New biography reveals a tortured soul and an actor who held back
Talent is a deep mystery, but in Guinness’ case, the secret of his celebrated range is
exposed in Piers Paul Read’s “Alec Guinness,” one of the best actor’s biographies ever written. Read gives a full, rich portrait of the man’s long, teemingly busy life and, given the vast biographical materials, makes convincing, never over-weaning, psychological deductions which reveal his complex inner life. Authorized by Guinness’ family and given full access to the man’s journals and papers, Read makes it clearly evident that Guinness’ chameleonic gift at submerging himself under the skin of diverse personalities was nothing less than an essential survival tactic for him.
Guinness, the sagely omniscient Obi-Wan Kenobi of “Star Wars,” loathed himself and had much to conceal through his acting. To begin with, he was illegitimate, the son of an alcoholic, ever-in-trouble mother he despised, who never told him his father’s true identity. He had serious lifelong doubts about his own talent, once writing, “I think I’m past acting. My fly-away talent has dropped from the nest and is now just a bundle of twigs and dried feathers and no song sings.”
His early idol and mentor, John Gielgud, stamped his psyche forever with the observation that he couldn’t understand why Guinness wanted to play the great roles, as in Shakespeare, when he was obviously much more suited to “little” character parts. Guinness even had doubts about the profession of acting, itself: “It’s a foolish profession. Fun for the young, rewarding, if successful, for the middle-aged, and embarrassing for the old.”
But the book’s most valuable revelation comes when Read writes: “Alec could never escape the contradiction between his disordered passions and his self-image as someone sage and devout.” Guinness was a closeted homosexual for his entire life. In late middle age, during a pre-London tour of a play, Guinness was given a young dresser whom he befriended, taking him to supper at posh restaurants. During his London run, the dresser gave notice, reporting that he had gone home with Guinness who, in the course of giving him a massage, sexually assaulted him. In the diary which Guinness kept, he makes several references to the young man but, as regards his leaving, only referred to it in a letter to a friend, in which he said the man had “suicidal tendencies.” This young man was but one of others whom Guinness took up in a similar fashion, sometimes with more success.
Guinness’ views were of course, largely influenced by the times he was living in; homosexuality was a criminal offense in Britain. After Gielgud’s 1953 arrest in a public lavatory for “importuning,” the Wolfenden Report was established, which set into motion a recommendation that homosexual behavior between consenting adults in private no longer be criminalized. But Guinness’ desire to conceal his true nature, learned early, continued until his death.
Visits to London’s Turkish baths provided some sexual, if clandestine, relief, as did the occasional street encounter, though many of them went unconsummated. “A youth (18-19) made an advance to me while changing trains at Haslemere. Astonished––and pretended I hadn’t noticed. Such a thing can’t have happened to me for 30 odd years,” Guinness wrote at the age of 67.
Playing a large part in all of this, doubtlessly, was Guinness’ lifelong fascination with Catholicism, which he described in regimental terms: “The crack one––the Roman one––has expensive uniforms which I can’t afford––but which I think I ought to belong to but can’t quite manage––the other one [the Church of England], which I have loved, seems to have lost its colonel or something and although full of wise and good nice and friendly men––well, it’s a bit of a rabble.”
After strenuous study and counsel, he converted, and clung to his new religion, feeling that prayer and repentance could, if not cure, then control his desires: “I went to confession to Fr. Murtagh… had a sleep plagued by lascivious thoughts.” Even at age 82, he wrote, “My mind plagued by very unwanted lascivious thoughts––first time for about three years. Why? Can’t account for it.”
Converted prior to the Vatican Council, Guinness remained a loyal Catholic, even in the wake its reforms which brought an emphasis more communal, less individualistic and liturgical changes that distressed him. He did not proselytize among his friends, but was deeply gratified when chums like Edward Herrmann and Jean Marsh converted, and there is a rather touching encounter with him visiting Laurence Olivier in the hospital, who cries, “Help me! Help me! I want to become a Catholic.” Still, he would later write, Today is the 34th anniversary of my reconciliation with the Church. Nothing, alas, to show for it. Except some Catholic friends.”
Through all of this, his wife Merula remained faithful, although she once shocked a friend in his presence by announcing that she thought homosexuals were treacherous. Guinness merely shrugged his shoulders behind her back. She married Guinness in 1938 and gave up a promising acting career to become his lifelong companion and chief bottle-washer. Their relationship was evidently passionate in its early years and during the war (in which Guinness was a proud lieutenant), resulting in the birth of their only child, Matthew.
Yet she also bore the brunt of Guinness’ irritable personality and often condescending treatment. Still, Merula always professed to be happy with her choice. As a father, Guinness seems to have been as much of a martinet as some of the military characters he played––such as his Oscar-winning Colonel Nicholson in “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and Lieutenant Sinclair in “Tunes of Glory”. When Matthew, not the best student, was offered a scholarship to Oxford on the strength of his football skills, Guinness refused to allow him to take it, as it would have deprived a more worthy scholastic applicant.
