The Chameleonic Charms of Sir Alec

The Chameleonic Charms of Sir Alec

He is the most disarming and self-effacing of the English actors who dominated stage and screen in the middle of the twentieth century—the others were John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Laurence Olivier. Those fellows carried themselves like grand actors; they had brave, proud voices that signaled poetry or drama. Alec, by contrast, was slight, soft-spoken, losing his hair and bashful to the point of retreating into the background. He was most plausible as a suburban bank manager or a minor naval officer. Indeed, on one occasion when asked to name the best performance he had ever given, he said: “That of a very inefficient, undistinguished, junior officer in the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve. It proved to be the longest-running show I have ever been in.”

You get his sense of humor there—dry, deferential, without vanity. But with a benevolent, distant smile if you watched him closely. You felt he appreciated absurdity. When he made The Swan (1956), with Grace Kelly (her last film, before Monaco), they had a scene on a balcony in a breeze, looking out over a lake. The wind blew hard and Grace got dust in her eye. She had to be made-up again with all the fuss that involved. Alec waited patiently—as he told the story. Grace returned, lovely again. They did the scene once more but now Alec’s hair piece blew off in the wind. Grace collapsed in laughter—not unkind; there was a bond of amusement between them, then and always. I’ll come back to that.

But how many actors—how many men?—would laugh if their toupee took flight? For Guinness the mishap seemed natural and a useful, gentle warning to anyone who reckoned he was in danger of being a star.

And yet. Alec Guinness could go wild in his calm, gentlemanly way, especially when disguised. He was Fagin in Oliver Twist, a characterization derived from the George Cruikshank drawings in the Dickens novel, plainly evil but ingratiating, on the edge of the perverse, and as many people have observed, close to anti-Semitic. There were other outrageous Alecs. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, he played eight members of the D’Ascoyne family, male and female, caricatures, the opposite of ordinary. And it was Alec who, when sent the script for that great satire, with the studio nervous about taste and propriety, asked why only four D’Ascoynes were being murdered. He grasped the audacious joke. “Oh no,” he murmured, “let’s make it eight.”

So he was modest, demure even, and not exactly noticeable in person, with that hushed, respectful voice. But there was a kind of demon inside him. That energy would carry him as the reprobate genius painter, Gulley Jimson, in The Horse’s Mouth. In time it would provide the iron will in the slim frame that drove his Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai. That epic picture is not perfect: the William Holden character is superfluous, an opportunity to cast an American star to bolster the box office. But Nicholson is astonishing in his physical collapse and moral rigidity. He could be a bank manager promoted because of the war. He is a duty-bound obsessive ready to die for his code but unaware how easily that unthinking allegiance may assist the Japanese war effort. Nicholson is offered as a hero, but it’s the core of the film that he is also a misguided fool. And Guinness does nothing to romanticize this unyielding and dangerous man.

Beyond that, as a movie actor from a romantic age, Alec was studiously cool in love scenes or sexual relationships on-screen. The smothered desire in the man was evident in his George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, where he is mortified because his wife is betraying him. But perhaps his addiction to work has provoked her. So Smiley takes cover in the company of men in the spying trade—of course, that only leads to more betrayals. Did this detachment in Guinness prompt stories that he might have a gay life, as well as a long, happy marriage? We don’t know; we don’t need to care; but we wonder. And, as I said, there was this long rapport with Grace Kelly. Be patient; I’ll come to that.

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