AMERICAN CINEMA PAPERS
SIR ALEC GUINNESS
A MAN OF FEW WORDS
by Harlan Kennedy
The face is lean, ascetic and high-boned. The eyes seldom smile. The body is compact and erect. And the voice is drawn up from the deeps, a nasal burr basted with eternity and as sweetly lethargic as a hypnotist's.
Sir Alec Guinness has been variously dubbed "The Invisible Man" and "The Celestial Absence". Kenneth Tynan once pondered the total anonymity of the face: "The number of false arrests following the circulation of his description would break all records." Guinness has disappeared ego-first into such roles as a man in a white suit, a vacuum salesman, an invisible wizard, and the ghost of Freud. And owing to a lost birth certificate there is no bureaucratic record of his arrival in the world (in Marylebone, West London, April 2, 1914). So officially, with an irony that would have delighted Ealing Comedy, Alec Guinness does not exist.
Yet here he is in 1983, aged 69, alive and palpable, scooping in fame and greenbacks from the Star Wars series – can two percent ever have seemed so little and proved so much? – and bagging equal quantities of kudos on the small screen as John Le Carré's long-running George Smiley. Guinness: "One became an actor in order to escape from oneself."
And so the incredible shrinking presence was born. "Guinlessness," a new British ad-campaign word to denote the state-of-distress of those out of the dark ale, keynotes Guinness the actor. When the glass is empty, it seems a perplexing sight. As Wormold in Our Man In Havana Guinness prompted the question, "How still should a still center be?" Noel Coward, Ralph Richardson and Ernie Kovacs all rotated through the movie like mad magnificent satellites. Guinness crouched, a vacuum cleaner salesman, deep in his own vacuum. Every five minutes an eyebrow would bob. Every ten, the voice would rouse itself to a new high – say middle G.
But like a chameleon, moments of unbelievable inertia in Guinness alternate with equally unbelievable transfigurations. The colors change, the eye flickers, a new challenge is scented and the tongue – snap! crunch! – darts out.
In The Bridge on the River Kwai Guinness won the best deserved Oscar of the 1950s as Colonel Nicholson, a potty vainglory shining from his pigeon chest, the voice adenoidal and emphatic like a drunken pedant's. the walk (after a session in hothouse solitary) a sheer-will effort of the knees. There was Guinness as Fagin, where the heavy dark-eyebrowed face always sought a lower plane than the airward gesturing arms. And Guinness was a stubble-bearded shambles as painter Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth (which he scripted himself). It remains perhaps the best sketch of artist-as-Bohemian in all cinema: neither Titan (Heston as Michelangelo), nor martyr (Douglas as Van Gogh), but a human bag of bones on comic-visionary overdrive.
All the more bizarre that Guinness spent his childhood being told by everyone that he'd never be an actor. He lost his father, a bank director, early. ("I only saw him four of five times.") He spent his formative years being toted from one resort to another along the English Channel coast by his house-moving mother. Erupting into showbiz as a messenger in Macbeth at his first hoarding school, Pembroke College, Guinness had to arrive on stage breathless after a lap round the football field (it's unclear if this was the shortest route or a Stanislavskian warm-up) and then couldn't sputter out more than one broken syllable per breath. "You'll never make an actor, Guinness," said his headmaster.
Decades later London reviewers said much the same of his Macbeth at the Royal Court Theater. Red-bearded like a man in a bear suit, Guinness ooh'd and aye'd with spirited but doomed vigor opposite Simone Signoret's equally eccentric Lady M, who looked and sounded as if she'd arrived in Dunsinane after a bad night on the ferry from Cherbourg.
It was John Gielgud who first had confidence in Guinness' thespian potential. The year was 1932. He rescued the 18-year-old from his slough of despondency as an ad-writer in London, earning £1 (then $3.50) per week in his first job. "Get thee to Martita Hunt," Gielgud seems to have cried, and Guinness went to the famed Martita for coaching. Shortly, he heard from her the familiar litany: "You'll never make an actor, Mr. Guinness."
No one casting an eye today at Sir A's basilisk immaculacy – the polished dome, the 24-hour suit and tie, the air of a benevolent and well-bred clubman – would credit the greenhorn Guinness. He tramped from audition to audition in the early 1930s, getting much the same treatment as Dustin Hoffman in Tootsie. "We're looking for someone taller. " "We're looking for someone older... " "We're looking for someone else!"
In 1934 he was perfunctorily baptized in the cinema. Guinness' first movie immersion – and the only one prior to his starring role in Great Expectations twelve years later – was in a musical directed by Victor Saville and starring Evelyn Laye, Evensong. He was an extra and the pay was minimal. But the producer, prophetically, was Michael Balcon, later to be production chief at Guinness' great postwar alma mater, Ealing Studios.
