ALEC GUINNESS: A Celebration by John Russell Taylor

ALEC GUINNESS: A Celebration

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In contrast to that other ""celebration"" bio, Gyles Brandreth's John Gielgud (p. 283), this 70th-birthday tribute to Sir Alec is somewhat more than a flat documentary: Taylor, though a far-from-distinguished critic/biographer (Hitch, Strangers in Paradise), gives real attention to each of Guinness' stage/screen performances--trying to pin down the actor's elusive, unique, ""interior"" quality. Following young Alec from odd childhood (as an elderly gent's ""love child"") to his persistent search for work in the early 1930s, Taylor conveys the young actor's combination of technical ineptitude, unpromising physical attributes, and strangely shining talent. (Gielgud, an early mentor, gave Guinness the role of Osric in Hamlet--but burst out in rehearsals: ""I can't bear it. I can't bear it. Go away for ten days and learn to act, for God's sake."") By 1937, however, Guinness was a presence--starting with his Aguecheek in Tyrone Guthrie's Twelfth Night, moving on to a low-key (perhaps too low-key) Hamlet, seasons at the Old Vic, an uncommon array of characters. (""What was his face really like? Though he was now playing the star roles, had he that not precisely definable unity behind the diversity, that gift for making all the faces his own. . . ?"") And the postwar years brought an unusually steady, full film career for a theatrical knight: from Oliver Twist and Kind Hearts and Coronets to River Kwai, from Lawrence of Arabia to Star Wars and TV's George Smiley--with regular returns to the London stage through the decades. (""His distinctive gift has been uniquely to bring classic authority and awareness of tradition to modern roles in new plays, making the lounge suit as believable a garb for a tragic hero as doublet and hose."") Taylor mentions Guinness' conversion to Catholicism, his happy family life, his modesty and insecurity--but never really illuminates his art. (""He is, in the truest sense, a sphinx without a secret: we just think he has a secret because we cannot believe the answer to acting genius can be so simple."") Still, despite the often-lumpy or over-chatty prose: an agreeable catalogue-cum-meditation of Guinness performances, sometimes brightened by Taylor's film-world savvy.

Pub Date: April 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Little, Brown