Cult movie actor William Finley passed away on Saturday at age 69. He was best known for portraying doomed composer Winslow Leach in Brian De Palma’s classic Phantom of the Paradise, though he also appeared in such films as Sisters, The Fury, The Wedding Party, Dressed to Kill, and The Black Dahlia.
Most of his films are probably inappropriate for children, but Phantom of the Paradise is one that they can enjoy, and it seems to resonate especially with kids age 10-15; like all the best geek films, it’s actually a film about deep universal themes, wrapped up in pop culture trappings so as to slip the message by unnoticed. A large part of the success and popularity of the film is due to the engaging and sympathetic performance of William Finley in the dual role of Leach and the tortured Phantom. [Note: there are drug references, mild violence and some suggestive scenes that may make the film inappropriate for younger children; as always, you know your kids better than we do.]
When the movie was released in 1974, the critics were, shall we say, less than kind. At that time, De Palma was a barely-known maker of cheesy films not far removed from the “grindhouse” label. He wouldn’t become a mainstream filmmaker for another year or two with Carrie, and Phantom is the film that bridges the gap between the two phases of his early career. It is proudly derivative of all its horror/suspense antecedents, steeped in Hitchcock references, and a simultaneous homage to and satire of classic gothic-romantic-horror stories and films such as Phantom of the Opera, Faust, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, with side-references to Frankenstein and Svengali along the way.
The story is a fairly simple one despite the many layers of references and homages applied like so much filigree: Winslow Leach is a struggling composer who has nearly finished his life’s work, a rock cantata based on Goethe’s Faust. Swan (Paul Williams) is a malevolent record producer who swindles him out of his score. Leach meets the beautiful and talented Phoenix (Jessica Harper), a young singer auditioning for a role in “Swan’s” new musical, Faust. He falls hopelessly in love, but Swan frames him for a crime he didn’t commit and sends him to prison for life. After an escape and a few unfortunate and horrifying incidents, Leach is thought dead and has become the Phantom, a menacing figure living in and terrorizing the employees of Swan’s new concert venue, the Paradise. Phoenix once again auditions, and Swan casts her, primarily to use her as leverage against the Phantom. Secrets are revealed, lives destroyed, and the classic myth of the tragic doomed hero plays out once more.
Finley’s Leach is the artist as Everyman; dedicated to his work, naive and trusting, passionate, romantic, and driven to fury by injustice. The film is a howling condemnation of the music industry, a cautionary tale for aspiring artists, and a stern warning against artistic compromise, but what keeps it from being a tiresome screed is Finley’s humanity and decency. There are a number of scenes portraying the music industry and its executives as vulgar, venal, corrupt, exploitative, oppressive and domineering; clearly writer Williams had some spleen to vent toward the record business. Throughout, Finley keeps us on his side, feeling his pain at being cheated, his joy in the adorable Phoenix’s presence, his pain at being kept from her, his horror at her gradual corruption, and his despair upon discovering the terrible inextricability of his fate. We learn to hate Swan as much as he does, and we feel the tragedy as his story concludes among an oblivious throng of self-absorbed partiers who completely fail to see what’s happening around them.
Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) says that Phantom of the Paradise is his favorite film, and he routinely includes references to it in his own work, especially Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. A silly riff on old horror stories wouldn’t engender that sort of affection. But the film just simply wouldn’t work at all without an actor like William Finley in the central role.
Rest in peace, Mr. Finley, and thanks for providing a cultural touchstone in my life for the last 30 years.
All my dreams are gone
And I can’t sleep
And sleep alone could ease my mind.
All my tears have dried
And I can’t weep
Old emotions, may they rest in peace
And dream, dream a bunch of friends
Rest in peace, and dream
Dream it never ends.