In which living as Obi-Wan Kenobi proves to be the best revenge.
Born in 1914, Alec Guinness, writes novelist-historian Read (Alice in Exile, 2002, etc.), was a bastard—in that old-fashioned, literal sense, that is. “My mother was a whore,” Guinness plainly told his friend John le Carré, a bit peeved at the matter. Illegitimate birth was common in those days, of course, but bound to mark a person for life in class- and status-conscious England; so, too, were the psychic wounds left by a stepfather and an “uncle” or two. Guinness channeled his adriftness into art, though the road was rocky: his first acting teacher offered to refund his tuition after a handful of lessons, sure that he would never amount to anything. She was wrong: inside a few years, Guinness was a member of the Old Vic troupe of Shakespearean actors, renowned throughout Europe for his Hamlet. Along the way, he became friendly with John Gielgud and other stage actors who adopted him as their own, and he met his wife Merula, who had much acting ability herself. Her career, though, was “a casualty of Alec’s meteoric rise to fame,” Read writes, inasmuch as Guinness was one of those no-wife-of-mine types, an odd blend of conservative and progressive. (Read offers that Guinness later defended himself by saying that his wife was simply too good for the theater.) Constantly worried about money—and, Read ventures, by matters of sexual identity—Guinness dirtied himself with film work, for which he had natural and abundant talents. Channeling Guinness, who kept notes and diaries, Read trades in exquisite gossip about David Lean, Peter O’Toole, Omar Sharif and other actors and directors with whom he worked, closing with the Star Wars franchise, which Guinness found distasteful but which brought him the first real financial security he had known (“I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread”).
A solid if sometimes digressive portrait of a stoic, hardworking player, never really influential but certainly memorable.