Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Sir Alec Guinness' 100th Birthday

It was 100 years ago today that Sir Alec Guinness was born. Today many people are probably most familiar with Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the original Star Wars trilogy. In some respects this is sad, as Mr. Guinness appeared in many other films in what was a very long career. He was a very talented actor who appeared in a large variety of films, from dramas to comedies to epics. Indeed, while he was great as Obi-Wan Kenobi, many other roles come to my mind when I think of Sir Alec Guinness.

Sir Alec Guinness was born Alec Guinness de Cuffe on 2 April 1914 in Maida Vale, Paddington, London. His first job was writing advertising copy. It was while he was still working in advertising that he studied acting at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art. He made his stage debut when he was only twenty years old in Edward Wooll's play Libel at the the old King's Theatre in Hammersmith. His film debut occurred in the same year, as part of a concert audience in the film Evensong (1934).  In 1936 he signed with the Old Vic in London. It was in 1939 that Sir Alec Guinness staged an adaptation of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. During World War II Sir Alec Guinness served in the Royal Navy.

Sir Alec Guinness received his first credited role in Great Expectations in 1946. The film's director David Lean had seen Mr. Guinness' stage production of Great Expectations in 1939 and as a result cast Mr. Guinness in the part he had played on stage, that of Herbert Pocket. He then played Fagin in David Lean's version of Oliver Twist in 1948 and eight different members of the D'Ascoyne family in Kind Hearts and Coronets in 1949. Already established as an actor on the stage, Sir Alec Guinness was now an established film actor as well.

It should be little wonder that Sir Alec Guinness would have a film career as his talent was obvious from the beginning. One need look no further than Kind Hearts and Coronets for an example of just how great Sir Alec Guinness was. In the film Mr. Guinness played eight different roles, even that of Lady Agatha D'Ascoyne. While none of the parts were very large, every single member of the  D'Ascoyne family not only acted differently, but looked differently. Sir Alec Guinness gave bravura performances in the roles where many actors would have been intimidated by taking on so many parts.

Of course, Sir Alec Guinness' incredible acting in Kind Hearts and Coronets points to something that is often forgotten today. Mr. Guinness was a master of comedy. In fact, when I think of Sir Alec Guinness it is not as Obi-Wan Kenobi, but instead as Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers (1955). Mr. Guinness gives what may be his best performance of his career as master criminal Marcus, who becomes progressively more unbalanced as the movie unfolds. The fact that Sir Alec Guinness shines alongside such heavyweights as Herbert Lom, Cecil Parker, and Peter Sellers (who all gave incredible performances) is a testament to his gift for comedy. Sir Alec Guinness had given an equally fantastic performance in the earlier Ealing comedy, The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). Beyond the fact that both mastermind crimes, Henry Holland in The Lavender Hill Mob has very little in common with Professor Marcus. In fact, Holland is something of a milquetoast who is entirely dull and unthreatening. Sir Alec Guinness was wholly believable in the role, making Holland entirely sympathetic.

While I honestly believe Sir Alec Guinness' best roles were in comedies, he was one of those actors who excelled in drama as well. Indeed, even though William Holden and Jack Hawkins were billed above him, there can be little doubt that The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) is Sir Alec Guinness' film. Mr. Guinness was marvellous as the uncompromising, extremely disciplined Lieutenant Colonel Nicholson. So great was his performance in the role that Sir Alec Guinness won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

As great as Sir Alec Guinness' performance was in The Bridge on the River Kwai, however, it may be matched or even surpassed by his performances in The Scapegoat (1958).  Mr. Guinness once more played multiple roles, although it was only two this time. That having been said, the two roles were both leads. He played the hero John Barratt, a timid teacher on holiday in France, and the villain Count Jacques de Gué (who just happens to be Barratt's exact double). The two men could not be more different. Indeed, de Gué is as cold hearted and selfish as Barratt is kind hearted and charitable. Tasked with the job of juggling two very different roles, Sir Alec Guinness excels in both of them.

Of course, The Scapegoat points to the fact that Sir Alec Guinness could play villains very well, although he rarely did. One of his most notable roles would also be one of his earliest. As Fagin in David Lean's Oliver Twist Mr. Guinness was wonderful. His Fagin is suitably cruel and even threatening, yet at the same time Mr. Guinness endowed him with a pathos and humour sorely lacking in other portrayals of the character on screen.

Sir Alec Guinness' performance as Fagin in The Scapegoat points to a particular gift that the actor had which few others did. Quite simply, Sir Alec Guinness could transform himself into nearly any character he wished. Sir Alec Guinness was only 34 years old when he played Fagin, yet through a combination of make up and sheer acting talent he turned himself into a much older man. Sir Alec Guinness chameleon-like talent to turn himself into characters quite unlike himself served him well throughout his career. Over the course of five decades he played famous literary detective Father Brown (in Father Brown from 1954), the historical figure of Prince Faisal (in Lawrence of Arabia in 1962), Adolf Hitler (in Hitler: The Last Ten Days from 1973), and  John le Carré's fictional spy George Smiley (in television adaptations of  Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People). While many actors can only play a specific type of role, Sir Alec Guinness could play almost anything.

While he may now be best known as Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars, Sir Alec Guinness was so much more. In a long career he played several notable roles, most of them dramatically different from each other. Indeed, few actors could ever play multiple roles in a film and be as convincingly as Sir Alec Guinness was. Few actors could entirely change their appearance and give a great performance at the same time. If Sir Alec Guinness is still a legend 100 years after his birth, it is perhaps because he was a very singular talent.

1 comment:

Happy Miser said...

I always liked him in Tunes of Glory. What a showy role! Then contrast that with his role in Tinker, Tailor! What a range!