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Sir Alec Guinness


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Alec Guinness (1914-2000) was one of the giants of the 20th century British stage. A difficult childhood left Guinness a shy young man, and while working as an advertising clerk, he signed up for drama classes to try and come out of his shell. He immediately fell in love with the stage, although the feeling was not mutual, and it took Guinness many years to get any substantial roles. This was an exciting, vibrant time to be in the British theater, as his youthful contemporaries included such future luminaries as Ralph Richardson (a lifelong friend), Michael Redgrave, Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud, Harry Andrews, and Laurence Olivier. Guinness was still a shy lad, and some of the more exuberant fellow actors would take him under their wing. Many of these actors (save Richardson) were gay or bisexual, and it is believed that Guinness himself was romantically involved with one or more of them, although this would prove to be a lifelong struggle for him. He loathed his homosexual impulses, and would subsequently become heavily involved in first the Anglican, and then Catholic churches, in an attempt to suppress his "ungodly" urges. He even married in 1938, and had a son, Matthew.

 

Guinness' stage career finally took off after appearing in supporting roles in a handful of plays for the Old Vic. And it was their 1938 production of Hamlet with Guinness in the lead that finally brought him to worldwide acclaim. His performance as the tormented Dane was said to rival even his friend John Gielgud's, whose turn had been declared "definitive" only 2 years previously. Many more quality roles came Guinness' way, and he maintained his reputation as one of the finest of British stage thespians. Then came World War II. Guinness joined the Navy, where he served aboard a small ship.

 

After the war he continued his stage career, and also accepted his first film role, in David lean's 1946 adaptation of Dickens' Great Expectations. Guinness, like many of his contemporaries, looked upon film roles with some disdain. He accepted film and the odd TV job merely to pay the bills, or as favors to friends, but he never thought of the work as anywhere in the league of stagecraft. He would spend the next 40 or so years alternating between stage and film work, the stage his love, the film work to pay the bills. Of course, those "minor" film roles include some of the finest in British cinema, including his follow-up with Lean, 1948's Oliver Twist, and the wonderful Ealing comedies that include Kind Hearts and CoronetsThe Man in the White SuitThe Lavender Hill Mob, and The Ladykillers. Guinness would return to work with David Lean a few more times, with small but interesting roles in Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia, and A Passage to India, and the film that would bring the most attention to Guinness in the U.S. (for a time, anyway), as well the Oscar for Best Actor, 1957's The Bridge On the River Kwai.

 

Guinness lost interest in film work even further as time went on, and started accepting only minor roles that would hopefully be filmed quickly and pay handsomely. It was during this phase of his career that he accepted what he felt was a throw-away role in a silly children's film entitled Star Wars. He filmed his part quickly and with little fuss, and returned home, not bothering with another thought on it. It was a year later that the film was released and became the massive cultural juggernaut that it became. Suddenly Guinness, in his role of wise Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, became an unlikely fixture on toy shelves and children's lunchboxes. He also earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. The role became a true love-hate relationship, as Guinness grew to despise the constant questions about the films and the fact that the general public the world over recognized him solely for that one part. On the other hand, George Lucas had been very generous, awarding Guinness profit participation to supplement his salary for his part in the first film, as well as his cameos in the following two. This money insured that he lived the rest of his life in comfort.

 

Alec Guinness continued to take small roles, including in the 1988 Dickens' tale Little Dorrit that saw him receiving his final Oscar nomination, again for Best Supporting Actor. Guinness, who had been knighted by the Queen in 1959, lived his final years in quiet retirement, and with a reputation for acting excellence that few have achieved. He was never a conventional leading man, but he was an interesting figure on screen. There was always a sense of sadness lurking behind his heavy-lidded eyes, and sometimes a touch of malice. He excelled at comedy, even if he wasn't a very emotionally demonstrative person in his personal life. He loved to disappear in a role, and cherished the opportunities to use elaborate costuming and make-up design to become entirely different people. He played Japanese, East Indian, Arab, young and old, man and woman, Shakespeare to Dickens, World Wars to Star Wars. I gleaned from his biography that I recently read (Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Reid) that Guinness was not a very happy person for most of his life. His turbulent childhood and adult conflicts regarding his sexuality, coupled with a reoccurring sense of inadequacy left most of his life under a cloud. But he was able to use that inner conflict to bring joy to countless people the world over, and for that I am thankful.

