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Pure Genius

Blessings in Disguise by Alec Guinness (Hamish Hamilton, 1985)

Concealing itself with a squirt of ink, the octopus makes a cloud which if seen from far enough away looks like a revelation. Alec Guinness’s autobiography has been a big hit in his native country. The British value their actor-knights so highly that they bought even Lord Olivier’s autobiography, an obvious attempt to entangle the curious reader in the outer defences and leave him there to die of boredom. By turning on the charm instead of the electrified fence, Guinness makes himself even less accessible in his book. He comes out of it as a regular guy, just like you and me but with a measure of acting talent, and he writes well enough to make the fantasy sound plausible. Blessings in Disguise is a heart-warming document, a reassuring pledge of sincerity, like the newspaper which the con-man asks you to look after for him until he comes back again with your fifty dollars.

Great deceivers don’t lie, they merely omit. There is no telling how much of his life story Guinness has left out. But there is a suspect docility about what he has left in. This is the tale of how life happened to a nondescript. Broke and unknown in a furnished room, he learns from the great at the Old Vic during the mid-1930s, makes his name, does his bit in the Royal Navy during the war, becomes a film star more by luck than judgment, receives high honour by a fluke, and winds up shyly blinking in the effulgence of his own apotheosis. One has had so much good fortune.

The reader might need to remind himself that the real Alec Guinness has imposed himself with a success made only more brilliant by the fact that he seemed so unimposing. Whereas the other British stage stars asserted their individual styles with a verve that cried out for comment, Guinness offered little that a critic could pin down. Olivier prowled and yelped, Richardson boomed and lurched, Gielgud made mellow music. Guinness remembers in this book that the only time a critic praised him for making music on the stage, another critic accused him of having no music at all. Guinness forgets to mention that he first pointed out this favourite moment of critical self-cancellation in his contribution to a little symposium called An Experience of Critics more than thirty years ago. He was always, and rightly, pleased with his personal enigma. His colourlessness was his characteristic. On stage he used it to hold his own against those who dazzled, and on screen he used it to leave them standing — or, rather, prowling, lurching, and making music.

There is no denying that Guinness could never have equalled the nectarine sonority of Gielgud’s speeches in Chimes at Midnight or been as weirdly adorable as Richardson in Greystoke. Nor is there any doubt that Olivier, besides being responsible for directing at least two of the greatest Shakespeare films, is far and away the most gifted British actor to adorn the international screen, and will probably keep that title beyond the grave. But Guinness was the film star. Before the period of the late 1940s and early 1950s known to movie historians as Ealing comedy, the British film industry, even during the heyday of Alexander Korda, was only fitfully alive. Since Ealing comedy, the British film industry has been only fitfully alive. Ealing comedy was the British film industry. And Sir Michael Balcon, alias the Man Who was Ealing, always insisted that the man who was really Ealing was Alec Guinness.

It was, of course, both of them: Balcon the production genius and Guinness the big draw. It was also the group of talented writers and directors who gathered around them. There were ungainsayable historical factors — television, fated to drain the film industry of creative talent by the lure of quick returns, was not yet powerful — but mainly Ealing’s magic was a question of writers, directors, and actors. The story would be fascinating as told by Guinness, even if he were to tell it with bias. But he hardly tells it at all. You would have liked to hear about the strategic discussions; about the decisions on what film to make next; about how they squared the circle, creating brilliant myths in the twilight of an empire. A lot of thought must have gone into all that.

Little of it gets into the book. The anecdotes are above average for a talk-show but the level of argument is judiciously held well below what Guinness would obviously be capable of if he let rip. He is often bitchy but seldom critical. On one occasion a long-cherished regret stimulates him to an edifying tirade. He admired Tyrone Guthrie but thought his influence disastrous, since the arena theatre that Guthrie promoted merely compelled directors less gifted than Guthrie himself to be pointlessly fussy, while depriving the actor of his most cherished effects.

The theatre, when the performer cannot make a clean entrance or exit seen by the entire audience at the same time, and is obliged to make artificial moves purely for the sake of movement so that different parts of the audience, weary perhaps of a back, can get a glimpse of a face; where, when stillness is called for, the actor must rotate through 180 degrees to reach most spectators as well as other actors, is not so much a theatre as a circus.

