Time Magazine - Apr. 21, 1958:
Cinema: Least Likely to Succeed
Alec Guinness had arrived in the theater. Out of obscurity and a world of terrors, a faceless child with haunted eyes had rushed into a place of light; and from that night, the greasepaint stick became his lollipop. In 30 years of play acting. Alec Guinness has made himself one of the most expert living masters of his craft. On the stage he ranks with Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson, in the Big Four of British acting, and he is recognized as the most gifted character actor of the English-speaking theater. On the screen his 17 films—among them such comic classics as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit and The Captain's Paradise—have won him a world audience as one of the most subtle and profound of all the clowns since Chaplin, and as a jackpudding genius of hilarious disguise.
Putty & Wax. Smeared with collodion, hung with plastic eye-bags, festooned with soup strainers, monocles, nippers, wax teeth, putty nebs, and anything else he could find in his makeup kit, Guinness gleefully paraded himself before the public in a glorious album of absurdities. He has been a larcenous bank clerk, a commuting bigamist, a middle-aged suffragette, a bootleg genius, a buck-toothed fiend, a garden editor who liked vegetables better than people, the contents of a cannibal stew, a family of eight, an intellectual ant.
Since 1950, when Kind Hearts cleaned up at the art houses, British Cinemactor Guinness has steadily built his mass appeal in the U.S.—largely with his marvelously comical knack of hooking the odd fish. But his audience is not limited to moviegoers. As the star of hundreds of filler shows, which exhibit his comedies habitually, he is a stalwart TV attraction too. By the middle '50s, Guinness was pulling his TV audience into U.S. movie theaters, and movie publicists were bragging that, on the list of British exports, Guinness Stout was hardly as well known as Guinness, Alec; that in fact, when it came to making a bundle for Britain, the Guinness movies were in a class with Scotch whisky and Harris tweed.
Then came The Bridge on the River Kwai (TIME, Dec. 23). At one stroke, Actor Guinness was transformed from an interesting foreign name into a big Hollywood star. With one film he more than doubled his movie audience in the U.S.—Kwai will probably be seen by at least 50 million Americans, and stands to make more than $20 million. By his intricate, strongly moving portrayal of a British colonel at once stupid and heroic. Guinness repealed the casual popular impression that he is merely a sort of Stan Laurel for the intellectuals, and revealed himself as a dramatic actor of imposing skill and large imagination. U.S. moviemakers were so impressed that last month the Motion Picture Academy named Alec Guinness the best movie actor of 1957.
One-Man Tibet. Last week, at a Variety Club luncheon in London's Savoy Hotel, Cinemactor Guinness at last got his hands on the object that signifies supreme success in his profession. It was a moment that most actors would give their profiles to experience, a scene that almost any imaginable entertainer would play to the echo. Alec showed up 25 minutes late. The hotel doorman was somewhat upset at the sight of the filthy old tramp with the messy whiskers, paint-smeared jacket, soiled green flannel shirt and cracked shoes, but Guinness was able to establish his identity and the fact that he had just stepped out of a scene in his new picture, a version of Joyce Gary's novel, called Straight from the Horse's Mouth.
An actor is rarely presented with such an opportunity for the grand entrance. The other guests, deep in talk and Escalope de Veau Viennoise, were setups for a shrewd performance. But Guinness somehow managed to get through a crowd of 500 people without being particularly noticed. After dinner he shyly accepted the club's award as the Best Film Actor of 1957, and then a Columbia executive produced the Oscar. Applause. Alec fidgeted, looked bashfully pleased, mumbled a few words about the "many people in show business who helped me," sat down.
The incident was characteristic. Alec Guinness is a public recluse in the grand theatrical tradition of Maude Adams, Greta Garbo and Paul Muni. And shut up in the passionate reserve is one of the most difficult, complex and enigmatic Englishmen who ever reached for the rouge. "A dark horse," says Sir Laurence Olivier, "a deep one." Director David (Kwai) Lean adds: "Alec is one of the most fantastically knotted-up men I know." And all agree with the actor who called him "the best-kept secret of modern times, a sort of one-man Tibet."
