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 Film’s Great Chameleon 

July 28, 2005 
One evening more than 50 years ago, in a town in Belgium, a small boy saw a priest and grabbed his hand, greeting him affectionately as “mon pere.” Today's column is "Film's Great Chameleon" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.He walked down the street with him until they were near his home, then darted through a hedge, bidding him, “Bonsoir, mon pere!”

The man wasn’t actually a priest. He was Alec Guinness, dressed for the role of G.K. Chesterton’s priest-detective, Father Brown, after a day’s shooting. The boy’s warmth for a supposed priest he’d never met moved Guinness and began to break down his English prejudice against Catholicism: if the Church could inspire such trust in its priests, maybe it wasn’t as bad as he’d been led to believe.

Not long afterward Guinness became a Catholic and remained a devout one for the rest of his life. A year or two later he played a cardinal under communist interrogation in Peter Glenville’s film The Prisoner. It was one of his most passionate performances, unlike most of the coolly brilliant comic roles he was famed for.

A new, authorized biography of Guinness by Piers Paul Read offers more than 600 pages of information about the great actor, who left the stage rather early in his career to create one of the most impressive galleries of characters in the history of movies. Unfortunately, the reviews suggest that the book is both dull and disillusioning. Read portrays Guinness as a tormented homosexual and an unpleasant man, rather nasty even to his devoted wife Merula.

I must say this comes as a bit of a shock to me, since I’ve formed a very different impression from Guinness’s own charming memoirs, from an evening with one of his best friends, and of course from countless hours roaring at his delightful films.

[Breaker quote for Film's Great Chameleon: The disguises of Alec Guinness]Only this week I’ve been watching him (again) as the entire D’Ascoigne family, who are murdered in rapid succession by a disinherited relative in Kind Hearts and Coronets. Made in 1949, it was the first of the Ealing Studios comedies in which he made his name. He endows each of the eight (by my count) victims with a distinct comic personality, doing eight death scenes in eight disguises.

That’s what he was most noted for: disguises. He disappeared into his makeup from role to role, seeming to have no identifiable self of his own. This seemed to allow him to assume other personalities at will. He was so ordinary-looking that the critic Kenneth Tynan surmised that if he were to commit a murder, “the number of false arrests following the circulation of his description would break all records.” Unlike most film stars, he didn’t repeat himself; every new Guinness filmed seemed to offer us a new Guinness.

Guinness was a subtle comedian who understood Charlie Chaplin’s principle: “When you’re doing something funny, you don’t have to be funny doing it.” He trusted the audience to see the humor of the situation, so he didn’t ham it up. His style was introspective, showing a character’s inner, almost secret self; as Tynan wrote of him, “He can seem unobserved.” So understated was his technique that he was called “the world’s greatest master of the invisible gesture and the unspoken word.”

The big Shakespearean roles were beyond Guinness, but he was perfect for Dickens’s eccentrics, notably Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations (1946) and Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), both directed by David Lean. Lean directed him again in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), for which he won an Oscar as the tragicomic Colonel Nicholson. He was even more memorable as an anarchic Scottish officer in Tunes of Glory (1960). It later embarrassed him that he became more famous for Star Wars than for the brilliant work of a lifetime.

Born illegitimate in London — he was never quite sure who his father was — Guinness endured, or ignored, much discouragement to become an actor, becoming one of the four legendary British stars of his generation, all of them knighted (the others were Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Ralph Richardson). If he wasn’t the greatest of these, he was certainly the most versatile and probably the deepest. For all his dazzling technique, he can draw you into the heart of a character like no other actor.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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