Star Wars, 1977, via YouTube
April 2, 1914– Sir Alec Guinness
“The point of a knighthood for British actors is to enable them to play butlers.“
Obi-Wan Kenobi liked to do it with other Jedi Knights, and I don’t mean just bumping light sabers.
Alec Guinness was a profoundly reserved man. He played a wide range of roles, all had the essence of some sort of wisdom from a sad man. His severity, and those cool, clear eyes, brought force and authenticity to his performances. Anybody outside his immediate circle was intrigued by the Guinness enigma. But the reserve through which that attractive generosity and warmth powerfully shone was, for him, an impenetrable and necessary protection.
Late in his career, Guinness became an icon of enlightenment after playing Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977), a role to which he gave a nobility and a subtle emotional charge. He was amused by the attention, and happy that his Star Wars contract guaranteed 2% of the profits, even though much of his role ended up on the cutting-room floor and he had nearly walked off the set. But, the financial security made him even choosier about the roles he chose. He wrote to a friend:
“New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable. I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread, which will help me keep going until next April.“
More than any other English actor of his era, he was equally at home on stage, in film and on television, where, in his mid-60s he had the role of a lifetime as John Le Carré‘s spy, “George Smiley”, in the BBC’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979) and Smiley’s People (1981-82).
John Gielgud urged him to study acting, while assuming he was related to brewing and money. His father was, in fact, a Geddes, his mother’s last name was Cuffe, and he was registered as Alec Guinness de Cuffe, so he was not from that famous beer-making family.
When he was 20 years old, Guinness played Osric in Gielgud’s Hamlet at the New Theatre in London. Until the start of World War II, he alternated between working with Gielgud or with Tyrone Guthrie at the Old Vic, where he made a splash in a modern-dress Hamlet in 1938. It was assumed by many in the theatre community that he was Gielgud’s boyfriend.
Guinness was a profoundly un-ostentatious man. He played a great variety of roles, yet all are informed as if with the wisdom of the sad clown. His nearly spiritual severity, together with those cool, open eyes, capable of melting on screen to the most reassuringly serene of smiles, gave his performances force and authenticity.
He loved makeup and costumes and disguises. In Kind Hearts And Coronets (1949) he played multiple roles. He had an infallible instinct for playing a moment with perfect tone and canny strategy.
The Card, 1952, via YouTube
He understood his own weaknesses and he used them. There is a danger in his best performances. Guinness wasn’t interested in being a star. Gielgud once cuttingly remarked to him: ”Ah, Alec, why don’t you stick to those small parts you are so good at?”.
Guinness never felt comfortable in Hollywood. While making The Swan (1955) where he has to romance Grace Kelly, Guinness met James Dean, who showed him his new Porsche Spyder sports car. He wrote in his memoir, Blessings In Disguise (1985):
“I heard myself saying in a voice I could hardly recognize as my own, ‘Please, never get in it…If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week’.“
On stage, having such a private personality allowed him to bring out the hidden interiors of his character Harcourt Reilly in T.S. Eliot‘s The Cocktail Party (1968). He was perfect for the complicated characters he played in Alan Bennett‘s Old Country (1977) and Habeas Corpus (1973). He had no qualms about playing a cross-dresser criminal in Simon Gray‘s Wild Child (1967)
Critic Kenneth Tynan, with whom he shares a birthday, wrote:
“Guinness will never will be a star in the sense that Olivier is… He does everything by stealth. He will illumine many a blind alley of subtlety, but blaze no trails. His stage presence is quite without amplitude; and his face, except when, temporarily, make-up transfigures it, is a signless zero.“
Guinness was an actor for a new theatrical style, subtle and undecorated. From the 1960s, in the West End, he mostly created roles in brand new plays, instead of repeating the roles associated with Gielgud, Ralph Richardson or Olivier. He was different than many of his peers on the English theatre world with their family dynasties; he was a mostly untrained, self-made actor. Yet, of all the great British stage actors, he had the busiest film career, for which his modest way of acting was well-suited.
He was an especially good Dickensian actor, so good in David Lean‘s Great Expectations (1946), and as Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948). Guinness was glorious in comedies like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award, plus he is just delicious in the very wicked The Ladykillers (1955).
His greatest film role was as Colonel Nicholson, in Lean’s The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), where his quintessentially English stiff-upper-lip under cruel treatment as a POW in a Japanese work camp won him an Oscar and many other awards. He was especially great in supporting roles like Prince Feisal in Lean’s Lawrence Of Arabia (1962), General Yefgrav Zhivago in Doctor Zhivago (1965), and Professor Godbole in A Passage To India (1984).
He was nominated for another Oscar for Star Wars (1977), so far, the only actor nominated for the franchise, and six years later appeared in its sequel, Return Of The Jedi. He received another Academy Award nomination for another Dickens role in Little Dorrit (1988).
Guinness was bisexual, a fact that he managed to mostly keep secret during his lifetime. He was charged with a lewd homosexual act in a public lavatory in 1946, but he managed to keep the episode out of the public eye. When he was arrested, he gave his name as “Herbert Pocket”, the character in Great Expectations who he had played onstage in 1939 and, at the time of his arrest, was about to play it as his screen debut in Lean’s film version. Police and court officials failed to spot the fact that this is the name of a character. When Guinness heard in 1965 that actor Coral Browne had accused him of “cottaging again” (in the UK it means looking for hook-ups in public bathrooms) he threatened legal action. Browne backtracked, and improbably protested that she had actually meant that Guinness was fixing-up a cottage in West London.
Guinness was more successful in keeping his conviction from the newspapers than his friend Gielgud, who was arrested for soliciting in the public loo in 1953. Gielgud gave the police his real name. Newspapers printed his story, and the headlines nearly drove Gielgud to suicide.
I think his that his cool elusiveness and his sexual ambiguity were the things that made him a great actor. Evasion and secrecy were his trademark.
It seems that Guinness’s gayness was an open secret to his family, friends and colleagues. As a character actor, he was always a sort of spy, good at deception in life as well as art. Yet, he was a Catholic convert, keeping his secret caused some anguish and guilt.
Sir Ian McKellen:
“Alec Guinness took me out to lunch and said: ‘You really should not, as a leading actor, have anything to do with anything political, especially anything as dirty as homosexuality. I beg you not to do it.’ That was self-hatred.“
Guinness was married and had a young son when he was arrested. Remember, homosexuality was illegal in Britain at the time, and an arrest would, and did, ruin careers and lives.
Guinness had many gay friends: director Peter Glenville, actors Keith Baxter, Gordon Jackson, and Peter Bull, and he was fully accepting of them. Yet, he disapproved of “vociferous Gay groups” and especially of McKellen, of whom he wrote:
“He has become as aggressive and militant as Vanessa Redgrave, seeking (nobly, no doubt) assistance for AIDS victims but also marching hundreds of gays down Whitehall…flaunting homosexual causes. Very tiresome and it is bound to create a horrid backlash.“
Guiness took his final bow in 2000, taken by that damn cancer. In his eloquent, elegant memoir, Guinness fails to make mention any of his affairs with men or the arrest.
Guinness does tell grudgingly about giving an autograph to a young fan who claimed to have watched Star Wars over 100 times, on the condition that the lad would promise to stop watching the film because: “This is going to be an ill effect on your life”. The boy was stunned at first, but later thanked him. Guinness:
“I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’ He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of second hand, childish banalities.“
Guinness grew so tired of today’s audiences knowing him as Obi-Wan Kenobi that he threw away the fan mail he received from Star Wars fans without reading it.