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 English–language 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 Every page of that great website (so good that I’ve assigned parts of it in a class) has been replaced by the image below.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.