Anonymity. At first glance, Guinness at 44 looks remarkably like nothing much. He is rather short and shapeless, with milk-bottle shoulders, chubby hands and a prosperous waistline. He is balding, jug-eared, and his pale phiz is blotched with pale freckles and pale blue eyes. His usual expression is an unemphatic blank. Critic Kenneth Tynan once mused that "the number of false arrests following the circulation of his description would break all records."
"Anonymity is to Alec," says a friend, "what the Channel is to England." His second line of defense is an impenetrable English hedge of middle-class respectability. Sewed up in a sober suit of excellent cut, clamped in a boiled collar, braced with his faithful brolly, Guinness looks as safe as the Tower.
He is shy and self-deprecating. He rarely refers to himself in the first person—usually as "one." He frequently covers his mouth when he laughs, can rarely bring himself to look anybody in the eye. He is painfully sensitive about his baldness, though he stoically refuses to wear a hairpiece in private life. He talks so quietly that people who talk with him usually wind up whispering, and he walks so softly, a colleague says, that "he is usually at your elbow before you know he is there. Sort of materializes like the Cheshire Cat." He has a tic of shrugging that comes on whenever he feels uncomfortable, and he seems to feel uncomfortable almost everywhere but at work and at home. He lives in dread of being recognized in public, and will hurry out of a shop without making a purchase if he thinks somebody has noticed him. He is also frightened of reporters, and his unconscious defense is to push ashtrays and pillows at them and keep asking, "Are you quite sure you're comfortable?"
Very few get past the Guinness reserve, but those who do report that the Alec nobody knows is a Joseph's coat of glowing talents and darkly mysterious seams and good grey patches of worsted virtue.
A Sense of Dignity. Alec is almost magically sensitive to people and to atmosphere. Director Lean "never knew anybody with so many antennae out at once. He knows more about you in a minute than most people would in a lifetime." Along with the sensitivity goes a quick, clear intelligence, soundly educated and widely informed, especially in the arts. His overriding passion is his work, but he is also a devoted husband and father. He met his wife Merula, an exactress, when they both played in Noah (1935)—she was a tiger, he a wolf. Son Michael, 16, attends Beaumont College near London. Though he makes few friends, Alec is intensely loyal to those he has—Actors John Gielgud, Peter Bull, Michael Gough, Actresses Kay Walsh, Cathleen Nesbitt, Irene Worth, Director Peter Glenville are among the closest. Alec is a generous man. Nothing is too much trouble or expense if it helps a promising young player. Despite his shyness, he is stubborn, determined, and has a strong sense of human dignity—including his own. "I will not be pushed about," he once announced politely but inflexibly during a contract negotiation, "like a bag of tea!"
Seldom so direct, he prefers the dart to the bludgeon. Though not malicious, he is known as a wickedly accurate and irreverent wit, with a special talent for puncturing the pompous, and he does it so delicately that his victims never quite realize where they have been hit. And then suddenly the sly dog turns into a wildly silly puppy. He will dash into a quiet party wearing flap soles and a fright wig, and ramble off in a farrago of slap-happy imitations—invariably topnotch. He is a superb raconteur: his account of Dame Edith Sitwell's recent Roman Catholic baptism ("Can you imagine Dame Edith being borne majestically down the aisle on a little satin pillow?") is simply, as the British say, blue death and ivy. But the special mark of the Guinness humor is a curious mixture of the fey, the sly and the marginally macabre. He would rather get a secret grin than an open laugh.
The Guinness humor, with its turn for the weird, is just one of many signs of a wild Celtic streak in the man. It shows in his flair for the little superstition—he never whistles in a dressing room, never cuts his nails on Friday ("Bizarre, isn't it?"). It shows in his peculiar affinity for the supernatural and in his belief that he has premonitions of dire events to come. In recent years there have been fewer transcendental scrapes and a sense of deepening religious life. In 1956, after taking instructions secretly for a year, Alec was baptized in the Catholic faith.