Even the winning of a two-year scholarship to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art in 1934 failed to open any professional sesames on the stage. Guinness relates how, through zeal for his craft, he would tail pedestrians to and fro across London, mimicking their gait and gestures and no doubt alarming passing policemen. He was soon doing this barefoot, furthermore, to save shoe leather. His daily diet, refined by poverty, was "a green apple, a glass of milk and a bun." John Gielgud, embarrassed one night in his dressing room by this nude-footed supplicant, offered him a £25 loan. Guinness, too proud to take it, turned and left.
Cut to the glittering lights of 1936 London at night. Guinness' steps take him past a theater. He turns back and goes in. He asks for work at the box office. Bemusement of box-office lady. The manager enters and gives him an on-the-spot audition. He is rewarded with three small roles: a Chinese coolie, a French pirate, a British sailor. Guinness the chameleon is born. Three months later he is playing Osric to Gielgud's Hamlet. In 1938, aged 24, he is playing Hamlet, at the Old Vic under Tyrone Guthrie's direction. (Gielgud is somewhere seething).
In the same year he married actress Merula Salaman, wooed and won amid the paint-and-canvas floods of a production of Noah. He entered the Navy as an ordinary seaman in 1941, was commissioned within a year, supervised the shipping of butter and hay to the Yugoslav partisans and became the first Allied serviceman to land in Sicily (by accident: the Admiral had mistimed his disembarkation). After the wars he returned to stomp the boards.
Guinness' stage performances – he played Richard II, a much praised Fool to Olivier's King Lear and the part that inadvertently hurled him into cinema, Herbert Pocket in his own dramatization of Great Expectations – were already sorting him into the two-tone actor we know today from cinema and TV. There is Guinness the Saintly Transparence. (Both Hamlet and Richard II struck critics as honest and lucid if a touch underwhelming). And there is Guinness the Master of Disguise. (His Fool was praised for its novelty and vitality, and his Pocket, known to us from David Lean's film, is a quiffed and shiny-faced dandy of radiant alertness).
Today Guinness the Saintly Transparence appears as Obi Wan Kenobi and George Smiley: both sages, one dark who knows of light, one light who knows of dark.
This pedestalled virtuousness has its admirers. Star Wars fans, especially, have written to Guinness by the hundreds. Many of them are lured, admittedly, by the attraction of an actor who owns two percent of the wealth of Croesus (aka George Lucas). He gets begging letters by the sackful. But there are also bug-eyed and eccentric devotional correspondents. "Before Star Wars we didn't believe in anything," said one letter-writer. "Now we believe there is something called a force for good, and you represent it, and could you please come to America and stay with us."
Guinness' totally credible self-effacement makes him probably the only British actor-knight who could get away with a role like Kenobi. Olivier would bray it brass-lunged to the moon, or give us his late-favored, high-treble wheedling mode (cf. The Boys From Brazil, The Jazz Singer, the TV Lear). Gielgud would turn the speeches into cantabiles for the vocal cords. And Richardson would be a potty prophet surprised somewhere between Mount Olympus and a P.G. Wodehouse novel. Guinness inhabits wisdom and goodness with lean authority, ambrosial voice, and no fuss.
But Guinness drunk straight in Star Wars or Smiley's People still doesn't have the same kick or tingle as Guinness spiked with character interest. And the actor himself may have sensed this early on in his move into movies: he challenged an incredulous David Lean to give him the role of Fagin in Oliver Twist, only Guinness' third film. Almost alone among film actors, Guinness can assume the paraphernalia of make-up and funny voices and eccentric walks without losing a molecule of credibility. He never allows the weight of disguise to panic him into a matching hyperbole of voice and gesture. Guinness' Fagin is more superfine than Dickens'. He makes evil seem a product of deep and cankerous melancholy. Darken his eyes, stoop his head, and contort the voice (as also in The Ladykillers, where he played a dark-side-of-the-moon spoof on Alastair Sim), and the void of the Guinness persona suddenly fills with something magical: not a box of tricks but a true alchemy of personality, both funny and saturnine.