 

 

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Mention should also be made of his excellent collaborations with director Ronald Neame-- THE HORSE'S MOUTH, which Guinness scripted (it was a labor of love for Guinness and he gives a real tour-de-force performance)...as well as TUNES OF GLORY where he's kept on his toes by prickly John Mills.

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In addition to loving his movies, I've had the pleasure to see Sir Alec on stage a few times. Two plays by Alan Bennett (Habeas Corpus, The Old Country); and an adaptation of Ivy Compton Burnett's A Family and a Fortune, which also starred Margaret Leighton and Rachel Kempson.

 

In A Passage to India Sir Alec's character, an elderly Brahmin, has a scene that I think is one of the great moments of the movies. Peggy Ashcroft is on a train, leaving Chandrapore on the first leg of her journey back to England. Sir Alec places his hands in the namaste position as the train passes.  A Passage to India is one of my favorite novels. In that one scene, David Lean captures the spirit of Forster's book and the connection between those two characters. Brilliant movie on so many levels -- Lean's best; and with a great performance by Sir Alec, in what today would probably be considered a politically incorrect Asian role.

 

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Mention should also be made of his excellent collaborations with director Ronald Neame-- THE HORSE'S MOUTH, which Guinness scripted (it was a labor of love for Guinness and he gives a real tour-de-force performance)...as well as TUNES OF GLORY where he's kept on his toes by prickly John Mills.

Thanks for mentioning those two. I know they are considered among his best films, but I unfortunately haven't seen either yet.

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I have seen 24 of the 54 films Alec Guinness appeared in. Here they are in my order of best performances (not the overall films):

 

The Bridge On the River Kwai

Kind Hearts and Coronets

The Ladykillers

The Lavender Hill Mob

The Man in the White Suit

Oliver Twist

Great Expectations

Hitler: The Last Ten Days

Damn the Defiant!

A Passage to India

A Majority of One

Lawrence of Arabia

Doctor Zhivago

Star Wars

Cromwell

Little Dorrit

The Quiller Memorandum

To Paris with Love

Hotel Paradiso

Scrooge

Murder By Death

Return of the Jedi

The Empire Strikes Back

Lovesick

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I have seen 24 of the 54 films Alec Guinness appeared in. Here they are in my order of best performances (not the overall films):

 

You haven't seen Last Holiday (1950). You're in for a treat when you do see it. Alec Guinness thinks he has the dreaded Lampington's Disease, and this is a few years before anyone ever heard of the Gobloots or Arterial Monochromia!

 

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Guinness was a fantastic George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and later Smiley's People.  Very good English tv.

Yes, I recall when those were out originally, but I didn't watch them then. I was hoping when the newer film came out that the older ones would get replayed somewhere or be put on sale on disc for a cheaper price, but no dice. Maybe they will show up on Amazon Prime.

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Thanks for mentioning those two. I know they are considered among his best films, but I unfortunately haven't seen either yet.

Alec Guinness gives two of his best performances in The Horse's Mouth and Tunes of Glory, and John Mills matches him beautifully scene by scene in the latter. Both are highly recommended, Lawrence.

You can find The Horse's Mouth is on Dailymotion.

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Alec Guinness gives two of his best performances in The Horse's Mouth and Tunes of Glory, and John Mills matches him beautifully scene by scene in the latter. Both are highly recommended, Lawrence.

You can find The Horse's Mouth is on Dailymotion.

I couldn't agree more about these two films. Both are directed by Ronald Neame, who learned his craft working with David Lean, and they are very much like two additional pre-epic David Lean films. The presence of actors like Guinness and Kay Walsh in both and John Mills in Tunes of Glory only underlines this.

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Alec Guinness gives two of his best performances in The Horse's Mouth and Tunes of Glory, and John Mills matches him beautifully scene by scene in the latter. Both are highly recommended, Lawrence.

You can find The Horse's Mouth is on Dailymotion.

Both are also on Hulu, along with another film by Neame that doesn't feature Guinness.

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Alec Guinness: Ealing comedies

 

 

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

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The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)

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The Man In the White Suit (1951)

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The Ladykillers (1955)

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These four, plus THE CAPTAIN'S PARADISE, are in a box set I recently bought -- a very worthwhile purchase.

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