There are two kinds of actors: those who dissolve into their parts and are always different, and those so charming and fascinating that we relish their underlying sameness no matter the role. The latter are usually stars, and sniffed at by some; yet when they are John Gielgud or Cary Grant, where’s the harm? For those who prefer the actor as magician, chameleon, and master of disguises, no one has proved more satisfying than Sir Alec Guinness, who just died at age 86.
One must resist the temptation of calling anyone the last this or last that; history – whether of theater, of film, or of the world – is far too cyclical for lasts. Still, with the passing of Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, and Alec Guinness, some sort of era seems to have ended. If actors were onions, the core of Richardson would have been shrewd common sense; of Redgrave, quirkiness and neurosis; of Olivier, romantic dash; of Gielgud, exquisite lyricism; of Guinness, all-encompassing humanity. I dare not pronounce any one of those vanished five the best, but the ecumenical Guinness strikes me as the center of the quincunx.
His career inscribes itself between two utterances of Gielgud’s. Sir John had seen young Alec as a drama student, and in 1934 gave the 20-year-old his first real part, as Osric in the all-star Hamlet he was directing and starring in. After a week, the disgruntled Gielgud told Guinness to “go learn how to act” and “come back in a week.” The youth moped for a week and returned. “I could swear I wasn’t doing anything differently … but, suddenly, Gielgud … heaped praise on my Osric.” Many years later, considering a television role in Graham Greene’s The Potting Shed, Gielgud remarked, “The actor who plays the priest is bound to walk off with the play. I would not mind Alec doing that, but I was hanged if I’d let anyone else do it.”
Older Americans remember Guinness best from the movie Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played eight parts, including a female one, to equal but different perfection. Younger Americans know him chiefly as Star Wars’ Obi-Wan Kenobi, a reputation that made him uneasy. He hated typecasting even in life, let alone onstage. He was a devout convert to Catholicism, a happy and faithful husband to his Merula for 62 years, a worthy officer in the Royal Navy during World War II. Also a gracious host in his and Merula’s country house, their permanent home; the author of three fine memoirs; and a lover of nature in all her minutiae. Further, a mixer of lethal cocktails, passionate friend of dogs and other animals, and classical-music enthusiast. He had an impish sense of humor, was kind even to critics, and carried Proust’s great novel around with him through his war service.
He was adept at the most diverse, indeed antithetical, roles. Who else could have played successfully Freud, Fagin, and Hitler; the good-naturedly flighty Mr. Pocket in Great Expectations; and the humorless but stalwart officer, wartime prisoner of the Japanese, in The Bridge on the River Kwai? Or, to cite three of his Broadway roles, the canny psychiatrist in Eliot’s The Cocktail Party, the enigmatic Lawrence of Arabia in Rattigan’s Ross, and the dissolute poet Dylan Thomas (of whom he disapproved) in Sidney Michaels’s Dylan?
As a writer, he was the master of pithily penetrant description. On a March morning, “little blue scillas were shaking violently in the cold wind, making the borders of garden paths look like running water.” Or: “Nancy Cunard’s long, long elegant feet in the painting by Alvaro Guevara, 1919, look like Transatlantic liners.”
Guinness was also a master of what is hardest for a performer – letting go. As his colleague and friend Keith Baxter wrote me this April, “Alec G. says, ‘I don’t know why John Gielgud wants to work at 96. I’m 85, and will not work again.’ ” Here is how he described contentment: “A summer weekend in Hampshire with agreeable guests, sitting around the patio for lunch and then dinner with a game of croquet in between somewhere. Come dark on a warm night … listening to music, star-gazing, sipping something … These days it will be Haydn. He’s so kind of sane that it makes one feel sane, however mad one is – and happy.”