Rogues, vagabonds, dotty aristocrats and all-sorts of eccentrics duly came Guinness' way. He played eight of them in one film in Kind Hearts and Coronets, where the actor's quite astonishing refusal to mug and vamp resulted in comic cameos as subtle and rich as a vintage wine tasting. It's this asceticism, even in the midst of naked vaudeville, that seems superhuman to onlookers, and that lands Guinness the roles like Kenobi, Smiley, the Pope (in Brother Sun, Sister Moon), or the heroic Cardinal in The Prisoner. And it would have landed him, if fate had fallen a different way, with Gandhi. He was offered the role in 1952 by producer-director Gabriel Pascal, but thought the part unplayable and the film unmakeable. Thirty years later Gandhi has landed heavily in our laps, and despite the Oscars there are some (not a million miles from this typewriter) who still agree with Guinness.
In the 1950s, whenever British cinema gave Guinness a furlough from false moustaches and weirdly barbered accents, they shunted him into Little Big Man roles. He was the lowly laboratory assistant with the great idea in The Man in the White Suit. He was the meek and mild detective genius in Father Brown. He was a naval nitwit who rose to the occasion in Barnacle Bill. And in The Bridge on the River Kwai, he was a dotty martinet who turned hero. And then back into a dotty martinet.
For Ealing Studios, who he served for a decade from 1948 to 1957, Guinness was the Everyman of Little England. Or rather Super-Everyman. For not only could he play anything and everything that came on two feet, but he was also, if one pinpointed a specialty, the common man with the uncommon touch and thus a paradigm for post-imperial Britain itself. Littleness was glorified in Ealing comedy as the brave and resilient David to whatever Goliath happened to be around. The tiny community versus government bureaucracy (Passport to Pimlico, The Titfield Thunderbolt); the lone genius versus the might of scientific conservatism (The Man in the White Suit); and even, on the far side of the law, the diffident bank clerk and his pal (Guinness and Stanley Holloway) going criminal and giving a beneficent cautionary tweak to the strong arm of the law in The Lavender Hill Mob.
As with any major movie star, the kind of roles that began to tumble into Guinness' lap – especially in his golden decade, the 1950s – helped define, by the market force principle, the special chemistry and tensions of his personality. It's English reticence that breeds England's greatest actors. Like the shy child who searches delightedly in the dressing-up trunk and finds a voice and an outgoing personality as soon as he puts on a costume, English repression is the tinder to great English acting. (Even Olivier, the extrovert of the pack, is notoriously interview-shy and protective of his private life.)
Guinness' unassuming, genial, and bleakly ironic natural persona (irony is another protection for the shy) makes him an English version of mild-mannered Clark Kent. And just as reticence in an actor's life fires dreams of flamboyance, so in Guinness' films his Clark Kent variations were often the launching-pad to explosions of oddball genius, courage, determination or sheer eccentricity. Is it a wimp? Is it a boffin? No, it's Super-Everyman!
His protean invisibility needs the microscopic eye of cinema (or TV) to follow it. The progress must be charted from the first rebellious eyeblink to the final crazed apocalypse. (As it is brilliantly in Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit, with the escalating shadowplay Expressionism of its visuals matching Guinness' upward arc of boldness and desperation). On stage Guinness' miniaturist style is often simply swallowed up in the maws of the proscenium. When he played Lawrence of Arabia in Terence Rattigan's 1959 play Ross (shortly before playing Prince Faisal to O'Toole's Lawrence on screen), the combination of introverted hero and introverted actor made Guinness an alarming and almost total vacuum. Somewhere down there on stage, there was a burnoose making noises.
Likewise in the early 1970s, Guinness hopped on board the role of the blind barrister Dad in John Mortimer's autobiographical play A Voyage Round My Father. Plant on stage an actor whose technique is tuned to the micro-processes of cinema, and you may end up with something semi-invisible wired for sound. The only great film actor I have known to disappear more completely than Guinness on stage was Peter Finch. In Tony Richardson's production of The Seagull in the 60s Finch played Trigorin; and you couldn't believe, as these empty sounds and gestures sailed from beneath a straw boater, that an actor so dense-packed with tiny idioms and mannerist life-forms on screen could be so uninhabited, like a hollow drum, on stage.
After the death of Ealing Studios at the end of the 1950s – an organization that had spent ten years custom-building comic roles for its greatest star – Guinness became that endangered species, a freelance actor. The screen career has been notably directionless ever since, with the consolation that it has also at times been wildly unpredictable.
He sported rousing red whiskers and a chortle of a Scottish accent as the hellraising Colonel in Tunes of Glory (1960). He unmothballed his naval uniform yet again (cf. The Captain's Paradise, Barnacle Bill) for HMS Defiant (1961). He was an Arab prince in brownface in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a Roman Emperor in Sam Bronston's The Fall Of The Roman Empire (1963), a Russian father in Doctor Zhivago (1965), a charlatan Major in Peter Glenville's Bermuda (alias Graham Greene's Haiti) in The Comedians (1967). He was King Charles in Cromwell (1970), the ghost of Jacob Marley in Scrooge (1970), the Pope in Brother Sun, Sister Moon (1973), a raucous, pop-eyed and robotic Fuhrer in Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973), and a blind butler in Murder by Death (1974). Apart perhaps from a deaf Puerto Rican nuclear scientist, was there any role left for Guinness to essay?
