RECORD BOOK OF GUINNESS
Date: April 6, 1986, Sunday,
Late City Final Edition Section 7; Page 14, Column 1; Book Review Desk
Byline: By Marian Seldes; Marian Seldes is the author of ''The Bright
Lights: A Theatre Life'' and ''Time Together,'' a novel.
BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE By Alec Guinness. Illustrated. 238 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $17.95.
BEFORE Alec Guinness
began his career, he was forced to act, to pretend. ''A small, reddish-haired
and very freckled child, makes his fearful entrance; upstage; centre,''
and from the first paragraph of his memoir Sir Alec's chameleon character
fascinates the reader. He has a two-page scuffle with his Ego before
he begins his story. He knows, he tells us, that he is ''not in the
same class'' as Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud or
''the other greats.'' His readers and audiences will be quick to add
that Sir Alec is in a class by himself, not only as an actor, but as
a writer as well.
Until he was 14 years
old he did not know his real name. He was born in Marylebone, London,
on April 2, 1914, to Miss Agnes Cuffe. He was registered as Alec Guinness
de Cuffe - no father's name was listed - and kept the name until 1919,
when his mother married an army captain, a Scot named David Stiven.
At the genteel schools he attended he was Alec Stiven; he liked the
name but hated his stepfather. His real father had been a bank director.
His name was Andrew and his son remembered him, in an interview given
30 years later, as ''a handsome old man, white haired. A Scotsman. I
saw him only four or five times. I was taught to call him uncle, but
I suppose I always knew he was my father.''
After his lonely childhood
he searched for and found a family in the London theater. In 1933 he
applied for a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. He had
the nerve to telephone for advice to the actor John Gielgud, who suggested
that he go to Martita Hunt for coaching. Although she tried to dismiss
him (''Stick to your advertising. Forget all about the professional
theatre''), he persuaded her to help him and she sent him on auditions.
He paid his admission fee, but when he arrived for the Royal Academy
audition he was told there were no scholarships to be given that year.
''I turned away and felt despair. . . . I turned a corner and came face
to face with a girl I was sure I recognised.'' She was a childhood friend,
and she told him about the auditions at the Fay Compton School. He won
a scholarship and gave his notice at the advertising agency where he
had been writing copy. For seven months he lived on 26 shillings a week.
He won the school prize - a complete, minutely printed volume of Shakespeare,
in a contest judged by Sir John. In 1934 he appeared in two plays and
later that year became a member of The John Gielgud Company at the New
Theater, playing small parts. There he met the actress Merula Salaman,
whom he married in 1938.
Perhaps there is no
more charming writing in the book than the chapter about the music-hall
performer Nellie Wallace, the top of the bill at the Coliseum: ''I don't
believe I laughed at Miss Wallace on her first appearance. Truth to
tell, I was a little scared, she looked so witch-like with her parrot-beak
nose and shiny black hair screwed tightly into a little hard bun. She
wore a loud tweed jacket and skirt, an Alpine hat with an enormous,
bent pheasant feather, and dark woollen stockings which ended in neat,
absurd, twinkling button boots. Her voice was hoarse and scratchy, her
walk swift and aggressive; she appeared to be always bent forward from
the waist, as if looking for someone to punch. . . . I was in love with
her.'' He left the theater in a daze, trying to walk like Nellie Wallace.
Sir Alec similarly sketches Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson, Sir John,
Ralph Richardson, Laurence Olivier, Michel St. Denis, with whom he studied
mime, and Peggy Ashcroft. He humorously describes Ruth Gordon, who thought
he was too young to play Mr. Sparkish with her in the celebrated production
of ''The Country Wife'' by Wycherley at the Old Vic in 1936. He was
replaced by Ernest Thesiger and when he saw them play ''his'' scene,
he did not feel bitter. ''They were superb.''
Thirty years ago Kenneth
Tynan wrote: ''At the core of Guinness's impersonations there is a kind
of impersonal peace. He is a master, but he is the master of anonymity.
His obsequious magic gets its results not by noise or declamation, but
- almost - by spells.'' This was written when Sir Alec was beginning
to forget his early years of agnosticism (he shuddered if he passed
a priest or a nun) and was coming slowly toward the Roman Catholic Church,
where he has since found a home. Today he says an actor is, ''at his
best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on
heaven and hell to mesmerize a group of innocents.''
Sir Alec is known around
the world for his film performances, including the colonel in ''The
Bridge on the River Kwai'' (1957) (a role he turned down three times
and for which he won an Oscar); the wonderful comedies, ''The Lavender
Hill Mob'' (1951), ''The Man in the White Suit'' (1951), ''Kind Hearts
and Coronets'' (1949) (in which he played eight parts, one of them a
woman); ''The Ladykillers'' (1955), and, most recently, ''A Passage
to India.'' But his career on the London stage continues to be astonishing.
He finds a different man in each role, searching always for detail and
subtleties of characterization. He has said that he likes to begin with
the character's walk. When he had no money for theater tickets he would
amuse himself by trailing strangers on the street and imitating their
strides. Did this begin with a love-sick boy outside the Coliseum Theater?
HE never stopped observing, never liked being observed. He told an interviewer
that he was ''always trying to cut out the flourishes. I hate anyone
watching me on a film set. . . . If I appear to be simply standing there
doing nothing, they're always so disappointed.'' He is critical of his
colleagues in a subtle way. His portraits of Edith Evans, Noel Coward
and David Lean are cunning and shrewd. He has said that acting is ''a
happy agony,'' but ''I live by it. I've always wanted it. I can't think
of anything else I'd rather do. Except maybe - in daydreams - write.''
The book is dedicated
to the most important woman in his story - Merula. Of the 35 illustrations
in the book, 28 are of Sir Alec's friends. Just as you wish for more
specific memories of the making of his films, you long for a gallery
of Guinness characters. To see what a subtle master he is, one must
study Al Hirschfeld's dust cover drawing of Sir Alec in five different
roles. Five favorite faces out of hundreds.
Sir Alec has been blessed
with talent and opportunity and the only trace of Ego, banished by the
author on page one, is in this final line of his book: ''Of one thing
I can boast; I am unaware of ever having lost a friend.''