I got a movie bloog elsewhere online, but I’ve made exactly one post to it, and now I realize how silly it is to have a bloog over there when I have a bloog over here that I can use for whatever the fuck I want, including movie-type stuff. So here is a movie-type stuff I hand-wrote using real pen and paper at my jerb today, because I was bored and we all got told that we couldn’t be on our smrtfones so much because work. LIKE WTF, THAT IS HOW I KEEP TRACK OF ALL OF YOU DURING THE DAY. I would typically say “YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME” here, but heh heh, they actually are the boss of me, so YAY GAINFUL EMPLOYMENT I LOVE MY JOB ALL HAIL THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR DOLLAR BILL Y’ALL.
The Phantom of the Paradise (Brian dePalma, 1974)
It should have been a star-making role. It should have been the role to put William Finley’s name on the lips of everyone the world over. Instead, it was a commercial flop. Finley became — well, how many people remember him, if you did a poll on the street? It’s a shame that what’s prompted me to finally write about Phantom of the Paradise is the fact that Finley recently passed away. This probably won’t even be a proper review of the film so much as a tribute to Finley’s career, or at least some of my favorite roles of his.
You can’t really talk about Finley without talking about Brian dePalma. dePalma introduced the world to Finley, first in a short film called Woton’s Wake (1962), then in the feature-length horror comedy Murder a la Mod (1968). In fact, in his short career, Finley almost exclusively worked with dePalma, featuring in eight of the director’s films. His defining role, perhaps, or one that would solidify his status in cult-film history, would be of Winslow Leach, a.k.a. The Phantom of the Paradise.
Phantom is a film almost ready-made for the cult circuit, predating its soul-sister The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman, 1975) by months. It’s a glam-rock update of Phantom of the Opera and Faust that’s high on camp and costume. It fuses classic horror, rock-n-roll, and romance fairly seamlessly, all guided by dePalma’s unique vision:
[NOTE: Unfortunately, Fox has removed the clip I’d hoped to use here, which included the split-screen sequence in the film. You can catch a glimpse of it at about the :52 mark]
But what really sells the film are the performances, guided by Finley in the lead role as a singer-songwriter whose magnum opus is stolen wholesale by corrupt record producer Swan, played by Paul Williams. Swan gives Leach, since deformed by a record press, the opportunity to rework and perfect his Faustian rock opera with the understanding that Leach, as the Phantom, will no longer interfere with the production.
It is Finley, as both mild-mannered Leach and the masked Phantom, that gives the film its soul. He was never a classically attractive man, but there is a kind of rawness to his performance that is undeniably powerful. The transition he makes from soft-spoken Leach to the bitter and destructive Phantom is as seamless as any other performance in cinema, and though the Phantom will go to any length for his vision, including murder, he is never not a sympathetic character.
All this is ultimately due to Finley’s talent as an actor. Even when playing the most unsavory characters, such as Raymond Dunwoodie in The Fury (dePalma, 1978) or Emil Breton in Sisters (dePalma, 1973), he manages a strange kind of magnetism. You simply cannot take your eyes off of him when he’s on-screen. It’s rather a shame then that he was only in a handful of films, the bulk of which were done in the 1970s and ’80s. But we still have what we have, and William Finley’s work will long stand as a testament to his acting chops.
Backtracking a bit to his previously-mentioned work with dePalma, one wonders why the director didn’t secure Finley for one of his other films, Blow Out (1981), in the role of Burke, played by John Lithgow. Much as I love Lithgow’s performance, and Lithgow overall as an actor, I would have loved to have seen what Finley would have done with the role. As creepy and chilling as Lithgow makes Burke, Finley could have perhaps ramped up the creep factor tenfold and completely stolen the show. Alas, we will never know, but we are still left with an enduring and quite amazing political thriller.
All speculation about what could have been aside, William Finley was one of the finest cult character actors of the ’70s and ’80s. His final role, as Georgie Tilden in dePalma’s film adaptation of The Black Dahlia (2006), is small but effective and perhaps the lone highlight in an otherwise dull film. But the one role everyone will return and point to when speaking of Finley will be Winslow Leach, the Phantom of the Paradise, an honest and gentle man turned cold and callous, brought completely and wholly to life by an actor who deserved more recognition than he ever received.
Goodnight, William Finley. You will be missed.
(1942 – 2012)