April 14, 1904– Most people remember Sir John Gielgud for his Oscar winning performance as Dudley Moore‘s butler in the 1981 film Arthur, but he was so much more than that. He was more romantic than Laurence Olivier and more sensitive than Ralph Richardson. Gielgud was the greatest Shakespearean performer of the 20th century. His portrayal, as a very young man, in the title role of Hamlet, is considered the greatest of all time. He is a favorite of the theatre world and a personal acting idol for me.
Gielgud is one of the handful of entertainers to have won an Oscar, Emmy Award, Grammy, and Tony Award. Known for his beautiful delivery, he was called the “voice that wooed the world”. He was still acting on stage at 90-years-old and he now has a West End theatre named after him.
On stage, Gielgud had his act together, but for half of his time on this earth, his private life was a big old mess. His career was almost ended by his gayness at a time when being a homo was a crime. Today, when it is perfectly legal to indulge in some dude-on-dude action in Britain, it is difficult to imagine that gay men were taking enormous risks to be together just 40 years ago. Back then, sex between men, even performed in total privacy, could lead to ruined careers and years in prison.
At the very apex of his acting success, an incident in Gielgud’s life so crippled him that he contemplated suicide. In 1953, after a rehearsal for his lead role in A Day By The Sea, the 49-year-old actor had cocktails with friends and then afterward went on the prowl for an encounter with another man. He visited one of London’s infamous underground public bathrooms. Gielgud had done this before, but this time he was arrested by a Scotland Yard officer picked for his good-looks and assigned to the urinals for the purposes of the entrapment of poofsters.
During that era, The Home Secretary of England had called gay people “A Plague Over England”. He vowed to wipe out homosexuality before it destroyed the British Empire. You know how gays can ruin a civilization. The police arrested more than 10,000 gay men a year, and the poor clueless Gielgud was one of them.
Gielgud, born into a famous theatrical family, he had never had any doubt that he preferred the company of other gentlemen. One of his first acting jobs in the 1920s was to understudy the very gay Noël Coward, and he knew the score. In 1926, during the run of Coward’s play The Constant Nymph, Gielgud had his first serious romance, with fellow actor John Perry, who gave up his own promising stage career to live with his much more successful lover.
Gielgud’s homosexuality was common knowledge in the acting community, but audiences only knew of his astonishing talent. After his Hamlet became a box-office sensation in 1934, British theatre-goers idolized him. Other accomplished actors like Alec Guinness, Edith Evans and Richard Burton thought he was simply the very best.
In 1953, the year of the Elizabeth II’s coronation, Gielgud was nominated for a knighthood. He was at the very height of his remarkable career. He was directing himself in a new production, and he had a new boyfriend, interior designer Paul Anstee. Despite his new knighthood and being one of the most celebrated actors on the planet, there he was, arrested and charged with “persistently importuning men for immoral purposes”.
Despite his high profile, Gielgud was not recognized when he was arrested. He was fined and urged to seek a doctor’s help for his perverse sex life, a common recommendation back when homosexuality was considered a medical problem. Gielgud’s good fortune ended when a reporter from the London Evening Standard happened to be in court during his hearing and recognized the actor’s magnificent voice. On his way to rehearsal that same afternoon, Gielgud saw his own name on the front page of the newspaper.
The humiliation was too much for Gielgud. A noted politician called for him to be horsewhipped in the street after first being stripped of his knighthood. But, his fellow cast members were very supportive, and when the play finally opened, Gielgud’s adoring fans proved supportive and enthusiastically applauded his performance. The little bit of vindication was not enough for poor Gielgud. Just five months into the run, he had a nervous breakdown and left the play.
The United States’ government denied Gielgud a visa to tour his production of The Tempest around our country. Famed gay choreographer Frederick Ashton denounced Gielgud as having “ruined it for us all”. As if he had not suffered enough, by the late 1950s, Gielgud’s acting style had fallen out of style. But, instead of going into hiding, he smartly adapted and continued to work in the more modern theatre, performing in the works of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. Gielgud continued to work on stage and in films into his 90s. He had roles in three films in 1997, at 93-years-old, including playing the piano tutor in the film Shine, which brought him a SAG and BAFTA Award nomination.
Sweet revenge, Gielgud’s career enjoyed a real renaissance in his old age. He even achieved respectability in his love life. At a Tate Gallery exhibition in the 1960s, Gielgud bumped into artist Martin Hensler, who was 30 years younger and shared his love of gardening. They fell for each other and remained a couple for 40 years. They died just two weeks apart from each other.
“You can be good in a good movie, you can be good in a bad movie, you can be bad in a bad movie, but never, ever, be bad in a good movie.”
Never the ultimate romantic leading man, nor as commanding a figure as Olivier, Gielguld, with his deeply emotive tone, embodied the classic theatrical figure yet with that oh so British twist; the kind of person who when signing postcards of himself after a performance declared:
“Yes I know it’s vulgar, but I can’t resist.”