The Mercurial Sir Alec Guinness


Today is the birthday of Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000) — and we wish an especially happy day to all who share this birthday, especially if they are Alec Guinness fans.

I would call Guinness’s career an ideal model but for the knotty problem of “Who could hope to emulate it?” The consummate chameleon type actor, he not only disappeared into countless distinct roles, but he also seemed to maintain numerous different careers, as though he himself were several different actors.


There’s Guinness the Shakespearean, the colleague of Gielgud and Olivier and Richardson, who played Hamlet and Romeo and Sir Andrew Aguecheek.


There’s Guinness the comedy star (a rarity to be both, yes? Although most great English actors, unlike their American counterparts, can be as funny as any comedian). He was mostly closely associated with Ealing Studios but he also made movies for others. Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Horse’s Mouth. His last major comedy was Neil Simon’s Murder by Death (1976) in which he played a blind butler named Bensonmum. I often associate him mentally with Peter Sellers. Yes, because they had acted together, but also because they had similar comedy careers, which relied heavily on the comedians’ abilities to inhabit vastly different characters (and to be very, very silly).


There’s Guinness the straight-up serious movie actor who disappears into each role without what might be called “The Encumbrance of Classicism.” (This is less true of his classical cohorts, who seem to carry baggage around with them in their performances). His most frequent association was with the director David Lean, but he certainly distinguished himself in numerous films outside that partnership. There are the two Dickens adaptations Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Our Man in Havanna, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, A Passage to India etc etc etc as well as the tv shows Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.


While we cherish him in that old school way for his ability to do accents and change his identity with costume and make up, some of his ethnic portrayals have admittedly dated and are harder to watch. His Fagin has always been under fire for its Jewish caricature ever since the movie came out in the 1940s. For some reason it was okay for him to be an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia in the 1960s and nobody squawked. But I can tell you my reaction when I saw him play a Hindu in A Passage to India in 1984 and that was “This is an anachronism. I admire this man but this is no longer okay!” I am not the most politically correct person in the world, so I can only imagine what actual South Asians think. There seemed to be an attempt at the time to sort of resurrect a little of the “This is what Sir Alec does” kind of feeling, a sort of affectionate return to his history of doing that sort of thing. But it was still sort of offensive.


Lastly, there is his one Hollywood role that became such a phenomenon that it became a Thing Unto Itself, his role as Obi Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars saga, which bedeviled his last several decades. Being an actor is one thing, being a toy is another. His disparaging quotes on the experience are quite hilarious and really point up the dilemma each of us faces. He, who had done Shakespeare, Jonson, Rostand, T.S. Eliot, J.B. Priestly etc etc, thought it was absolute junk (at least that’s what he let slip in his more candid moments). Yet it set him up mighty pretty for his old age. That’s the razor’s edge of Hollywood. May we all face such dilemmas, and daily!


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