Commentary Magazine

Alec Guinness, the Great Little Briton

When Alec Guinness died in 2000, obituary writers around the world mourned the passing of a beloved artist, one of the last survivors of the great generation of British actors born between the death of Queen Victoria and the coming of World War I. He had launched his career by sharing the stage with John Gielgud and ended it by playing Obi-Wan Kenobi on the screen and George Smiley, John le Carré’s enigmatic spymaster, on TV. In between he won a best-actor Oscar and made a string of screen comedies that Time praised as the work of “one of the most subtle and profound of all the clowns since Chaplin.”

To this day, Guinness continues to be spoken of in the same breath with Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, and Ralph Richardson, and rightly so. Yet Guinness was reluctant to rank himself alongside his fellow theatrical knights, and the tributes that followed his death suggest why. Especially in this country, his obituaries had surprisingly little to say to say about his long stage career, instead stressing his work in motion pictures. The New York Times led its front-page death notice by declaring that he was “known to older audiences for films like The Bridge on the River Kwai and to a whole new generation for his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.” This emphasis is understandable, since he appeared on Broadway only three times—but even in England, where Guinness performed on stage with fair regularity for six decades, he came to be known mainly as a film actor, thus causing cognoscenti of the theater to look askance at his talents.

Guinness was also widely thought to be a star in spite of himself, an overachieving character actor who lacked Gielgud’s elegance, Olivier’s panache, and Richardson’s eccentricity. The 1958 cover story in which Time praised his comic genius bore the backhanded title of “Least Likely to Succeed,” a judgment with which Guinness seemed at times to concur. “Essentially I’m a small-part actor who’s been lucky enough to play leading roles for most of his life,” he once said. He didn’t even look like a star, least of all a movie star: He was bald and dumpy, with nondescript features and a beautifully modulated but quiet voice, and he had no sex appeal whatsoever. Everyone who wrote about him made a point of praising his ability to vanish into the parts he played. Ronald Neame, who directed him in The Horse’s Mouth (1958) and Tunes of Glory (1960), claimed that Guinness was “like a chameleon—he became the character he was playing.”

But Guinness never really disappeared beneath the surfaces of his deceptively soft-spoken roles, and his personality, far from being chameleon-like, was so quintessentially English as to approach the archetypal. He was, in fact, far more English than most of his admirers realized—if not in the way he seemed to be. In private life, he played the polished part of an upper-middle-class Briton who had the inexplicable ability to portray such downtrodden creatures as the larcenous bank clerk of The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), one of the classic comedies that made him famous. In reality, though, Alec Guinness was the bastard son of a barmaid who took up acting in order to escape a fate not unlike that of the nondescript bank clerk, and to the end of his life he would find it difficult to settle into the preternaturally urbane persona that he constructed for himself.

It was the self-evident uneasiness in his own skin that helped to make Guinness more than just an uncommonly gifted actor. The characters he played came over time to be seen as symbols of England’s own postwar uncertainties. “A parody of Britain in its subsidence”—that was how Alexander Mackendrick, the director of The Ladykillers (1955), the most brilliant of Guinness’s cinematic comic turns, described the film, which is set in a decaying railway town redolent of England’s postwar austerity. So, too, were Guinness’s characters sharply drawn parodies of a fearful middle class that continued to cling to the empty shell of manners in order to ward off its final demise.


Even as a boy, Guinness understood what it meant to live on thin social ice. In 1986 he published Blessings in Disguise, a stylish but evasive memoir in which he publicly acknowledged for the first time the unhappy circumstances of his birth.1 Though he never knew for sure who his father was, Guinness appears to have been the issue of a Scottish banker who paid for his education at a minor public school but had no other contact with the boy. His mother was later briefly married to another man, but Guinness was shamed by his illegitimacy, and once he reached adulthood he stayed as far away as possible from his mother, whose drinking and lower-middle-class manners mortified him.

Like many people who find their real lives unsatisfactory, Guinness became stagestruck as a boy, and in 1933 he quit his job as an apprentice copywriter to study acting. The following year John Gielgud hired him to play two small parts in the older actor’s now-legendary production of Hamlet. Guinness soon became known for his vivid portrayals of character roles, and though he longed to move into starring parts, the notoriously tactless Gielgud advised him to “stick to those funny little men you do so well instead of trying to be important.” It was a prescient piece of advice, for Guinness’s subsequent attempts to play Hamlet and Romeo failed to find critical favor.2

Guinness joined the Royal Naval Reserve in 1941 and commanded a landing craft in the invasion of Sicily. After the war he resumed his acting career, and in 1946 he was cast as the good-natured Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s film version of Great Expectations. Though he continued to perform in the theater, it was immediately apparent that his subtle style meshed well with the needs of the screen, and for the next quarter-century he usually made one or two movies each year.