Well, there was Star Wars. Midway through blind butler duty on the Neil Simon whodunnit, Sir Alec felt his way back to his trailer in Hollywood and discovered a script. He picked it up quizzically, knowing George Lucas by reputation and by American Graffiti. And then, "I saw it was science fiction and I thought, `Oh God'." But a read-through and a later meeting with Lucas cast a cheery glow over the project for him, and he was soon donning the floor-length Kenobi robes and the white beard indispensable to ageless seers, and was putting pen to paper for that historic two percent of the producer's profits.
Since Star Wars, Guinness has been sparing of big-screen appearances: partly because the small screen has siphoned him off in two marathon stints in John Le Carré's Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley's People, and partly because medical problems with his left eye, following a hemorrhage of the retina, have forced him under doctor's orders to minimize his exposure to spotlights.
Nonetheless, Guinness notched up a vigorous scene-stealing tug of war with Ricky Schroder in Little Lord Fauntleroy; lent momentary buoyancy to Raise the Titanic; and quipped away (viz ze Viennese accent) through a king-size cheroot as Freud's ghost in Lovesick.
Almost as intriguing as the screen roles Guinness accepted over the years are the ones he turned down or just missed. Not only Gandhi, but Hitchcock's I Confess (he was too busy with Ealing at the time) and Bryan Forbes's Seance on a Wet Afternoon, which at one script stage was fashioned as a story of two homosexual lovers, specially designed for Guinness and Tom Courtenay. Guinness declined.
Guinness's instinct for self-protection shows in other ways. He has favored certain directors and worked with them again and again: Robert Hamen (four times), David Lean (five times), Ronald Neame (four times) and Peter Glenville (three times). Only in Glenville's case has the loyalty seemed drastically misplaced. The Prisoner, in which soutined Cardinal Guinness battled eyeball to eyeball with Communist police chief Jack Hawkins, was at least a success d'estime. But Hotel Paradiso and The Comedians wowed neither press nor public and punched big torpedo-holes in Guinness's mid-60s career.
Nonetheless an actor festooned with honors can't complain if he finds himself limping into port now and then for repairs. Knighthood came Guinness' way in 1959 ("Down on your knees, Mr Guinness; Arise, Sir Alec"). Two years earlier he had won the Best Actor Oscar for Kwai. And in 1980 he received a special Academy Award for "advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances."
"I suppose for an actor," Guinness has said, "the only benefit in growing old is learning to pare down one's performance: learning to cut out the flourishes. That's what I'm trying to do.
Too true. Sometimes Guinness' performances seem pared down to the bone marrow, and flourishes are exactly what his bleached ascetic presence could do with. In front of the Le Carré television turn, one shakes in appalled wonder at that subtly exophthalmic face: the hornrimmed spectacles, lenses catching the light, are often the liveliest features. Is Guinness' performance as George Smiley acting or non-acting? Is it l'être or néant?
Guinness resolutely denies that he ever merely sits back and plays "Alec Guinness" in a stage or screen role. (Of Our Man in Havana: "Some critics said I was simply playing myself. How could that be? I am not a vacuum-cleaner salesman"). Yet if there's an Achilles heel in his work, it's the odor of safety and sanctity which seems to say, despite all the dizzying changes of role, "I won't allow myself to look foolish; I won't leap further than I have to; I won't risk a broken bone or a belly-flop or a false note." In this he's the opposite of Olivier, the Olympian risk-taker. And he doesn't have in compensation the glorious innate eccentricity of Richardson or the lyrical sumptuousness of Gielgud.
What he does have is sly wisdom and a possibly unique flair for catching subtle colors and tints that can turn character roles into living, breathing, center-stage personalities. He knows that characterization should never sell out to caricature. And he also knows that in cinema, as in other walks of life, souls shouldn't be cheaply sold for shekels. He said in December 1977, after the opening of Star Wars: "My only worry with Lucas is that the cinema system will force him into a series of follow-ups to Star Wars. He should resist that."
COURTESY T.P. MOVIE NEWS.
THIS ARTICLE APPEARED IN THE AUGUST 1983 ISSUE OF FILM COMMENT.
©HARLAN KENNEDY. All rights reserved.