If great actors can be defined by anything, it is their lack of definition. It is this lack of a distinct self, of course, that enables them to slip in and out of character, to remain a stranger even to their closest friends, and to cheat without remorse on their spouses. According to Garry O’Connor’s fine new biography, Sir Alec Guinness was not only no exception to this generalization, he was its very embodiment.
According to the author, Guinness was a lonely boy wrapped within an enigma buried deep inside a chameleon. No actor was ever happier to be celebrated for his invisibility. This naturally makes the job of his biographer more than a little difficult. O’Connor sidesteps the problem by relishing the knowable. His book is a detailed examination of Guinness’s long theatre and film career, filled with amusing anecdotes and quotations, and plenty of delicious gossip.
The cast of supporting characters includes Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson, of course, as well as David Lean, Alan Bennett, and T.S. Eliot. When the reader puts down the book, he knows little more about Guinness’s inner life than, say, his wife of 60 years did, which is to say, almost nothing. Like her, we aren’t even sure of the great man’s sexual preference. His secrets have remained secret.
We have been taken, however, on a wonderful journey through the golden age of British theatre and film, and grown, perhaps, quite fond of the outer Guinness — a gentleman of considerable intelligence and charm, and no small measure of genius.