Personal Abyss. Most of his friends agree that Alec needs a religion. He primly admits to "a certain uncomfortable void" in his life. Says a friend: "I would call it Alec's personal abyss. There is this great sense of absence in the middle of him, this lack of identity. One seldom sees a man who lives so intimately with nothingness."
The feeling of nothingness seems to lie at the base of Actor Guinness' art. It is above all an art of the anonymous—his screen presence itself is actually a sort of commanding absence. The experience of nothingness is a kind of central pain, and pain is at the center of all his characters —the funnier they are, the harder they seem to hurt. He became an actor simply to escape this pain ("One became an actor," as he puts it, "in order to escape from oneself"), but his art is not merely escapism. It seems to resolve itself into a relentless search for his identity, a serious and gifted pursuit of the whole.
Alec finds himself by imitating others. He is a superlative mimic. Like Charles Dickens, one of his favorite writers, he learns what a character is by imitating what he does; like Dickens, he sometimes mistakes caricature for characterization. He invariably begins a character by deciding what he would wear and how he would look—he works from the outside in. In the early stages of a part he is nervous and unsure of himself, prone to tantrums and small cries of "God, I'm inadequate" and piteous little interviews in which he offers to quit "for the good of the show." Nowadays he is somewhat more assured when shooting begins, but he used to do such a flip that Director Lean sometimes started the camera rolling while Alec thought he was still rehearsing. While building a part, Guinness shuts everything else out of his life. He lives his role all day, dreams it at night. In the grip of an unpleasant character, he will coldly rebuff his friends; in the mood of a charming one, he is "simply wizard and a ruddy dear" to people he detests.
Slowly, surely, Guinness devours his part. Like a cannibal, he gnaws away at the physical details. But what he is really after is the soul. When he gets it, the gestures are pushed aside like a cocoon, and a new existence emerges. Indeed, Alec's essential gift is not for creating characters, but existences. His people are all somehow like children, playing alone in corners, a life unto themselves. "His is the art of public solitude," says Critic Tynan. "He can seem unobserved."
Indirect Discourse. In Yeats's phrase, it is "the ceremony of innocence," the rite of existence, and Guinness celebrates it in all his roles. Since existence is a mystery, and cannot be seen or touched or understood like a common physical fact, he has developed a peculiarly orphic language of gesture and intonation. He almost never expresses an idea directly. He relies on his audience to understand the essence of a situation, to realize what the character feels and is; and so he takes more trouble to hide what he feels than to reveal it. It is more than the usual British understatement; it is a highly developed art of camouflage and a complex grammar of indirect discourse. Actor Guinness is probably the greatest living master of the invisible gesture and the unspoken word.
The essence of such an art is its humanity. It is life-size and it is contemporary. But the method has its limits. It is merely human, and cannot swell to greet the superhuman. Guinness can hardly hope to fulfill the classical heroic roles, the Hamlets and the Agamemnons. Existence in any case is too intimate a thing to be lobbed in full voice across the footlights, but the camera has the faculty to appreciate it. It is for the camera that Guinness seems fated to do his best work. In comedy he has shown what he can do wonderfully well—the little men with the monstrous obsessions, the secret lives of the wicked Walter Mittys. In Kwai and in The Prisoner he suggests that, as well as any living actor, he can interpret a specifically modern sort of hero—the man who is not meant to conquer the world but to battle within himself.
It is a role that Alec knows from painful personal experience. He began to study it in Marylebone, a lower-middle-class section of West London, where he was born on April 2, 1914. His absence of identity is an official fact; no record of his birth exists. Last week Alec cautiously made a statement on the subject to a TIME correspondent: "My father generated me in his 64th year. He was a bank director. Quite wealthy. His name was Andrew. My mother's name is Agnes. He was 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."
"You'll Never Make an Actor." Alec never speaks of the first six years of his life, but they were apparently fairly grim. His mother drifted from one resort to another along the Channel coast, from one boarding house to another. Little Alec tagged along, a quiet child, well-behaved, playing alone in corners. At six he was packed off to a middle-class English boarding school called Pembroke Lodge, where his expenses were paid from an education fund set up by his father. Being shy and peculiar and no good at sports, he came in for plenty of ragging. Says Alec expressionlessly: "One was a most unprepossessing child." To amuse himself, he built model theaters and played imaginary parts. One day he tried out for the school play. The headmaster inspected the scrawny little chap and sadly shook his head. "You'll never make an actor, Guinness."
