Our star movie columnist, Kathy Shaidle, is off this weekend, mourning her beloved feline, so her fill-in guy is obliged to step in. This August marks the twentieth anniversary of the passing of Sir Alec Guinness, CH, CBE, all of which is a long way from how he entered the world in 1914 as Alec Guinness de Cuffe. His mother was Agnes Cuff, and the Frenchification of her maiden name seems to have been an attempt to compensate for the blank space on the birth certificate where "Name of Father" should appear. "Alec Guinness" were his two Christian names, leading to periodic suggestions that his pa was a member of the Guinness family. Sir Alec himself took the view that he had been sired by a Scottish banker who turned up at the flat once in a while purporting to be an "uncle" and who paid for his young "nephew" to be educated privately. He was, at least in public, not much interested in his parents, neither the absent nor the present one. From this appropriately vague lineage emerged one of the most versatile actors of the twentieth century, and (via Star Wars) one of the wealthiest.
Alec Guinness was also an occasional contributor to The Spectator and a regular reader of it, although for some years I was never certain whether he got as far as my old film column. His friend Graham Greene had been a predecessor of mine as the Speccie's motion picture critic and he may have felt, quite reasonably, that from Greene to Steyn is not progress on the film-reviewing front. But in 1996 I was reviewing the Gwyneth Paltrow version of Emma and, prodded by the alleged Jane Austen expert I made the mistake of taking along to the screening, I bemoaned the ghastly dialogue, full of obvious non-Austenisms. A letter to the editor arrived a few days later:
Sir: Mr Mark Steyn, in his review (14 September) of the American film of Emma (which I haven't seen) states that it is 'peppered with non-Austenisms like "Good God!"'
In chapter 40 of the book, Miss Austen writes, '"Good God!' cried Emma, 'this has been a most unfortunate – most deplorable mistake."'
Most deplorable. I'm not sure what surprised me most — the fact that he knew his Jane Austen that well, or the fact that, at 82, he could be bothered reading a review of a Gwyneth Paltrow flick. He certainly wasn't reading the costume stuff for professional reasons. Unlike the other theatrical knights with whom he was linked, he wasn't a period guy. He was the Fool to Olivier's Lear in 1946 and Richard III in the very first of Canada's annual Stratford Festivals in 1953, but film seemed to make him wary of Shakespeare and, when he finally got to Lear, it was on radio: he may have been "the man of a thousand faces", but the rest of him operated more cautiously and on the whole eschewed doublet and hose.
His two great period roles, in their different ways, are Charles I in Cromwell and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars. The consensus is that, unlike most movie actors, Guinness never played "himself". But who else is Obi-Wan? The quiet authority, the dignity, the spiritual strength of the character come from Guinness, not from George Lucas and what the actor called the "second-hand, childish banalities" of the dialogue.
Incidentally, for a classic Guinness performance, look up any old talk-show or interview where he's asked if it's true he gets 2¼ per cent of Star Wars plus additional points from the videos, sequels etc. There's a beatific smile he nailed down early on, as he replies that, my word, yes, apparently, he does. Lots of British actors despise movie work, not least their own, but Guinness pulled off a deal that must have made him one of the richest of English thespians: according to some accounts he made over £150 million from Star Wars. That's a long way from his Ealing salaries, although even then he impressed his colleagues. Meeting Edith Evans at a swank restaurant, he told her not to worry, lunch was on him. He was making The Lavender Hill Mob, and they were paying him £6,000. Dame Edith went into full handbag mode. "£6,000!" she gasped. "I must make another film. Or do you call them movies?"
Guinness could have used the Star Wars dough to make his own great British film, but that wasn't his style: insofar as one can determine, his last professional engagement was a voiceover for, sportingly enough, an Inland Revenue public service announcement. The points-deal was worth it to George Lucas: he wanted Star Wars to be mythic and Guinness obliges; without him, the original would be just a very inferior Star Trek, with hollow characters, leaden dialogue, and lame actors prancing around in crimplene jumpsuits like a Seventies TV dance troupe.
