The Concealed Genius of Alec Guinness

Best-known by modern audiences for playing Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, Sir Alec Guinness’ film career featured an astonishing variety of roles—as a new film season celebrates.

The other day a friend and I were debating which old movie stars would have liked the social media era. We speculated that Tallulah Bankhead would enjoy being on Twitter and the viral escapades of sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland would have been far more entertaining than those of Rooney and Kate Mara. More than a few 20th-century acting greats, we decided, would have thrived on being techno-celebrities.

Sir Alec Guinness is not one of them. The closest Guinness, who died in 2000, ever got to today’s hyper-connected world was acting in a West End play called Yahoo in 1976 about the life of Jonathan Swift.

The 100th anniversary of the legendary British actor is being commemorated with a 25-film retrospective at Manhattan’s repertory cinematic palace Film Forum. From this Friday until early July, you can enjoy Guinness’ finest moments: the stubborn colonel in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai (1957); the put-upon inventor in Alexander MacKendrick’s 1951 Ealing comedy satire The Man in the White Suit; his spellbinding Fagin in Lean’s Oliver Twist (1948); and, of course, wise old Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (1977). (Guinness is the first, and likely the last, person to be nominated for an Oscar for acting in a Star Wars movie.)

Guinness died in 2000 but even had he been alive, he would not have been excited by the Film Forum’s tribute. The late filmmaker Ronald Neame, who directed him four times, once recalled that Guinness went to London’s National Film Theatre in the ’90s to watch himself in the 1952 comedy The Card only on condition that he remain unnoticed in the audience. Guinness’ elusiveness, allied with his unremarkable facial features, enhanced his performances; his bank clerk-cum-robber in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) bears no visual resemblance to his portrayal of British statesman Benjamin Disraeli in The Mudlark made a year earlier.

This ability to subtly slip into roles without ever being typecast reached its zenith with the 1949 comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets in which Guinness plays the Duke of D’Ascoyne and seven other members of his family with breathtaking ease. According to the critic Kenneth Tynan, Guinness was “a master, but the master of anonymity”. Filmmaker and novelist Heywood Gould says this talent ranks Guinness as better than his contemporary British acting knights John Gielgud and Laurence Olivier: “He was the best of the classic actors. There were no tricks—he was always playing the part.”

This unassuming persona was enhanced by Guinness’ insistence on normality and inscrutability: “I’m a simple person,” he said in 1985, “but I don’t want people to know everything about me.” They certainly didn’t.

This begins with his birth. According to his biographer Piers Paul Read, Guinness told spy writer John Le Carré—whose tortured spymaster Smiley he twice immortalized on TV to great acclaim—“My mother was a whore. She slept with the entire crew on Lord Moyne’s yacht at the Cowes Regetta and when she gave birth she called the bastard Guinness but my father was probably the bloody cook.”

In fact, Guinness’ father was probably a Scottish banker named Andrew Geddes. After a stint in advertising he began acting on stage and got his breakthrough after writing to John Gielgud, who cast him as Osric in his 1934 production of Hamlet. Guinness was more comfortable on the stage than making movies, once admitting, “If I had the choice I would settle exclusively for the theatre. I don’t think an actor’s life in films is remotely interesting.”

But once he landed his breakthrough film role as Herbert Pocket in Lean’s Dickens’ masterpiece Great Expectations (1946), Guinness’ life on film is more than remotely interesting. It offers a master class in versatility. ranging from him being the leading man in The Man in the White Suit and Bridge on the River Kwai to remarkable character actor performances (it’s a shame his turns in the Harold Pinter-scripted The Quiller Memorandum (1966) and the 1988 Evelyn Waugh adaptation A Handful of Dust aren’t showing at the Film Forum).

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, or with the trappings of A-list stardom. While making The Swan with Grace Kelly in 1955, Guinness bumped into James Dean, who showed off his new Porsche Spyder sports car. He wrote in his autobiography, Blessings in Disguise: “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.”

Guinness’ unease—which he deployed to masterful use on screen—extended to his own life. On the surface he had an uncomplicated domestic set-up. He was married to Merula Salaman for 62 years and they had a son, Matthew. But Guinness was almost certainly attracted to men. He frequented Turkish baths and commented in his diaries of the physical virtues of sailors.