Such a passage, where the opinion becomes a viewpoint, makes the opinions surrounding it seem casual. Elsewhere Guinness often proclaims, but rarely illustrates, a deep distrust of what he calls ‘great acting’. We are told only enough to assume that he doesn’t like the kind of art that draws attention to its technique. There is an attitude behind this distaste, and an aesthetic behind the attitude. But he gives us only the distaste.

If he is too polite to tell us who hammed it up and how, he is not too polite to tell us who was drunk and when. Robert Morley, reviewing this book for The London Review of Books, chided Guinness for neglecting to mention, when evoking how thoroughly the ageing Ralph Richardson would get crocked, that Richardson was the superior actor. You can disagree with Morley’s judgment and still regret that Guinness couldn’t have employed indiscretion to better purpose. With some well-chosen bad examples, he could have told us what good acting is. But to expound his views he would have had to unfold himself. He prefers — a more guarded openness — to reminisce.

Not that the reminiscences aren’t first class. Some of them sound almost candid. We learn of his fly-by-night mother, who in his childhood could be relied on for nothing except a careless liberality in allowing him to wander off to the theatres and nourish his dreams. In his young manhood, when he was playing in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw at the Old Vic during the 1930s, she would show up at his flat to touch him for a loan or, if he was out, pawn his possessions. Immediately, on hearing this, we give the author extra points for the gentlemanly punctilio of his adult life. The pull of the Catholic Church, to which he eventually succumbed, becomes easily understood. Brought up in disorder, he conceived a passion for order. In the most undependable of all professions he became famously dependable. More remarkably, indeed unbelievably, he seems to have found it dependable. He makes acting sound a bit like working in a bank. If Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob has always made you think of T. S. Eliot and vice versa, this book will do nothing to dispel the impression.

Acting, especially film acting, can offer success but no security, since the hazards increase with choice. Guinness makes risk sound marginal. In Kind Hearts and Coronets, his first Ealing comedy, Guinness refused to get into the basket of a balloon, despite assurances from the director that it was safe. The balloon crashed into the Thames. In The Lady-killers, the last Ealing comedy, he was assured that an iron rail on top of a sixty-foot-high wall was safe. The rail broke in his hand. These are good stories, told snappily enough for Johnny Carson to laugh at them before the commercials. But between those two incidents came the period when Guinness helped raise Ealing to the status of a national cinema — and, by no coincidence, to the only international acceptance which the British film industry has ever consistently enjoyed. Before Ealing, the versatility Guinness had shown in the two David Lean Dickens films, Oliver Twist (as Fagin) and Great Expectations (as Herbert Pocket), had seemingly doomed him to the list of featured players. It took Michael Balcon to see that a character actor of sufficiently protean powers could be a leading man.

But didn’t it also take Guinness to see it? If so, the ambitious planning that went into his unique coup is not remembered here. And it was such a bold venture. Guinness was not the leading man of Kind Hearts: Dennis Price ably filled that role. Guinness, however, without unbalancing a perfectly judged film, stole the notices: His multiple appearances were something new then, and still are now, because later attempts (most notably by Peter Sellers) to play several characters in one movie were invariably dogged by the actor’s urge to step out of each role in order to demonstrate that it was he who was playing it. (Only in The Wrong Arm of the Law, where Sellers, firmly controlled by the director and well served by the script, was playing a character who was playing a dual role, did he manage to rein himself in.) Guinness had the self-assurance to leave himself out of it. None of his eight characterisations in Kind Hearts required more than an eighth of his technical resources, but virtuosity was not the point. Mutability was. He never stepped out of any of the eight roles even for a moment. As a character actor he had established the terms in which he would become a star: a multiple man, who didn’t just change his tricks for a role, but changed his personality.

Guinness was at his most powerful when pretending to be someone pretending to be someone. The Lavender Hill Mob, The Man in the White Suit, The Card (called The Promoter in the US), The Captain’s Paradise and The Ladykillers all comically star him as someone forced, by either external circumstances or internal necessity, to act out a new personality. Sartre in his little book L’Existentialisme had held that we must remake our personalities every day. Existentialist philosophers had already noted that the actor was merely the most salient exemplar of a universal human requirement. They might have been thinking of Alec Guinness, who incarnated the notion in its most pure form, carrying nothing from one role to the next except his unfettered ability to play them. Hardly any face, hardly any voice.