The third of these films was Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), a black comedy about a man who murders eight relatives standing between him and a dukedom. Guinness played all eight of the D’Ascoynes, one of them a woman. It was a virtuosic tour de force that immediately established him as a comic actor of the first rank. Over the next few years he appeared in several more equally imaginative low-budget comedies produced by the Ealing Studios. Though these films were aimed at English audiences, they proved to be unexpectedly successful in the U.S. as well.


The “Ealing comedies” (as they are now collectively known) set the stage for Guinness’s career-clinching appearance in Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), in which he played an emotionally inhibited British army officer interned in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Appearing opposite William Holden, then Hollywood’s most popular leading man, Guinness gave an indelible performance that won him a well-deserved Academy Award.

Time’s cover story claimed that The Bridge on the River Kwai had “revealed Guinness as a dramatic actor of imposing skill and large imagination.” In truth, however, his performance was of a piece with his work in the Ealing comedies. The drama critic Kenneth Tynan, one of his most perceptive admirers, wrote that “the people Guinness plays best are all iceberg characters, nine-tenths concealed.” To put it another way, they were men who were not what they seemed to be—and who, like Colonel Nicholson, often did not know what they really were.

Nicholson, for instance, is a stiff-upper-lipped Army officer whose iron determination not to yield to his captors on a seemingly trivial point of honor is presented as heroic. But it emerges that his rigid conception of “honor” also encompasses forcing his men to go far out of their way to help their captors build a bridge that will aid the Japanese war effort. By film’s end we realize that the message of The Bridge on the River Kwai is that the colonel’s values—and, by extension, those of the middle class from which he hails—are absurd.

Much the same thing happens in the Ealing comedies, only transposed into explicitly comic terms. In The Lavender Hill Mob, Guinness’s character ekes out a shabby, unpromising existence that is his “reward” for a lifetime of dedicated service to his employers. In The Man in the White Suit (1951), he plays an unworldly chemist who invents an indestructible fabric, then learns that the owners of the textile mill that employs him—and the bosses of the union that represents the plant’s workers—would rather suppress his invention than run the risk of destroying their business by marketing his miracle cloth. In The Ladykillers, he plays an effete “professor” who has turned to crime and whose gang consists of a quartet of thugs with whom he would never dream of fraternizing after hours.

What these characters have in common is that they cannot find their way in a world that no longer plays by the once-accepted rules of the society into which they were born. Their uncertainty mirrored the cultural confusion of postwar Britain. With the coming of socialism, the English middle class felt itself under siege. The certitudes by which it had lived were being challenged from all sides. Small wonder, then, that it embraced Guinness, whose movies made sharp-witted but ultimately unthreatening fun of the dislocation they feared.


The richly layered complexities of Guinness’s char- acterizations were rooted in the parallel complexities of his own psyche. “One became an actor,” he said, “to escape from oneself.” He had much to escape from. Widely thought by his friends to be bisexual, he nonetheless married an upper-middle-class countrywoman, fathered a son, converted in 1954 to Catholicism, and embraced a way of life—and an accompanying set of manners—alien to the sordidness of his youthful experience.

Beneath the iceberg of his hauteur, he remained an anxious, uncertain man obsessed to the point of mania with keeping up the appearances he thought proper to his new state of life. In his acting, by contrast, he drew on his own anxieties to create “funny little men” who, like him, were living lives of self-constructed pretense, and it was his particular gift to be able to play their fears for laughs. Professor Marcus of The Ladykillers is the zaniest of these clowns, a creature of contrived gentility whose every gesture is palpably, gloriously phony. Henry Holland of The Lavender Hill Mob, on the other hand, is the most sympathetic of Guinness’s characters of the 50s, a bowler-hatted nonentity whose thwarted longing for a larger life is pathetically obvious—thus making the glee with which he breaks out of his shell of middle-class modesty all the more satisfying.