At twelve he was transferred to Roborough, a somewhat better-known school, where the dramatic society specialized in Gilbert & Sullivan. Since Alec could not (and still cannot) carry a tune, he shifted scenery. One day he ventured to say he wanted to be an actor. One of the masters sadly shook his head. "You'll never make an actor, Guinness."
At 18, Alec graduated near the top of his class, but could not afford dramatic school. So he took a job in London as an ad writer. Subjects: "bottled lime juice, radio valves, razor blades." Salary: £1 (then $3.50) a week, most of which was spent for theater tickets. Guinness was good at the job, but after 18 months he had had it. "I felt I had to quit, and do something about the stage." But how to begin? He knew nobody in the theater. He called his favorite actor, John Gielgud, who listened sympathetically and sent him to study with Actress Martita Hunt. After twelve sessions with the drab young man, she sadly shook her head. "You'll never make an actor, Mr. Guinness."
The £3 Week. Encouraged, perhaps, by the "Mister," Guinness applied to the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art and somehow won a two-year scholarship. But could he afford to take it? His education fund allowed him 25 shillings (then $6.25) a week. By eating one meal a day (usually baked beans on toast), he managed to survive, and even to see a regular Saturday matinee. At school he worked hard; after hours, he tailed pedestrians all over London, mimicking their gait and gestures; and at the annual recital, the judges—Actor Gielgud among them—gave him a top prize.
And then all at once the education fund ran out. Desperate, he went to see Gielgud, who got him a tryout—and another and another. No luck. Gielgud had nothing left to offer but a loan. Alec was close to starving. He had eaten nothing but a green apple, a bun and a glass of milk in 24 hours. His last pair of shoes were so far gone that he was walking the streets of London barefoot to save leather. But he refused the kindness and tottered out, weak with hunger.
On the way home, he passed a theater. Lightheaded and confused, he found himself asking for a tryout—at the box office. The stage manager happened to be there, and ten minutes later he had three parts: Chinese coolie, French pirate, British sailor. Salary: £2 a week. "But isn't the Equity minimum £3?" Alec shyly inquired. "None of that talk around here," the manager snarled. Alec said no more, but next day he quietly called Equity and got his £3. He was worth every penny. He threw himself passionately into the role of the coolie, even shaved the top of his head. "It was great for the part," the joke goes, "but terrible for the hair"—which never quite grew out again.
Aching Sincerity. Actor Guinness has never been out of a job since. Three months later he was playing Osric to Gielgud's Hamlet, and the critics took special note of his "admirable popinjay." Then it was William ("a wondrous blank") in As You Like It, Sir Andrew Aguecheek ("a collector's item") in Twelfth Night, Lorenzo ("meditative, star-struck beauty that takes the breath away") in The Merchant of Venice. And at 24, he played his first Hamlet in an Old Vic production directed by Tyrone Guthrie. Most critics agreed that the Hamlet lacked force, but one wrote that "it was touched with sweetness and an aching sincerity." By 1941, when he joined the Royal Navy as a seaman, Guinness had played 34 parts in 23 plays by Shakespeare, Sheridan, Pinero, Chekhov, Shaw; and a small loyal public had begun to follow his star. "It was obvious," says Director Tyrone Guthrie, "that he was going to be tremendously talented. It was not so obvious that he was going to be popular."
Guinness had a comparatively good war. Commissioned, he was sent to the Mediterranean as captain of an LCI, assigned to ferry butter and hay to the Yugoslav Partisans. On convoy duty, he recalls, he had trouble keeping his ship in line, and once, after several days of bad steering, he received a terse communication from the flagship: "Hebrews 13:8." He looked it up in the ship's Bible: "Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever." In the invasion of Sicily he was the first ashore—a mistake in orders. When the admiral arrived at last, Guinness blandly assured him that such a tardy entrance would never be tolerated in the theater.
