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Blessings in Disguise

August 8, 2000

The last of the Great Four is dead. Sir Alec Guinness belonged to a quartet of supreme English actors of the generation that included Sir Laurence (later Baron) Olivier, Sir John Gielgud, and Sir Ralph Richardson.

The others were legendary in the supreme Shakespearean roles: Hamlet, Lear, Antony, Othello, Macbeth, Falstaff. These were beyond Guinness’s range. Yet he was the subtlest and most versatile character actor of them all.

Guinness lacked the endowments of a heroic actor. He was slight and ordinary-looking, though he had a fine baritone voice. What he possessed superbly was the ability to create a character and to transform himself so completely as to be almost unrecognizable from role to role. He combined the gifts of mimicry and sympathy. And he was wonderfully entertaining.

After playing mostly minor Shakespearean roles at London’s Old Vic, Guinness became an international star in a series of excellent British films in the late 1940s and early 1950s: Great Expectations, Oliver Twist, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob. His flair for playing hilarious eccentrics made him peerless for Dickens adaptations. In Kind Hearts and Coronets he set some sort of record by playing eight members of a family who were successively murdered; he endowed each victim with a distinct personality. It’s an immortal tour de force of comic acting.

[Breaker quote: The 
method of Alec Guinness]In 1957 Guinness won an Oscar in the serious role of Colonel Nicholson, the heroic but deluded officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai. Directed by David Lean, the film blends a superb character study with spectacular action. A couple of years later Guinness played what he considered his best role: another old officer, Jock Sinclair, who thwarts his commanding officer with malicious guile and tragic results in the film Tunes of Glory. His virtuosity in both roles is amazing — and deeply moving.

Later Guinness would become a fixture of big-budget movies like Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Fall of the Roman Empire, though the roles were less interesting than his earlier ones. He hated the role that brought him his widest fame and biggest paychecks: the wise old Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.

Guinness acted by studying the externals of a character and moving inward. He was such a fine judge of character that a friend once said of him that he knew you better after two minutes’ observation than most people would know you in a lifetime. He learned more by sympathetic imitation than by analysis.

He began with exaggerated gestures in rehearsal; as he felt his way along, he dropped or subtilized the obvious mannerisms until they were sensed rather than seen. The externals were like a cocoon that could be shed as his sense of the character matured. As one critic finely put it, Guinness developed “a complex grammar of indirect discourse.... He is the world’s greatest master of the invisible gesture and the unspoken word.”

Unlike so many actors, Guinness was never self-indulgent. He had had a cruel childhood; he never learned who his real father was. His stepfather was beyond anything Dickens ever imagined: he once held young Alec by the ankles and dangled him over the side of a bridge, and on another occasion held a loaded pistol to his head. As an aspiring young actor, Guinness persisted through discouragement (several acting teachers urged him to try another line of work) and hunger (one meal a day: beans and bread) until Gielgud perceived his talent.

Guinness mentions such things briefly, without self-pity, in his charming memoir Blessings in Disguise. He remained deeply loyal to Gielgud all his life. He ends the book with the words: “Of one thing I can boast: I am unaware of ever having lost a friend.” And the reader believes it.

The power and charm of Guinness’s acting owes much to his sheer personal goodness. He found something to cherish in every character he played. A life that would have embittered most people only seemed to deepen and widen his sympathies. He became a devout Catholic convert and viewed his tribulations as “blessings in disguise.” And he passed those blessings on to all of us through his genius. God bless his sweet soul.

Joseph Sobran

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