Of Finney's other nominations for Best Actor, Murder on the Orient Express (1974), The Dresser (1983), and Under the Volcano (1984), his second, playing Agatha Christie's Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, is his weakest. It's more caricature than character, outward gestures and affectations without the nuances and sensitivity Finney has shown across his five-year career. Of the other nominations, Finney gave award-worthy performances, with Under the Volcano perhaps his most memorable. Finney's role in Under the Volcano called on him to play an alcoholic diplomat on a career- and life-ending bender, the kind of role and performance the Academy tends to nominate and award. It's his first nomination for Tom Jones, however, that I consider his best role, or, to be more precise, his most underappreciated.
Finney plays the title character, the bastard son of a house servant raised as a gentleman by the sympathetic Squire Allworthy (George Devine). Jones' natural wildness and appetites for food, drink, and especially women get him into constant trouble with the other, more repressed members of the English aristocracy. Jones refuses, however, to mend his ways. Jones' priorities change, of course, when he meets the newly returned daughter, Sophie (Susannah York), of his benefactor's neighbor, Squire Western (Hugh Griffith). Due to Jones' parentage (or lack thereof), Western doesn't see Jones as a suitable husband for his daughter. Sophie's aunt (Edith Evans) attempts to pair the unwilling Sophie to Squire Allworthy's nephew, Blifil (David Warner, in his debut).
Forced to fend for himself, Jones briefly travels with a military unit headed for fighting in the Scottish Highlands, saves a woman, Mrs. Waters (Joyce Redman), from sexual assault, duels her assailant, enjoys an amorous interlude with her, but ultimately finding himself in London, where he hopes to see Sophie, but still indulging his sexual appetites when the opportunity (or opportunities) arise. With the help of an ironic, offscreen narrator (Micheál Mac Liammóir, Iago in Orson Welles' adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello), Richardson condenses, compresses, and compacts Fielding's sprawling, 10-part novel into 128 minutes, making for a film that feels both rushed and too long, but always keeps his lead actor front-and-center and the satire of English aristocracy with its hypocrisies a close second (e.g., Tom turned away by his benefactor under dubious circumstances, a revealing deer hunt shot vérité-style, a justice system where justice doesn't prevail, etc).
Tom Jones gave Finney, an actor known primarily for heavy, dramatic roles, the chance to play a light, comic turn, the kind often dismissed by critics and moviegoers because of their nature, but the kind that can just easily fall into overbroad caricature. That Jones never does is due to Finney's layered performance. He makes a potentially unlikeable, unsympathetic (because he's egotistical and narcissistic) Jones relatable, partly due to his charisma, but mostly due to the energy and enthusiasm he brings to his role as the hedonistic Jones. Finney captures Jones' humor and generosity with remarkable self-confidence. He makes the role of Tom Jones his own, one few actors would try to emulate or imitate.
Finney received the first of four Best Actor nominations for Tom Jones, but lost. He also didn't win the four other times he received acting nominations, including a Best Supporting Actor nomination for Erin Brockovich ten years ago. Finney's failure to win an acting Oscar, however, puts in good (actually, great) company. Peter O'Toole's Oscar-nominated turn in The Ruling Class was the focus of my first "Their Best Role" article for Cinematical. Their respective losses and overall career shutouts have done nothing to diminish their onscreen accomplishments.
Is Finney's performance in Tom Jones his best? Or is there another performance mentioned above (or not) that you prefer?