After the war, Alec resumed his prewar stride with scarcely a hitch, and somehow there seemed to be more muscle in it. In the 1946-47 season he played a deeply original Fool that struck the critics almost as strongly as Olivier's Lear, and he did a swingeing good De Guiche in Guthrie's Cyrano. About the same time he considered working in the movies ("On the stage I never seemed to have a chance to wear trousers"), and Director David Lean gave him the role of Herbert Pocket, the young swell in Great Expectations. The next year, in Lean's Oliver Twist, he played a Fagin that made him, for the first time, a favorite with the millions.
Lower Art Form. The year of decision in Guinness' career was 1950. As T. S. Eliot's psychologist in The Cocktail Party, he fetched Broadway quite an intellectual wallop. His third movie, Kind Hearts and Coronets, established him as a world figure, the most famous British zany since Sir Harry Lauder. Alec was not quite sure he liked it. Like most British actors, he looked on cinema as a lower art form.* Besides, he fancied himself rather as a tragedian than as a funnyface. But there it was. And when his cold, existential, matter-of-fact Hamlet ("He was acute and intelligent, but flow of soul he lacked") flopped in the West End the next year, that tied the ribbon on it. Alec went to work in earnest for the movies.
Since 1953, Guinness has made no more than token appearances in the theater—in Shakespeare at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, in The Prisoner in London. In 1955 he succumbed at last to Hollywood's enticements and starred with Grace Kelly in The Swan. He liked Hollywood ("so friendly"), but Hollywood figured Alec for an oddball. For one thing, he had a very peculiar diversion. He took walks. He took them, moreover, in Beverly Hills, where a man without a car is regarded with a good deal more suspicion than a man without trousers. The police stopped the fellow for questioning several times, but never quite managed to get anything on him.
Work on Kwai began late in 1956. Three times Alec had refused the part ("a dreary, unsympathetic man"), and he arrived on location in Ceylon with deep misgivings. They deepened when Director Lean informed him casually that he had really wanted Charles Laughton for the part. Alec brooded, and a couple of days later tried to quit. Lean talked him out of it. "Lean!" snarls one of the crew. "That bloody perfectionist! He shot 30 seconds of film a day and then sat on a rock and stared at his goddam bridge.'' Alec tried to quit again. Lean talked him out of it. For 3½ months the cast and crew sweated it out on jungle location. Poker and 16-mm. movies were the only relaxations. Bickering was incessant. Alec avoided it by sneaking off to fish in the river ("Never caught a bloody thing"). The meridian sunlight fell like hot rivets, the humidity was seldom below 85. The flies thrived. "One day," Alec recalls with grim satisfaction, "I killed 681 of them." Ten minutes after his last scene was shot, he was racing to the nearest airport and the London plane, and he has not left England since.
Quiet Evenings. There, about 40 miles from London, he lives with his wife and son, two dogs (Tilda and Vesta), a cat (Clover) and a teen-aged parrot (Percy) in a pleasant "Westport modern" house that is the architectural scandal of Hampshire. Mornings at 7 the Bentley pulls up. "Good morning, Fred." "Good morning, sir." Evenings at 7 it brings him back. Occasionally there are guests—the close friends. Merula does her own cooking, and Alec is an expansive host. "I say, that plate's cracked!" "Oh dear, Guinness has boiled the wine again!"
But generally evenings are quiet and bedtime is 11. Alec works on his sides for the next day, reads a little Dickens, has a go at mah-jongg with Merula—he is "mad for the game." Weekends he stuffs his pockets with patented French fuzees and stalks about the Guinness acres (there are ten of them) waging chemical warfare on the moles. Last week, as he jabbed a poison capsule into the ground with the point of a stout stick, he cocked a fiendish eyebrow and remarked: "I feel beastly, but one of us has to go." And then back to the house to work on a script about Father Damien's leper colony—he wrote most of the scenario for The Horse's Mouth too. After The Horse's Mouth he is scheduled to make a film version of The Scapegoat, by Daphne du Maurier. And after that? "Just keep going on, I guess."