Alec Guinness

One can almost feel charitable toward George Lucas-perhaps even forgive him for the sheer tedium of the most recent installment of the Star Wars saga, Revenge of the Sith-when one recalls his outreach to Alec Guinness. Back in 1975, when the Star Wars epic was little more than a gleam in Lucas’s eye, the director offered the role of Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi to Guinness, a sixty-one-year-old stage and film veteran who had occasionally been mentioned in the same breath as Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson, but had more often been classed, in critic Kenneth Tynan’s words, as “the best living English character actor.”

As Piers Paul Read recounts in Alec Guinness, his entertaining if overly thorough biography, the Star Wars gig gave a bizarre twist to the career of this intellectual, devoutly Roman Catholic performer, who had started out as a protégé of John Gielgud and had performed the works of Shakespeare and T. S. Eliot. “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper-and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable,” the bemused Guinness wrote to a friend during the filming of Star Wars, a movie that would earn him unanticipated celebrity and wealth. He wrapped up the letter in order to run a scene with “Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford. Ellison (?-No!)-Well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing. But Oh, God, God, they make me feel ninety-and treat me as if I was 106.-Oh, Harrison Ford-ever heard of him?”

A veritable galaxy of such comments-testy, gossipy, and articulate-illumines Read’s book, whose thoughtful approach and exhaustive scope must surely deter all future writers from chronicling any aspect of Guinness’s life, ever. Authorized as biographer by Merula Guinness shortly after her husband’s death from cancer in 2000, Read had full access to his subject’s voluminous diaries and correspondence (580 letters to Merula during World War II alone), and he wields quotations deftly, bringing the prickly actor to bristling life on the page. We eavesdrop on Guinness’s peeves, gloatings, and inner doubts throughout his career-a five-decades-long stretch of activity that gathered steam in 1938, with his understated interpretation of Hamlet in Tyrone Guthrie’s modern-dress production, and rocketed on through the Ealing Studios films of the late 1940s and ’50s (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers); The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Oscar; the 1980 television series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which branded him as the face of George Smiley; and other celebrated turns.

Since these gigs made Guinness an acquaintance, friend, or colleague of innumerable actors/celebrities-Omar Sharif, Noel Coward, Lauren Bacall, Grace Kelly, and Olivier, just to name a few-the biography occasionally resembles the pavement in front of Grauman’s Chinese Theater. But Read goes well beyond glitz, as befits a novelist and Catholic apologist who has authored nonfiction books on the Templars and Chernobyl. As the introduction reports, Merula greenlighted Read’s book for fear that, otherwise, “Alec’s reputation would fall into the hands of an established ‘theatrical’ biographer who would fail to understand...the other aspects of his life.”

Salient among these “other aspects” was Guinness’s robust faith, which blossomed after a World War II epiphany that led him, first, to the Church of England. “I know I’m in the wrong camp,” Guinness wrote to his sister-in-law during this Anglican period. “I’m not sure to which regiment I belong. The crack one, the Roman one-has expensive uniforms which I can’t afford...the other one, which I have loved, seems to have lost its colonel or something.” Eventually, however, he did convert to Roman Catholicism, a development Read discusses with great seriousness, from psychological and theological perspectives, and with reference to the intellectual and cultural mood of postwar England.

What’s more surprising in an authorized biography is the space Read devotes to Guinness’s possible latent homosexuality. His sixty-two-year-long devoted marriage to Merula notwithstanding, Guinness’s letters and diaries are apparently peppered with comments about the attractiveness of young men. At a few points in his life, too, the actor developed intense male friendships whose parameters-from the cryptic documentary evidence-seem to have been ambiguous, though Read suggests that none were physically consummated. “The exact nature of Alec’s not at all clear,” he concludes.

In the context of this smart biography, the examination of Guinness’s homosexual leanings does not seem prurient; it just deepens our understanding of an artist who was, like all humans on some level, a riddle. Other nuggets of information turned up by the punctilious Read can be less enlightening: the report on Guinness’s tipping policies and habit of paying restaurant bills by check might perhaps have been excised by a ruthless editor, and when you read a sentence like “The Guinnesses were often unlucky with the weather”-followed by a paragraph on the incidence of rain during the actor’s holidays-you know thoroughness has gone a little far.

Nevertheless, it’s worth wading through the extraneous information for the sake of the fascinating voyage through the performer’s life-a life that the egocentric and ambitious Guinness apparently found bittersweet. “He is not in the same class as Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, or the other greats,” he stated in his 1985 autobiography Blessings in Disguise, writing of himself in the third person.

Was Guinness’s triumph in so many idiosyncratic character roles really a kind of failure? Could he-should he-have built a more grandiose record, packed with Shakespearean credits? No one who has seen Kind Hearts and Coronets, or Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, can wish the actor had gone that route. And no one who has taken in the original Star Wars trilogy can wish he had passed on Obi-Wan Kenobi-even though the repercussions of that role would annoy the actor for the rest of his life. “Star Wars people ask me for an interview-I continue to refuse,” Guinness groused in his diary in 1997. “They are ghastly bores.”

Published in the 2005-09-09 issue: 

Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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