In his brilliantly researched authorized biography, Piers Paul Read writes of numerous attractions to men, most notably when he reports that a dresser on a play Guinness was appearing in 1977 [the dates point it to being Alan Bennett’s The Old Country] had accused him of making a sexual assault and abruptly left the production.

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One episode in 1946 which some biographers have reported—though Read himself does not believe it happened—is of Guinness being arrested, charged and fined in court for a homosexual act in a lavatory in Liverpool in the north of England. He avoided disclosure because he told police he was Herbert Pocket, his character in Great Expectations. When Guinness heard in 1965 that the actress Coral Browne had accused him of “cottaging again,” (in the UK, meaning looking for sex in public lavatories) he threatened legal action. Browne backtracked, improbably protesting that she’d actually said Guinness was doing up a cottage in Ennismore Garden Mews in West London.

Guinness’ steadfast Catholicism, in addition to steering him in the direction of Graham Greene adaptations such as Our Man in Havana and Monsignor Quixote, reinforced his inclination to keep a lid on his private life. Guinness played a cross-dressing criminal in Simon Gray’s 1967 play Wise Child. But Gray told Read that Guinness insisted on meeting him first “so that Alec could make sure that I wasn’t any of the characters in the play”.

Gray added Guinness’ face had an expression of “unlived vices”. Read quotes Guinness’ disgust of Alan Hollinghurst’s seminal 1988 gay-themed novel The Swimming Pool Library: “Burned The Swimming Pool Library, having only dipped in it. Well written but unhealthy and not a book to leave around.”

Guinness’ diaries and volumes of memoirs demonstrate he was a sharp observer drawn to smart, challenging work who hated phoniness. But they also reveal a waspish, bitter man frequently disillusioned with film and theatre. Of Lean’s Dr Zhivago (1965), in which he played a KGB lieutenant alongside Julie Christie, Omar Sharif and Rod Steiger, he observed, “I don’t like the rest of the casting much”, while he re-watches The Quiller Memorandum only to find “Pinter’s script no better than I remembered it”.

Guinness worked with Mike Newell, later to have a successful Hollywood directorial career, on John Osborne’s 1974 TV play The Gift of Friendship. He was unimpressed by the future Four Weddings and a Funeral filmmaker, writing in a letter that he was “being driven cynically demented by our tall, pretentious, young director”.

Notoriously Guinness had no time for Star Wars, observing while making it, “I can’t say I’m enjoying the film…rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper.” Guinness recounted in his book A Positively Final Appearance the story of a 12-year-old boy enthusing he’d seen Star Wars over a hundred times and him making the boy cry by asking him to promise he would never to watch it again. But it should be noted Guinness liked Star Wars itself (“a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant,” according to his diaries); he just hated having his career defined by George Lucas’ blockbuster.

Guinness seemingly never appreciated much of his finest work. He frequently fell out with David Lean, and Piers Paul Read tells me, “He played down his roles in the Ealing comedies. He appeared unable to see that they displayed his genius quite as much as the `heavier’ roles he was proud of in Bridge on the River Kwai, Tunes of Glory and even Hitler.” Read adds his private torment perversely benefited his artistic attributes: “I suspect that the air of mystery—the enigmatic smile—which audiences found so appealing had something to do with his desire to conceal his homosexuality and also the dramatic struggle between his libido and his beliefs.”

It’s hard to disagree with the costume designer Percy Harris’ observation that “What you should remember about Alec is that he is a not very nice man trying to be a good one”. Others admired Guinness for—in a phrase he would doubtless hate—keeping it real. Gore Vidal, who scripted The Scapegoat, a preposterous 1959 murder yarn that would collapse were it not for Guinness’ compelling performance, observed of his leading man: “He is always a joy, the intelligence acute, malice serene, sense of absurdity alert.”

Although Guinness’ desire for disguise shouldn’t blind us to the circumstances of his life, perhaps this self-deception was necessary. It allowed him to escape to a place where he could so often vividly portray characters steeped in the reality and complexity of the human condition.