For all his gifts, Guinness was limited in range. As Gielgud had seen early on, he was incapable of playing larger-than-life men who dominate their surroundings by sheer force of personality. This was why he had so little success playing Shakespearean heroes on stage—and, conversely, why he took so easily to screen acting, which lends itself to finely detailed portrayals that often fail to register in a theater.3

The commercial success of The Bridge on the River Kwai briefly put him in a position to move beyond his natural compass. In The Horse’s Mouth, adapted by Guinness himself from Joyce Cary’s novel, he is cast against type as an amoral, sexually rapacious artist, and his performance, though full of arresting touches, mostly feels forced. In Tunes of Glory, by contrast, he drew on his military experience to portray a coarse, blustering Scottish Army officer altogether unlike Colonel Nicholson, and while it is hard to shake off the feeling that he is playing a part that is (so to speak) a size too large for him, his “stagy” performance is impressive all the same.

Alas, Guinness never again took on a starring role in a first-rate film, and his career entered the doldrums. “I might never have been heard of again if it hadn’t been for Star Wars,” he later said with pardonable exaggeration. Though there was nothing challenging about the smallish part of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the Jedi knight who teaches Luke Skywalker how to harness “the Force” and save the universe, it introduced Guinness to younger filmgoers, in the process making him a wealthy man.4.”

After Star Wars and its profitable sequels, Guinness all but gave up stage acting and appeared in only a handful of films (including a justly celebrated pair of TV miniseries, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, based on the spy novels of John le Carré). Instead, he took up writing, publishing Blessings in Disguise and an attractive pair of diary-like volumes of reminiscence, My Name Escapes Me (1997) and A Positively Final Appearance (1999), that revealed a natural prose stylist with an impressively wide range of cultural interests.

Guinness describes himself on the first page of Blessings in Disguise as “not in the same class as Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud or the other greats.” This stark self-appraisal appears to have been seriously intended, and up to a point it is fair—if he is to be judged solely by the rarefied standards of classical acting, with its necessary emphasis on the ability to project one’s personality all the way to the last row of the top balcony of a mammoth theater.


But there are other yard-sticks with which an actor’s stature may be measured, some of which have assumed greater significance now that film and TV have replaced the stage as the dominant theatrical media of our time. Guinness is already far better remembered by the public at large than Gielgud or Richardson, neither of whom ever seemed to take film acting quite seriously. And his best film performances are far better suited to the medium than those of Olivier, who found it hard to scale down his acting to fit the naturalistic requirements of the screen. Even more important, Guinness had the good fortune to appear in a series of roles that allowed him to embody a pivotal moment in British history, a task for which his unique talents had equipped him to perfection.

As Kenneth Tynan observed:

In the Ealing pictures there is no hero in the generally accepted sense of the word, but only a whimsical hero-impersonator. . . . We see little of the boudoir, the bagnio or the American bar, and much of the police force, the Civil Service, and the small shopkeeper—strata of society to which Guinness is easily adaptable.

The absence of heroes from the Ealing comedies (and from The Bridge on the River Kwai) was what made them so culturally significant, just as Guinness himself was to become the comic bard of British decline, a symbol of his country’s collective loss of heroic will. The England he lived to see was almost unrecognizably different from the one he knew as a boy, a much-diminished appendage of Europe that had long since relinquished its place among the great nations of the world. It is characteristic of such transformations that the Ealing comedies should have portrayed England’s long slide into irrelevance with a deft wit that has not yet lost its power to charm, irony being the last resort of a demoralized people who prefer to deprecate the value of that which they have irretrievably lost.

And what of Alec Guinness? It is a far more pleasing irony that an emotionally cramped man who lacked the self-confidence needed to fully inhabit the great Shakespearean roles that he longed to play should instead have written himself into the history of British film by playing charming buffoons. Yet it says at least as much about modern-day England—the England whose subsidence, as Alexander Mackendrick put it, is surely now all but complete—that the ignominious fates of the characters that Guinness played in his finest films should have foreshadowed the decidedly unfunny destiny of the once-great land that spawned them.


1He is also the subject of Piers Paul Read’s Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography (2005), on which I have drawn in writing this essay.

2Unlike Gielgud and Olivier, Guinness never filmed any of his classical roles, though the 1955 film version of The Prisoner, a play by Bridget Boland in which he plays a Soviet-bloc priest (loosely modeled on Cardinal Mindszenty, the Hungarian prelate) who is imprisoned and tortured by his Communist captors, suggests something of his stage presence.

3It is fascinating to learn that David Lean was initially unenthusiastic about casting Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai for precisely this reason. “I don’t think he will give us the ‘size’ we need,” he told a colleague.

4Always a shrewd businessman, Guinness agreed to appear in Star Wars in return for a 2 percent share of the film’s gross receipts.

About the Author

Terry Teachout is COMMENTARY’s critic-at-large and the drama critic of the Wall Street JournalSatchmo at the Waldorf, his first play, runs through November 4 at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut.

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