Daily | Alec Guinness 100

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness in 1951

Alec Guinness, who died in the summer of 2000, would have turned 100 on April 2. “Late but loyal,” as Anthony Lane puts it in the New Yorker, Film Forum is running a centenary tribute from today through July 3. The Voice‘s Stephanie Zacharek notes that “all of the usual suspects” are here, the Ealing comedies, the six films Guinness made with David Lean—and the series’ opener, Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949).

In the L, Aaron Cutler points out that “Guinness initially received an offer to play four roles in Kind Hearts, and then, delighted with Hamer’s screenplay, asked if he could play eight. The 35-year-old British actor (still fairly new to films) transformed himself for the Ealing Studios comedy into an octet of haughty members of the aristocratic D’Ascoyne clan… He drew on influences including Stan Laurel and zoo animals for his performances in Kind Hearts and in subsequent wonderful films like The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit, both released in 1951, the year that British film exhibitors ranked Guinness as England’s most popular star.”

“If at all possible,” writes Zacharek, “I urge you to see Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Great Expectations (June 15 and 19) on the big screen. That way you can behold, blown up larger than life, one of the most exuberant entrances in all of film history, an instance of an extraordinary performer being introduced to the world.” She also highlights “the discreetly audacious 1953 comedy” The Captain’s Paradise and Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (1958).

Anthony Lane: “Alone among the great performers, he resolved a paradox: how to be a star without being the center of attention—or, at least, while giving no sign that you crave such a prominent spot…. Embedded in the retrospective are semiprecious gems: The Mudlark (1950), in which Guinness, relishing the role of Disraeli, holds the House of Commons in his practiced palm, and The Scapegoat (1959), adapted by Gore Vidal from a Daphne du Maurier story…. Gather all the trades and talents that he displayed onscreen, and you end up with the most curious of amalgams: prince, priest, bank clerk, shrink, dictator, Jedi, vacuum-cleaner salesman, thinker, sailor, soldier, spy.”

“Guinness seemingly never appreciated much of his finest work,” notes Tom Teodorczuk at the Daily Beast. “He frequently fell out with David Lean, and Piers Paul Read tells me, ‘He played down his roles in the Ealing comedies. He appeared unable to see that they displayed his genius quite as much as the “heavier” roles he was proud of in Bridge on the River Kwai, Tunes of Glory and even Hitler.’ Read adds his private torment perversely benefited his artistic attributes: ‘I suspect that the air of mystery—the enigmatic smile—which audiences found so appealing had something to do with his desire to conceal his homosexuality and also the dramatic struggle between his libido and his beliefs.'” Still: “Gore Vidal, who scripted The Scapegoat, a preposterous 1959 murder yarn that would collapse were it not for Guinness’s compelling performance, observed of his leading man: “He is always a joy, the intelligence acute, malice serene, sense of absurdity alert.'”

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