The Authorized Biography
By Piers Paul Read
Simon & Schuster. 632 pp. $35Like the other most celebrated British actors of his time -- John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier -- Alec Guinness loved the stage above all but became known throughout the world for the roles he played in movies. Like those other actors, he had mixed feelings about this to the end of his life, hewing to the conventional view of his time and place that movies are somehow less serious and important than the theater, but unlike the others he rarely went back to the stage after his first important movie appearance, as Herbert Pocket in David Lean's adaptation of "Great Expectations." That may have troubled him, but not enough to do much about it -- for which we must be grateful, for his enduring legacy is a long succession of brilliant performances that can be enjoyed and marveled at as long as movies exist.
It is the way of the world that he became most famous for one of his least important roles: as Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, the Jedi knight of the "Star Wars" series; this made him a bundle of money and brought more fan mail than he cared to read, much less answer, but, Piers Paul Read reports, "he was depressed that his celebrity was based on work that he himself did not esteem." Presumably he would have cited as his best work the roles of Col. Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai," Gully Jimson in "The Horse's Mouth" (to my mind best of all) and Jock Sinclair in "Tunes of Glory," but many others would insist on including Herbert Pocket, Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and the many roles he played in the immortal Ealing Studios comedies of the late 1940s and early '50s, notably "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Lavender Hill Mob," "The Man in the White Suit" and "The Ladykillers."
Just typing out the titles gives me a frisson: All of the films cited above are among the treasures of my youth and have remained treasures ever since -- and credit for that goes to Guinness. Like millions of others, I was captivated by his range, his sympathy, his wit and -- this above all -- his ability to lose himself so completely in the characters he played that they became utterly real and discrete. Unlike almost all other movie stars, whose presence as stars, as themselves, is always on the screen, Guinness was "a man of a thousand faces," none of them his own.
For this he was occasionally criticized, as being a superb character actor but nothing more. Gielgud, who was his mentor and whom he revered, cut him to the quick when, as a young man, Guinness aspired to play Hamlet. "I can't think why you want to play big parts," Gielgud said. "Why don't you stick to those funny little men you do so well instead of trying to be important?" Guinness's ambition was "to escape from the confines of character acting into the amplitude of a major role," as eventually he did on stage and in the movies, but when he got them he brought the character actor's sensibility to them. It was his greatest strength.
So now, five years after his death at age 86, comes Piers Paul Read to honor him -- suffocate him, more than a few readers will think -- with the proverbial doorstopper of a biography. As Guinness's ardent admirer, I don't really mind excess piled atop excess in his case, but there's a lot more here than most people will want to know. The biographer of an actor who played a couple of thousand roles is faced with the same problem as the biographer of a famous athlete: Does the reader really need play-by-play of every game? It's a forest-and-trees problem, and Read hasn't solved it. Too much space is given to minor and/or forgettable parts that Guinness played, while some of his more interesting and consequential ones -- Prince Faisal in "Lawrence of Arabia," for instance -- are rushed past in an unseemly and unhelpful hurry. Read, best known as the author of Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors, is a good writer and diligent researcher, but in this case less would indeed have been more.
Still, for those curious about the man behind the thousand faces, there is much here to savor. To Read's credit, at the end of his nearly 600 pages of text, a bit of the mystery about a singularly mysterious man has been lifted, if not wholly removed. Born in 1914 to an unmarried woman who never told him who his father was -- it appears to have been a Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes, who gave young Alec a measure of financial support and included him in his will -- he mostly loathed her to the end of her own very long life. A boozer and (her son's word) a "whore," she often mortified him yet repeatedly clung to him. In a class-conscious country, all this left him "uneasy about his own standing in English society, and acutely embarrassed by his own lack of a background" as well as with "awkward and inhibited feelings for his human relatives," on whom he lavished less overt affection than he accorded his beloved dogs and other animals.
He was deeply reserved and deeply private, though Read senses strong passions beneath that serene exterior. The precise nature of those passions remains yet another mystery. Guinness was happily married to the former Merula Salaman for more than six decades, and they seem to have shared a powerful physical attraction -- in one of his many letters to her he said, "And the hours of love making we can have my poppet -- just you and me -- oh its too exciting, and heavenly" -- but there is also a good deal of essentially anecdotal reason to believe that he "enjoyed the company of homosexuals, and a degree of voyeuristic flirtation with handsome young men."
Whether this is all merely a matter of the higher gossip or points to things deep in Guinness cannot be known, and indeed no one appears to have claimed to have had a homosexual encounter or relationship with him. Ambivalence about one's sexuality obviously is scarcely uncommon, and perhaps even more widespread in the theater and films, where the incidence of homosexuality is high. Obviously, conflicted sexuality and repressed passions could have had more than a little to do with Guinness's commitment from a very early age to acting, which permits people to channel their own feelings into the characters they portray and thus to express those feelings while simultaneously concealing them.
He was in any case a complicated man, capable of friendship and gregariousness but also aloof and self-contained. He was orderly to a fault, nagging Merula about her indifference to domestic neatness, yet often pulling back with an expression of affection and admiration for her. She absolutely adored him, but he cannot have been easy to live with, since pouring himself into his characters meant becoming them at home as well as on the stage or the set. He was given to depression and self-doubt but never capitulated to either; at his core, he was strong. He was a convert to Catholicism, which played a large role in his life, though he was torn between "the man who loved 'gossipy wicked' lunches and the man who yearned for the serenity that came when he felt filled with the Grace of God." Apart from animals, he loved to garden, to loll about his handsome house in the country and to travel -- which was fortunate, as his movie roles took him all over the world.
In his work he was utterly professional. David Cornwell (aka John le Carre) found him "amazing" as he worked on his brilliant television portrayal of George Smiley in "Smiley's People," amazing "in that he not only knew his own lines, he knew everyone's lines, and he had a clear idea of how a scene should play. What the dramatic energy was. What story point was being made and where the camera would be looking. And he would write himself out of the dialogue if necessary -- he could steal a scene with his back. You couldn't take your eyes off him. I found him hypnotic on stage or on the screen."
Absolutely correct. It was my good fortune to be in London in the winter of 1989 and to acquire a ticket for "A Walk in the Woods," the two-character play in which he and Edward Herrmann starred. It isn't much of a play, as both actors seemed to know, but in the role of the Russian diplomat Guinness dominated the stage; since Herrmann is himself an accomplished and highly professional actor, that is saying something. As it turned out, that play was Guinness's final appearance on the stage. Lucky me, to have seen it. *
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.