Or, rather, the ideal voice, through which the English language speaks itself, with no interference. Sellers, mimicking Guinness in a Spike Milligan sketch called ‘Bridge on the River Wye’, found one or two mannerisms to emulate, but on the whole Guinness doesn’t do anything to a line except say it correctly. Olivier articulates energetically like a man whose mouth has grown younger during the night; Gielgud can never do less than a Chaliapin mezza voce; Richardson put the emphasis on the wrong syllable to remind you that syllables were what words were made of. Guinness just spoke English, which made him, later on, a natural first choice for a Roman Empire patrician, an old-school Red Army General Staff officer, or a Jedi Knight emeritus in huge movies made with American money. Americans would like to believe that the upper brackets of any country, time or planet speak English. But they would also like to believe, against their democratic convictions, that the English spoken is English English. The Romans felt the same way about Greek.

Guinness spoke English English in his transitional film, The Swan (1956). Ealing comedy was left behind. Big American pictures were in view. He was on the threshold of international screen superstardom. But in conventional terms it never quite happened, and The Swan tells you why it never could have. All he had to be was Molnár’s wastrel Ruritanian prince with whom Grace Kelly declines to contract a dynastic marriage because she is in love with Louis Jourdan. But Guinness made the part too interesting. He raised questions about the prince’s identity when the prince’s identity was not supposed to be in question. Dramatic films made during the Ealing period — The Malta Story is a notorious case in point — had already suggested that Guinness could not be an ordinary leading man. Torn loose from the Ealing setting, where he had been an extraordinary leading man, he had to become once again a character actor, although an extraordinary character actor, and on the grand scale. Everyone remembers him as the star of The Bridge on the River Kwai. But William Holden was the star, and Guinness merely shared with Sessue Hayakawa the job of adding distinction to a hollow picture. In the floating world of international film-making as understood by Sam Spiegel and David Lean, the precise social notation of Guinness’s Englishness would be decorative but rootless, like a water lily.

A reduced weight of responsibility might have been welcome. When he did carry the whole picture, and the picture flopped, he must have taken it to heart, because looking back he only too readily concurs with the critical consensus. He makes disparaging remarks about his performance in Our Man in Havana, for instance, and seems to think that the film deserved its failure. But Our Man in Havana delighted many people at the time, and in retrospect is one of the richest films of Guinness’s later career. He is no doubt right to place more emphasis on The Horse’s Mouth, for which he wrote the screenplay. But as Gulley Jimson he was stuck with the task of acting out the standard English eccentric, whose painterly genius the audience had to take on trust. As Jim Wormald in Our Man in Havana, the ordinary man pretending to be a spy — pretending to be a man pretending to be ordinary — he was in his element.

In Britain, where television is strong — mainly because the film industry is so weak — it is no decline for a star to work out his time on the smaller screen. The two John Le Carré adaptations in which Guinness has starred for the BBC, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, have been hailed as British TV at its most distinguished. My own view is that they have so much distinction they can hardly breathe. Their stately progress is a snail’s pace. Guinness had done better: the script gives him so little to go on that for once in his life he looks guilty of Great Acting. But if Guinness’s George Smiley is not, for him, good acting, it is certainly good casting. As Le Carrés unfathomable spook, who looks unfathomable even when there is nothing in particular to be unfathomable about, he attains the emblematic summation of what he has always been up to.

Why the British spy should have such a reputation in the world is a separate question. Perhaps there is a widespread belief that the country has only pretended to decline, or else that there is some secret life which a decaying surface leaves untouched. Secret intelligence. Guinness has always embodied that, and it could be said that deciding to keep himself secret was the most intelligent thing he ever did. If so, this book is in keeping with his deep-laid plan. He purports to overcome his reticence, reinforces it while doing so, and goes on cherishing the enigma of which his performances are the variations.

New York Review of Books, 27 March, 1986