With Albert Finney’s departure from the world stage on February 7, there’s plenty to say about his exceptional career. Two favorite scenes from The Dresser (1983) are included here. The film is about a small ragtag acting troupe that brings Shakespeare to the provinces. It’s a sendup of bombastic old-school acting and a poignant study of the lead actor’s personal assistant or “dresser.” The film opens with Finney's character in the role of Othello. As you can see from the above photograph, his entire body has been darkened. Tom Courtenay, his dresser, is shown assisting him with a post-performance bath.
Taken on its own and out of context, the image is both compelling and off-putting. It seems especially relevant to the current social moment when blackface is trending yet again. What does it mean when a white actor darkens his skin to play Othello? Is that the same as the kind of blackface historically used to denigrate African Americans? Or something different?
To be sure, a white actor "blacking-up" to channel Othello is its own quagmire. For one thing, it points up the historical exclusion of black actors who could play the role. In 1833, for example, Ira Aldridge, an accomplished African-American actor from New York, was forced to play Othello on the London stage when a prominent white actor, Edmund Kean, became too ill to appear. As Kean's understudy, this should have been a triumphant moment for Aldridge. But the entrenched racial prejudice of the day prevented him or any other black actor from playing that particular role again for the next 110 years. It wasn't until 1944 that mega-star Paul Robeson took the part.
In recent years, there's been a push to remedy the issue by no longer allowing white actors in the Othello role to darken their skin. Historians have also noted that Shakespeare never specifically wrote that Othello is black. He is described only as a Moor.
Nevertheless, the character is black in the contemporary mind because he's been presented that way since the 19th century.
Which is why there are intimations of greatness in that image of Albert Finney in the bath. Back when Rachel Dolezal was upbraided for pretending to be black, many critics complained that her pretense was the ultimate display of white privilege. After all, she could always become white again, something actual African Americans cannot do.
But that image of Finney in the post-Othello bath reveals another element. The composition calls to mind Michelangelo's Pieta, suggesting that the black experience is exhausting. Finney looks as if he's on the point of dying. Any white man who attempts to inhabit black skin should look just as fatigued. As Kiese Laymon points out in his 2018 memoir, living with actual black skin is Heavy.
I'll have more to say about blackface in another post. For now, let's take a look at those two favorite scenes from The Dresser. Finney's character, known only as "Sir," has an overbearing ego and an outsized acting style. But there are moments--one in particular--when it becomes useful offstage.
STOP THAT TRAIN
THE MADNESS OF KING LEAR
Whether the final product is great or not-so-great, making art requires courage and perseverance. Even when talent is in short supply, the personal risks are significant. The following clip shows Finney’s character in a scene with Eileen Atkins. It's a revealing look at the difficulty of inhabiting two worlds simultaneously, especially when the character you’re playing is mad. Finney's performance is a brilliant depiction of that precarious tightrope.
IF YOU’RE NOT CAREFUL, THEY WILL OWN YOU
In the tidal upsweep of remembrances following Finney’s death, it’s easy to overlook the 30-minute television interview he gave in 1960 when he was 24. But don’t. Finney was flavor of the month that year after a multi-award-winning performance in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. During the course of his career, he tried to follow his own star despite the lure of studio contracts with big dollar signs. He chose artistic integrity instead. Not a path many choose to travel.
Albert Finney will probably be discussed and remembered for a very long time. He left behind a towering legacy. And it all goes back to that clear-eyed, hard-working young man, his boyish younger self, who set his sights on the road less travelled.
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