‘Under the Volcano’ screening: John Huston’s ‘quality’ comeback starring daring Albert Finney
As part of its John Huston film series, the UCLA Film & Television Archive will be presenting the 1984 drama Under the Volcano, starring Albert Finney, Jacqueline Bisset, and Anthony Andrews, on July 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Billy Wilder Theater in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood. Bisset is expected to be in attendance.
Huston was 77, and suffering from emphysema for several years, when he returned to Mexico – the setting of both The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Night of the Iguana – to direct 28-year-old newcomer Guy Gallo’s adaptation of English poet and novelist Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 semi-autobiographical novel Under the Volcano, which until then had reportedly defied the screenwriting abilities of numerous professionals.
Appropriately set on the Day of the Dead – 1938 – in the fictitious Mexican town of Quauhnahuac (the fact that it sounds like Cuernavaca is no coincidence)*, Under the Volcano traces the final hours in the life of the boozing, buffoonish, self-destructive former British consul Geoffrey Firmin (Albert Finney, who had starred in Huston’s Annie two years earlier).
On that fateful day, Firmin unexpectedly meets again with his elegant and refined estranged wife, Yvonne (Jacqueline Bisset), who finds herself unable to bring to a halt his physical and emotional downward spiral. Also with him is his handsome, younger half-brother, Hugh (Anthony Andrews), who has a strong – and more than a little intimate? – rapport with his sister-in-law.
This Under the Volcano post is currently being revised and expanded. Please check back later.
Albert Finney showcase
F. Murray Abraham was 1984’s Best Actor Academy Award winner (for Milos Forman’s Amadeus), but the showstopper of the year – at least in terms of derring-do – was Albert Finney, delivering what could well be the most nuanced performance of his career.**
As the boisterous, childishly helpless, alcohol-fueled ex-consul, Finney, at the time in his late 40s but looking about a decade older, is a sight to behold. One particularly memorable sequence has the eventual Oscar nominee, fully au naturel, going berserk after seeing a cockroach in his bathroom.
People tend to associate Hollywood celebrities like John Wayne, Clark Gable, Sean Connery, Sylvester Stallone, and Arnold Schwarzenegger as fearless macho types, but Albert Finney’s Under the Volcano performance – self-exposure, really – is what true fearlessness is all about.
As found in John Huston: Interviews – from Todd McCarthy’s q&a “Cracking the Volcano” – John Huston saw Firmin as a hero, “and his reaction to life is to get drunk, and he gets drunk in a heroic way.” Perhaps this approach to the character is what makes Under the Volcano an experience much less harrowing than the filmmaker’s 1972 drama Fat City, which features a masterful – but murderously depressing – Susan Tyrrell performance as an out-of-control alcoholic.
Yet watching Under the Volcano in the early 21st century, the most curious thing about Albert Finney’s Geoffrey Firmin is how he comes across as a younger, boozier, less orange (but more pink) version of the current president of the United States. In fact, if in the near future Rainer Werner Fassbinder is resurrected to direct a miniseries based on the Donald Trump White House, forget Alec Baldwin – Finney, now 81, would be the ideal casting choice.
Under the Volcano has other a number of other qualities besides Albert Finney’s tour de force. Anthony Andrews is a good-looking presence as Hugh while Jacqueline Bisset, by then a two-decade film veteran, acquits herself remarkably well as Yvonne. The one problem with her character has nothing to do with the actress, but with the film itself: how on earth could such a beautiful and refined woman have ever chosen to marry someone like Geoffrey Firmin, who was no billionaire con man/real estate mogul.
As for Jacqueline Bisset, since the late 1960s she had mostly landed roles that were either purely or largely decorative (Bullitt, Airport, The Man from Acapulco, The Deep), so it’s truly a pity that, despite some loud Oscar buzz (she was ultimately bypassed), her international film career went fast downhill right after Under the Volcano came out. In the last three decades, only a handful of films (Scenes from the Class Struggles in Beverly Hills, La Cérémonie) have given her the chance to – at the very least – be seen in a prestigious effort.
Gabriel Figueroa & Katy Jurado
Another Under the Volcano plus is the work of veteran cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (The Pearl, The Exterminating Angel), who had previously collaborated with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana and whose camera brilliantly captures the (paradoxical) vividness of the Mexico’s Day of the Dead.
Since Under the Volcano was a critical but not a box office hit, it’s hardly surprising that the film ended up with a mere two Academy Award nominations: Albert Finney and veteran composer Alex North. Figueroa, who had been shortlisted for The Night of the Iguana – his one and only Oscar nod – was absurdly bypassed.
And finally, Under the Volcano features Mexican stage and film veteran Ignacio López Tarso (Nazarin, Rosa Blanca) and the always welcome presence of another veteran, Katy Jurado – the star of of Luis Buñuel’s first-rate melodrama El Bruto, Gary Cooper’s pre-Grace Kelly lover in High Noon, and a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee for Edward Dmytryk’s Broken Lance (1954).
As an aside, the “unadaptable” Under the Volcano turned out to be Guy Gallo’s one and only big-screen credit.
John Huston: Film career filled with peaks and pits
The son of respected stage and screen actor Walter Huston, John Huston began his Hollywood career at the dawn of the sound era, working as a dialogue writer (e.g., The Storm, starring his father; Murders in the Rue Morgue).
