Dream it never ends.

I received some sad news this morning: the great actor and kind man William Finley, best known for his cinematic collaborations with Brian De Palma, died two days ago here in New York City. He was not quite 70 years old, and he died suddenly and unexpectedly.

A longtime friend of Brian De Palma’s (the two met as students at Sarah Lawrence), Finley is surely best known for his cinematic collaborations with that fascinating director. The most gloriously demented and remarkable of those collaborations is surely his starring role as Winslow Leach in The Phantom of the Paradise, the 1974 cult classic horror/musical/comedy/masterpiece — one of my very very favorite films. In addition to his roles in Phantom, Finley appeared in several other De Palma films: the early (1962) short film Woton’s Wake; two early features which I consider as a sort of pair, Murder à la Mod (1968) and The Wedding Party (1969); the experimental “filmed theater” piece Dionysus in ’69 (1970), about which more below; the magnificently assured and highly creepy Sisters (1973); and smaller parts in The Fury (1978), Dressed to Kill (voice only, 1980), and The Black Dahlia (2006). The Black Dahlia would prove to be his last film role.

I’ve seen only a few online tributes to William Finley. (After I received the news from a friend who knew Finley well, I searched for obituaries. The only ones I found were in French, another piece of evidence that the citizens of that country understand American films and artists better than do Americans.) As the day went on, a few Englishlanguage obituaries were posted, though most of these are somewhat cursory. The kindest and most sincere tribute was posted on the blog of Edgar Wright, director of the magnificent works Spaced, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World; in fact, the internets seems to be giving Wright the credit for breaking the story of Finley’s death. You can read his tribute here.

The simplest, starkest online tribute was posted by the webmaster of The Swan Archives, a site dedicated to the glory that is The Phantom of the Paradise. Every page of that great website (so good that I’ve assigned parts of it in a class) has been replaced by the image below. After the current period of mourning, I encourage you to check back in with The Swan Archives: it’s one of the best single-film websites on the internet.

It always strikes me as peculiar when William Finley’s name plays across the screen so early in the opening titles of Phantom of the Paradise, as if he were a huge, well-known star. In a perfect world, he would have been, but the fact that he was not better-known was, it seems to me, part of the joke: his gawkiness, thick glasses, and oddball intensity certainly were not the stuff of conventional leading men. Probably very few people came to the theater for the express purpose of seeing William Finley perform — at that point, he was best known for his performances in various works of avant-garde New York City theater — but, really, the joke was on them if and when they wondered who he was: Finley’s performance in the film is marvelous, and worth the price of admission. Would that there had been more opportunities for moviegoers to attend a film on William Finley’s name recognition alone.

Another of William Finley’s finest performances is in the aforementioned Dionysus in ’69, De Palma’s filmed version of Richard Schechner’s play of the same name, which was itself inspired by Euripides’s play The Bacchae. The film version is a very unusual movie: a filmed performance of Dionysus in ’69, as staged by The Performance Group, a New York theater collective with strong experimental leanings. The film is much more than “filmed theater”: it uses multiple cameras, split-screens (the use of which would become a De Palma trademark), and extremely unusual staging and composition. This film, which until recently was quite hard to find, is now legally available to watch on the website of the Hemispheric Institute. I suggest you give it a look – it’s pretty damned fascinating. It’s one of the strongest extant links between Finley’s and De Palma’s avant-garde roots.

The reason I can refer to William Finley as a kind man is that I met him once. With the crucial assistance of the webmaster of The Swan Archives, Bill agreed to come out to Hofstra University to visit my students, who were taking a class with me on the films of Brian De Palma. By that point in the semester, my students had seen Dionysus in ’69 and The Phantom of the Paradise; to my great surprise, their reaction to both films was highly positive. Those students did treat Bill Finley like the massive star he should have become: they were flattered by his visit and enthusiastic in their interactions with him. He really enjoyed their questions and answered them quite graciously and humorously. He was a very nice man, and I am honored to have gotten the chance to meet him.

Though I happen to know that he signed off on his appearance on the cover of the upcoming book Un-American Psycho: Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible by my friend Chris Dumas, it’s a shame that he did not live to see that book published. I think he would have gotten a kick out of it.


Posted on April 16, 2012, in Film and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this, Ethan, it´s a lovely piece. Jackie Downs forwarded this to me as I´m a big Finley/ Phantom fan (as well as a fellow Cultographer – I wrote the one on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia). It´s a really sweet tribute to a sorely under-rated actor…

  2. THANKS for posting Dionysus!!!!

  3. Forgot to ask….what did you mean about William “signing off on his appearance on the cover”?

    • Hi, Leigh,

      Yeah, sorry, that was perhaps a little vague.
      Chris Dumas, the author of Brian De Palma and the Political Invisible (and a friend of mine), told me about the process by which he obtained official approval from both Bill Finley and Brian De Palma — just to stay above-board and legal — because both of their images appear on the front and/or back covers of the book. As I recall, Chris said that Bill was not only happy to sign, but delighted to be on the cover.

  4. Hi Ethan…okay, that does help. I had to smile at your explanation of how the writer of the book got official approval from both William and Brian for use of their pictures on the cover. Good thinking. You don’t want to get on the wrong side of the guy who created Winslow Leach. 😉

    http://www.angelfire.com/de/palma/blog/index.blog?topic_id=1059004 Go to the left side and click on where it mentions Robert Englund (aka Freddy Kruegger) who gave William a SUPER NICE tweet tribute. (I sound like a cartoon character!)

    I will check out that book, for sure!

  5. Hi again, Ethan!

    Watched Dionysus in ’69 and was TOTALLY amazed….. I’ve read that, more than any other project, this was the nucleus for Phantom of the Paradise. And in Dionysus (William) there is a SWAN-ishness, with William Shephard’s Pentheus acting as something of a Winslow, only in that he wanted order restored to his ‘kingdom’ the way Winslow only wanted his music either returned or produced as originally written. Swan/Dionysus plays nice, to make Winslow/Pentheus THINK they are going to get what they want, only to end up destroying them one way or the other in the end.

    In Phantom, William Shephard’s character is almost the leader of the chorus; more so in the Wedding than opening night. That Q&A with William on those two movies must’ve been a treat and a half! I would have LOVED the opportunity to talk to him about Faust part 2. Part 1 was easy enough but there was so much allegory in part two, I couldn’t wrap my head around all of it!

    Thanks, again, for uploading that wild production!

  6. Reblogged this on awriterwritesalways and commented:
    A great post about a memorable CHARACTER actor and my mentor.

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