Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Happy Birthday, Alec Guinness!

Like many people, I was introduced to Sir Alec Guinness de Cuffe (1914-2000) the first time I watched Star Wars. The bearded and wise Obi-wan Kenobi lent the films a certain grace and gravitas that made him my favorite character in the series. But not until I spotted Guinness years later in a small role in David Lean's 1946 interpretation of Great Expectations did I begin to understand what a long and important career he had in the movies.

Since then I have watched nearly every film in his oeuvre. What I love about Alec is his ability to make himself almost unrecognizable from one film to the next. While many actors achieve greatness by leaving a sort of personal signature on a film, a la John Wayne, Alec seemed to enjoy disappearing into his roles, never allowing the actor to overshadow the film and never settling for formula. This to me is the mark of an artist, and what makes him the consummate actor, if not an icon. Perhaps it also explains why, aside from his Jedi Knight, such a vast body of work is largely ignored today. What a shame.

Here are just a few of his essential, non-Star Wars films:

Kind Hearts and Coronets. Guinness plays no less than eight members of the D'Ascoyne family, including a woman, in what I consider the greatest film comedy ever scripted in the English language. This would be the first of many films that Alec made at the celebrated Ealing Studios.

The Lavender Hill Mob. Another Ealing product, Alec is a genial bank employee with a master plan in this classic caper, an examination of the drudgery of everyday life. Look for a young Audrey Hepburn's cameo.

The Man in the White Suit. Alec plays an inventor who discovers a fabric that cannot stain and gets a lesson on the hysteria that technology can cause.

The Ladykillers. Forget the Tom Hanks remake. The Ladykillers is a dark comedy for the ages. Four hardened criminals meet their match against a dotty old lady. This Ealing masterpiece also stars a young Peter Sellers.

The Bridge on the River Kwai. Teamed again with David Lean and starring opposite the great William Holden, Alec takes a dramatic turn as the obsessive Colonel Nicholson and wins an Oscar for the effort. River Kwai is a film to rival any ever made.

The Horse's Mouth. Guinness wrote the screenplay for this obscure gem, and his portrayal of artist Gulley Jimson highlights how hard the actor worked to avoid being formulaic. One of his least subtle and most memorable performances.

Tunes of Glory. Alec plays brutish, boorish, Scottish Colonel Jock Sinclair, who has a grand time swilling whiskey and torturing his disciplined counterpart, Colonel Barrow. A fascinating look at Scottish military tradition.

Lawrence of Arabia. The film belongs to Peter O'Toole, but Alec was a deft character actor too. He had mixed results playing characters of different ethnic backgrounds (he once did a ludicrous turn as a Japanese businessman), but with David Lean he was never anything but spot on. Here he plays Prince Feisal in Lean's epic tour de force.

Edwin. Star Wars made Guinness a rich man, and afterwards he was able to work at his own pace, choosing the parts that appealed to him. This surreal made-for-TV comedy highlights how he never lost the comic touch that made him a star.

Monsignor Quixote. Another made-for-TV gem, this modern day Don Quixote adventure features perfect chemistry between Alec and his own Sancho Panza, Leo McKern.

About Star Wars Alec was always ambivalent. While he acknowledged that he might have been forgotten if not for the series, he abhorred the dialogue and seemed somewhat resentful that he should be remembered for what really amounted to a fragment of a distinguished career. After all, Obi-wan Kenobi tried to make an icon out of Alec, a status he spent a lifetime undermining.

Happy 94th, Alec.


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