Blessings in Disguise
August 8, 2000
last of the Great Four is dead. Sir Alec Guinness belonged to a
quartet of supreme English actors of the generation that included Sir
Laurence (later Baron) Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Ralph
The others were legendary in the
supreme Shakespearean roles: Hamlet, Lear, Antony, Othello, Macbeth,
Falstaff. These were beyond Guinnesss range. Yet he was the
subtlest and most versatile character actor of them all.
Guinness lacked the endowments of a
heroic actor. He was slight and ordinary-looking, though he had a fine
baritone voice. What he possessed superbly was the ability to create a
character and to transform himself so completely as to be almost
unrecognizable from role to role. He combined the gifts of mimicry and
sympathy. And he was wonderfully entertaining.
After playing mostly minor
Shakespearean roles at Londons Old Vic, Guinness became an
international star in a series of excellent British films in the late 1940s
and early 1950s: Great Expectations, Oliver
Twist, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender
Hill Mob. His flair for playing hilarious eccentrics made him
peerless for Dickens adaptations. In Kind Hearts and
Coronets he set some sort of record by playing eight members of a
family who were successively murdered; he endowed each victim with a
distinct personality. Its an immortal tour de force of comic
Guinness won an Oscar in the serious role of Colonel Nicholson, the heroic
but deluded officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Directed
by David Lean, the film blends a superb character study with spectacular
action. A couple of years later Guinness played what he considered his
best role: another old officer, Jock Sinclair, who thwarts his commanding
officer with malicious guile and tragic results in the film Tunes of
Glory. His virtuosity in both roles is amazing and deeply
Later Guinness would become a
fixture of big-budget movies like Lawrence of Arabia,
Doctor Zhivago, and The Fall of the Roman
Empire, though the roles were less interesting than his earlier
ones. He hated the role that brought him his widest fame and biggest
paychecks: the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
Guinness acted by studying the
externals of a character and moving inward. He was such a fine judge of
character that a friend once said of him that he knew you better after two
minutes observation than most people would know you in a
lifetime. He learned more by sympathetic imitation than by analysis.
He began with exaggerated gestures in
rehearsal; as he felt his way along, he dropped or subtilized the obvious
mannerisms until they were sensed rather than seen. The externals were
like a cocoon that could be shed as his sense of the character matured. As
one critic finely put it, Guinness developed a complex grammar of
indirect discourse.... He is the worlds greatest master of the
invisible gesture and the unspoken word.
Unlike so many actors, Guinness was
never self-indulgent. He had had a cruel childhood; he never learned who
his real father was. His stepfather was beyond anything Dickens ever
imagined: he once held young Alec by the ankles and dangled him over the
side of a bridge, and on another occasion held a loaded pistol to his head.
As an aspiring young actor, Guinness persisted through discouragement
(several acting teachers urged him to try another line of work) and hunger
(one meal a day: beans and bread) until Gielgud perceived his talent.
Guinness mentions such things
briefly, without self-pity, in his charming memoir Blessings in
Disguise. He remained deeply loyal to Gielgud all his life. He ends
the book with the words: Of one thing I can boast: I am unaware of
ever having lost a friend. And the reader believes it.
The power and charm of
Guinnesss acting owes much to his sheer personal goodness. He
found something to cherish in every character he played. A life that would
have embittered most people only seemed to deepen and widen his
sympathies. He became a devout Catholic convert and viewed his
tribulations as blessings in disguise. And he passed those
blessings on to all of us through his genius. God bless his sweet soul.
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