But, for all his religion and family life, Guinness’ tortured fascination with homosexuality continued, especially in his reading. Of Jean Genet’s “Thief’s Journal,” he wrote, “too sad & unwitty a book. But elements of truth shine through it. But not good for me,” and, regarding Alan Hollinghurst’s “The Swimming Pool Library,” which was published when he was 74 and which he actually burned: “Have decided to get rid [of it]––too unsuitable. Well written but unhealthy and not a book to leave around.”
However, even his careful subterfuge could sometimes backfire, as when he took his wife and neighbors, the Ronald Harwoods, to Lindsay Kemp’s homoerotic ballet “Flowers,” which he saw six times. Harwood recalled that the curtain went up on eight masturbating men: “[Alec] was so embarrassed––he’d forgotten quite what it was he’d enjoyed… It was very embarrassing. There he was with his old married neighbors and wife. He hadn’t thought it through. Wrong casting.”
Although Guinness had many gay friends––director Peter Glenville, actors Keith Baxter, Gordon Jackson, and Peter Bull––and was fully accepting of them, he disapproved of “vociferous ‘Gay’ groups” and especially of Ian McKellan, “who has become as aggressive and militant as Vanessa Redgrave––seeking (nobly, no doubt) assistance for AIDS victims but also marching hundreds of gays down Whitehall…flaunting homosexual causes. Very tiresome and it is bound to create a horrid backlash… BBC announced they were giving a £75 ‘wedding’ gift and a week’s ‘honeymoon’ holiday to each of their homosexual staff. Madness.”
Guinness’ closetedness could also affect his acting, even when, in his later career, he wished to push the creative envelope by appearing in more daring works. Playwright Simon Gray, who wrote “Wise Child,” in which Guinness played a criminal disguised in drag who hides out in a homosexual-run boarding house, recalled that the actor ignored his scripted direction that he embrace another male character at the first act curtain, instead just giving the other actor a shocked, disgusted look. The gay director John Dexter refused to remind Guinness of this and, when Gray, himself, told Guinness about this, he was subsequently told, “Alec thinks it would be better if you left rehearsals.” Gray ran into Guinness on the street a few years before he died: “I didn’t recognize [him]… His face was terrible. He looked as if every sin he had ever dreamed of committing was expressed there in his face.”
Though Guinness was the nearest contender to share the lofty acting crown with the era’s preeminent Player Kings, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, looking over his vast screen career, it becomes apparent that he was, indeed, more of a character man than a true lead. Due, perhaps, to his closeted sexual nature and a natural personal reticence, he was never convincing as a passionate lover of his female co-stars, something which weakened many of his films. Even in non-romantic parts, real, elemental emotions eluded him, which keep audiences from being stirred by him, as they so often are by Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson. In “The Man in the White Suit,” Guinness gives an immaculate comic performance, but much of his work is either underplayed to a negligible fault (his celebrated “The Lavender Hill Mob”), tiresomely stiff-upper-lip clichéd (“Kwai,” “Tunes of Glory,” “Damn the Defiant”) or cartoonishly overdrawn (even that “Kind Hearts and Coronets” triumph seems a case of a collection of facilely drawn cameos, none of which could sustain anything more than their brief screen time).
Guinness ran into major accusations of anti-Semitism with his Fagin in “Oliver Twist,” with even David O. Selznick violently accosting him at a Hollywood party over this. Although he and director David Lean vociferously denied any such intentions, the film was not only cut, but had its U.S. release delayed for three years. Seen today, the spectacle of Guinness’ enormously unreal Toucan nose and mincing Yiddish mannerisms are undeniably offensive and overdrawn.
Ironically, Guinness was cinematically most effective in a film that he largely disdained––a little number called “Star Wars.” For once, his presence had a real weight and passionate authority, all the more welcome in the midst of that film’s comic strip antics. He became a wealthy man from the two percent of the producer’s profit he signed on with, but wrote, “Can’t say I’m enjoying the film. New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day… I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread… work with Tennyson (that can’t be right) Ford. Ellison (?––No!)––well, a rangy, languid young man who is probably intelligent and amusing––Oh, Harrison Ford – ever heard of him?”
Apart from the money, Guinness regretted getting involved in the film––“it’s not an acting job, the dialogue, which is lamentable, keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young.” He changed his tune when the film opened to ravenous success and, especially when, in an unprecedented move of graciousness, George Lucas offered to up his percentage to two and a half per cent. His home became filled with unopened stacks of Star Wars fan mail over the years, and he eventually wrote in 1997, “Oh. I’m sick of that film and all the hype.”
COURTESY SIMON & SCHUSTER
A self-portrait in doodle of Alec Guinness appears in Piers Paul Read’s new biography of the late, closeted British actor.