But, Obi-Wan aside, most of Guinness's screen characters belong to the day before yesterday — Ealing England, Graham Greene's Havana, E M Forster's India, T E Lawrence's Arabia. He was a character actor in the sense that he acted characters, and some of them were strong enough to make him a star. According to J C Trewin, his was "a player's countenance, designed for whatever might turn up" - though not everything took. His glassy-eyed, monotone Prince Faisal in David Lean's Lawrence (1962) may qualify as his worst performance in a good film, and set the tone for a disappointing mid-career patch in which he seemed by far the most boring of Britain's theatrical knights. "Alec!" sighed Noël Coward apropos Our Man in Havana. "It is a faultless performance but actually, I'm afraid, a little dull." It was around this time that Peter Sellers cooked up a character called Sir Eric Goodness, a theatrical grandee with a penchant for elliptical spiritual roles. Some years later, Guinness seems to have returned the compliment by playing Professor Godbole in A Passage to India as Sellers in "Goodness Gracious Me" mode.
But even in these weaker performances you see flickers of the great, defining characteristic of his best: his ability to project the sense of characters who have a life independent of the needs of the film. Colonel Nicholson in A Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is the finest example, with a stiff, resilient, very British devotion to a soldier's code that incubates into something insane. William Holden and the rest of the gang are perfectly fine as far as the stock types of war movies go, but the film stands or falls on Guinness: Nicholson could so easily have been either risible or pathetic or implausible; instead, it's a beautiful, exquisitely balanced interpretation.
His other great military tour de force is as the carrot-topped carouser Major Jock Sinclair opposite John Mills' by-the-book colonel in Ronald Neame's Tunes Of Glory. An Ottawa reader who'd "sat through one mess dinner too many" wrote to me a few years ago to say that his all-time favorite Guinness movie line was Major Jock insisting, "Whisky for the gentlemen that like it, and for the gentlemen that don't like it – whisky!" There's a lot of Scottish dancing in the picture, and the film itself seems to reel, with Guinness' blazing orange hair and heeland-flung accent poised brilliantly on a knife-edge of menacing heartiness.
That was unusual for him. I think it was Eileen Atkins who said that Guinness was the only actor who could do absolutely nothing in a close-up and yet you knew what he was thinking. It's probably closer to the truth to say you knew he was thinking something, and you thought you knew pretty much what it was, but there was always the possibility that he might be thinking something else entirely. A character like Colonel Nicholson has to be complex, or he simply doesn't exist, and Guinness was a master at hinting at complexity, even when playing a piece of cardboard such as Obi-Wan. In an age of soul-barers, when Daniel Day-Lewis does Hamlet to work through his feelings about his father, Guinness remained a kind of Gypsy Rose Lee of great actors: he exposed very little, and thereby suggested that what lay underneath must be a real knockout. By the time he got to John le Carré's George Smiley, he had mastered a unique skill: scene-stealing blankness, nicely caught on one of the early episodes of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?" when Jonathan Pryce, out of the blue, goes into a sly Guinness take-off — all glances off and an enigmatic smile.
He made his screen debut almost nine decades ago, in Evensong (1933). No one noticed. So he tried again with David Lean, as Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946) and Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), two superb performances. Then came his finest group of pictures — the Ealing years, beginning with Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), in which he played eight different members of the d'Ascoyne family bumped off, in succession, by Dennis Price. Poor old Price actually gives the best performance, but no one cares: Kind Hearts is a novelty turn for Guinness, yet the film has a harder edge than his other Ealing films. To contemporary moviegoers, Ealing is a far more remote world than any in Star Wars — for a long time, the films were hard to get hold of and rarely aired on TV — but they show off brilliantly a youngish actor of unpromising looks but boundless inventiveness.
He had, by all accounts, a lower regard for his art than the other theatrical knights, but it served him well. And, unlike Olivier or Gielgud, Alec Guinness pulled off a unique double: he remains the only man in the galaxy to be knighted both by Her Majesty The Queen and the Jedi.
~The Mark Steyn Club is now in its fourth season. As we always say, membership in the Club isn't for everybody, but it does support all our content, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. What is The Mark Steyn Club? Well, it's a discussion group of lively people on the great questions of our time; it's also an audio Book of the Month Club, and a live music club, and a video poetry circle. More details here.
Oh, and if you're really sick of the lockdown and looting and general lethargy of life, we have a fabulous cruise coming up next year, which is just the best way to bust out of this thing.