book, which is a shame, but if you want to see a good version of the whole novel then try the 1981 TV miniseries, with Bryan Brown playing Joe Harman. Brown is a very watchable actor, but I think I prefer Peter Finch’s portrayal, just for that moment when he lights Jean’s cigarette, and tries to make her smile.

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Peter Finch was known to his friends and colleagues as ‘Finchie’, and apparently he was unpretentious and unbothered by the trappings of fame. For him, the performance was everything. He said, “Good acting should teach people to understand rather than judge,” and that was exactly what he achieved in his best roles. His characters weren’t always likable, but you could understand them, no matter when or where they lived. He made them real.

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