Sir Alec Guinness, 1914-2000

  • Share
  • Read Later
If the measure of a movie actor is in how many roles he can make himself invisible, only Claude Rains ever gave Alec Guinness a run at the crown.

Oh, it was Sir Alec Guinness every time — there was a reliable pleasure in that. His eyes, which could droop or bluster or mourn or scorn, were canvases of the subtlest possible histrionics. The thin-lipped British smile that could be a billboard of polite derision, shy mischief (or searing wistfulness), usually in some part elegant. But every time you saw Alec Guinness he was a little different, as if you were watching a quietly joyous or angry or befuddled or quixotic little man who looked just like Alec Guinness. And boy, could this new guy act.

Guinness died Saturday at 86 in a West Sussex hospital, the latest in a dwindling group of American movie stars born in the English theater. He was a stage actor who will be remembered by audiences for his movie roles, the times when they got to see that infinitely and economically expressive face magnified by the big screen. The virtuosic underplaying of his roles — the best ones of which critic Kenneth Tynan called "all iceberg characters, nine-tenths concealed, whose fascination lies not in how they look but in how their minds work" — became evident, at that proximity, to all.

Guinness credited John Gielgud with nurturing his early career in the '30s, and he played support in all the usual Shakespeare — Osric and the third player in "Hamlet," Aumerle in "Richard II" and Lorenzo in "The Merchant of Venice." The leads, like the two failed stabs at "Hamlet," nudged him further onto the screen — to pay the bills, Guinness always said — and it was in the movies that he became beloved.

The high points of that career perhaps fall into two categories, both after the war (in which Guinness briefly served) and neatly divided by the Atlantic. In England he did classics of British bumble-wit like "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Ladykillers," "The Man in the White Suit" and "The Lavender Hill Mob," in which Guinness's milquetoast banker waits his whole life for the perfect gold bullion theft. These were tiny movies, gems of the emotional slapstick at which he was a master.

In Hollywood, David Lean used Guinness to hold up his epics, like the third leg of a tripod. As Colonel Nicholson in "Bridge on the River Kwai," the Arab prince Feisal in "Lawrence of Arabia," Gen. Yevgraf Zhivago in "Doctor Zhivago," there was the story, the place, and somewhere, Alec Guinness. The moment in "Kwai" when the maniacally correct Nicholson stumbles across William Holden — "You!" — and looks at the ground as bullets fly and disillusionment explodes all over Nicholson's face — could have won him his Best Actor all by itself. The movie, too big for the grimacing Holden to fill out on his own, is complete because of Guinness. "Doctor Zhivago" could have used more of him.

There's a third category — the gifts to lesser, later movies. The blind butler Jamessir Bensonmum in "Murder by Death." The mummified chief clerk in "Kafka." Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars," eyes glittering with wisdom, salvaging that tortured Lucas dialogue. Would there be a "Phantom Menace" without Guinness's saving injection of class in the first installment?

Hearing of Guinness's unrelenting modesty and bland wit, one is tempted to look for the actor's true self in some of the Ealing Studios comedies, perhaps "The Lavender Hill Mob" and its wan-on-the-outside hero, or the fabric wizard and social innocent of "The Man in the White Suit." But thinking that's Guinness up there onscreen is a mistake. He once said, "I try to get inside a character and project him — one of my own private rules of thumb is that I have not got a character until I have mastered exactly how he walks.... It's not sufficient to concentrate on his looks. You have got to know his mind — to find out what he thinks, how he feels, his background, his mannerisms."

Getting a feel for Guinness was harder. "I'm afraid I was a little abrupt recently with a producer who sent me a screenplay," he once confessed. "It was rubbish, really. I sent it back with a polite rejection. Then he came back with the plea that 'we tailored it just for you.'"

"I replied simply, 'But no one came to take the measurements.' "