By the late 1930s, Huston, now a Warner Bros. contract writer, began getting more prestigious assignments – e.g., William Wyler’s 1938 romantic melodrama Jezebel, which earned Bette Davis her second Best Actress Academy Award; Raoul Walsh’s 1941 crime drama High Sierra, which helped to turn second-rank leading man/supporting player Humphrey Bogart into a bona fide star.
The same year High Sierra came out, Huston and Bogart joined forces on Warners’ third film version of Dashiell Hammett’s crime novel The Maltese Falcon. An Academy Award-nominated hit and one of the most revered classics of the studio era, the early film noir solidified Bogart’s stardom and launched Huston as a director of the first echelon.
Despite a six-year break during and right after World War II, in the following decade there would be four other notable collaborations with Bogart (Across to Singapore, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen), two Academy Award wins (as writer-director of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre), and six other nominations (as writer-director of The Asphalt Jungle, 1950, and The African Queen, 1951; as director-producer of Moulin Rouge, 1952).
Following a three-year break in the mid-’50s, however, Huston’s career lost steam. In the ensuing decades, critical and/or box office hits or near-hits (Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, The Night of the Iguana, The Man Who Would Be King) would come out in-between – more frequent – disappointments or downright bombs (The Barbarian and the Geisha, Reflections in a Golden Eye, A Walk with Love and Death, Victory, Annie).
Comeback: ‘Under the Volcano’ & ‘Prizzi’s Honor’
Despite the bloated, expensive musical Annie having been both a critical and a box office dud, John Huston, by then in his late 70s and in ill health, witnessed his filmmaking career take an unexpected upward turn in the mid-1980s.
Besides Under the Volcano, there would be the crime comedy-thriller Prizzi’s Honor (1985), starring Jack Nicholson and Kathleen Turner, and which earned Huston his fifth and final Best Director Oscar nomination, and the dreamlike The Dead (1987), in this movie watcher’s opinion the greatest work of his career.
John Huston died of emphysema at age 81 on Aug. 28, 1987, in Middletown, Rhode Island.
* Following a move to Mexico, reportedly to save their crumbling marriage, Malcolm Lowry and his wife, Jan, arrived in Cuernavaca on the Day of the Dead 1936.
** The English-born Albert Finney (May 9, 1936, Salford, in the Greater Manchester area) began his film career at age 24, in two 1960 releases: Tony Richardson’s The Entertainer, starring Laurence Olivier, and Karel Reisz’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, which made Finney an important leading man in British cinema.
Since then, Finney has been featured in more than 40 motion pictures (e.g., Stanley Donen’s Two for the Road, Alan Parker’s Shoot the Moon, Tim Burton’s Big Fish, Sam Mendes’ Skyfall), receiving along the way five Academy Award nominations.
Besides Under the Volcano, he was shortlisted for the following (all in the Best Actor category, unless otherwise noted):
- Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963).
Winner: Sidney Poitier for Ralph Nelson’s Lilies of the Field.
- Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
Winner: Art Carney for Paul Mazursky’s Harry and Tonto.
- Peter Yates’ The Dresser (1983).
Winner: Robert Duvall for Bruce Beresford’s Tender Mercies.
- Best Supporting Actor for Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000).
Winner: Benicio Del Toro for Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic.
*** John Huston also acted in several dozen motion pictures, most notably in Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal (1963), which earned him a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, and as the greedy, ruthless father-grandfather of Faye Dunaway’s daughter in Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974).
In the later years of her life, I was friendly with Malcolm Lowry’s second wife, Margerie, the sister of silent film actress Priscilla Bonner. The character of Yvonne in Under the Volcano is actually based on her and not his first wife, Jan. In her final years, a series of strokes left Margerie without speech and unable to walk. Happily, she did get to see Under the Volcano at a private screening at TCF. I spent a goodly part of the film not looking at the screen but watching Margerie’s reactions. She was certainly not mentally impaired, and at the film’s conclusion she was in tears. Personally, I do not think the film does justice to Malcolm’s novel, but I was and am pleased that it made Margerie happy. There are many biographies of Malcolm Lowry available and many, many, many articles. Perhaps one of the most intriguing appears in the December 17, 2007 edition of The New Yorker and claims that Margerie may have been implicit in Malcolm’s death. He died in the village of Ripe in the English county of Sussex, and because his death was declared a suicide, he was buried in unconsecrated ground outside the churchyard there. After her death in 1988, Margerie was buried next to him. I went with flowers to the graveside and was intrigued to note that a previous visitor has left a Penguin edition of Under the Volcano there.
The rumors I remember back around Oscar time was the primary reason he didn’t win was that many thought he was actually drunk during filming causing it to be a lesser “performance”. I haven’t any idea if he was or wasn’t, but he surely looks like he was. As an aside, Susan Tyrell’s performance in Fat City was incredible and one of the most forgotten great performances of the 70’s. I was so sad that she didn’t win an Oscar for a performance that simply towered over the winner, Eileen Heckhart in Butterflies are free. One of those not so rare shameful Oscar choices.
Thanks for the comment. I’ll look into the drunken Finney allegations and will update the article later on.
I did like Eileen Heckart in “Butterflies Are Free,” but Susan Tyrrell’s performance in the much less successful “Fat City” was something truly unique.