Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography, by Piers Paul Read. Simon & Schuster, 632 pages, $35.
Most actors ramp up an exhibitionistic façade as a means of compensating for displeasure with their own core personality, but Alec Guinness was one of those rare actors who seemed not to have a flamboyant bone in his body. He was an artist of repression and self-effacement, happily hiding behind a succession of toupées and noses, apparently eager to obliterate his odd but endearing natural resemblance to Stan Laurel.
Among modern actors, only Ben Kingsley has a similar gift of implicit anonymity, although it’s impossible to imagine Guinness taking a leap at the whirling malevolence of Sexy Beast.
Within a domestic middle range—Guinness had great failures on stage with the emotional savagery of Hamlet and Macbeth—has any actor ever done more to elevate the minor virtue of ambivalence into a major acting career?
Piers Paul Read’s authorized biography has the breadth that’s needed for a serious biography, but the emphases are all wrong. Instead of writing about an actor who became a Catholic convert, Mr. Read has written a book about a Catholic convert who was incidentally an actor.
Guinness was just about the churchiest Roman Catholic imaginable, giving Eliot and Waugh a run for their snobbishness and money. Those elements in his character that resembled the libidinously unleashed Catholics of Graham Greene’s work were studiously quashed. (Oddly enough, Guinness was an admirer of Greene’s and kept his novels close by.)
Guinness clung to his religion so ardently because it seemed to be the only thing that enabled him to control what Mr. Read seems convinced was latent homosexuality. Although his early love letters to his wife Merula are quite charming and quite convincing, the two stopped having sexual relations about the time Guinness turned 40, and there was a long series of what seem to have been sexless infatuations with young men. Repression, then, was the keynote not merely of his art, but of his personality. Certainly, he was blocked off from the kind of things that many people take for granted—the last time his son Matthew remembered his father touching him was when he was 8.
Guinness’ own diaries and letters, as quoted by Mr. Read, are far more revealing than the text that surrounds them. In one of the few discerning remarks in the biography, the author mentions that Guinness’ sense of inhibition and a need for control that could turn snappish undoubtedly derived from his chaotic childhood. Alec was illegitimate, the son of an unknown father and a difficult, alcoholic mother he regarded with a mixture of thin forbearance and congealed contempt. Andrew Geddes, a lawyer for the brewing family, believed himself to be the father and supported Alec until he turned 21.
Like many people who are essentially uncomfortable with people, Guinness gravitated toward animals, in particular a Dandy Dinmont he named Walter. Guinness loved Walter as much as (or more than) he did any human being, and when Walter died—Guinness’ diary entries about the dog’s death are very moving—his wife wrote, “One of the reasons we can’t leave [our home] is that Walter is buried here—and Alec’s heart, or a large piece of it, is in Walter’s grave.”
Mr. Read spends literally dozens of pages circling around the issue of Guinness’ sexuality, but there’s not a single sentence about how Guinness devised his brilliant, simultaneously creepy and funny turn in The Ladykillers (1955). There’s only a little more about the tour de force of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), or even his late-career triumph as John Le Carré’s George Smiley.
Among the classic Guinness performances, Mr. Read goes into detail only about Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), whose misplaced pride and stiff-necked certitude take him to the edge of treason. But most of the material on Kwai derives from Kevin Brownlow’s 1996 biography of David Lean.
From the beginning, with Guinness’ glowing Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946), Lean and Guinness were in great emotional sync, despite the fact that the two men were both touchy and frequently went through bouts of Not Speaking. Many of Lean’s movies are about whether or not to Go Native, about the emotional peril of giving in to sensuality—think of Summertime (1955), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and A Passage to India (1984)—a topic that Guinness, if his biographer is at all correct, could certainly understand.
The odd thing about Guinness’ career was how Colonel Nicholson represented a creative apogee, even though the actor was only in his early 40’s at the time. The aftermath was forgettable until the triumph of George Smiley—though I retain warm feelings for Guinness’ tired, bemused Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), a movie he loathed.
Star Wars (1977), on the other hand, was merely an embarrassment, but the humiliation was presumably ameliorated by his 2 percent of the profits, a gift that kept on giving and that enabled Guinness to live in comfort for the rest of his life.
Mr. Read’s apparent lack of interest in Guinness’ profession—the only reason anybody would want to read a book about him—is the biography’s most bewildering feature. Guinness seems to have chosen Mr. Read as his biographer because of their shared religion, but reading this torpid effort, you might imagine that Alec Guinness was a minor ecclesiastic who came home to chide his wife about her cooking.
Piers Paul Read seems remarkably ignorant of the fact that the elderly, somewhat snappish gent in the house in Hampshire was some kind of great actor.
Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life and Legend of Louis B. Mayer (Simon & Schuster) was published in April.