Alec Guinness

Piers Paul Read's authorized biography of Alec Guinness begins provocatively with the actor's statement, "My mother was a whore." Read shows how lifelong bitterness at his illegitimate birth in 1914 left the actor with a permanent sense of depression and insecurity. He effectively analyzes the inner drive that helped Guinness to conquer crippling personal problems and fulfill his talent.

Piers Paul Read’s authorized biography of Alec Guinness begins provocatively with the actor’s statement, “My mother was a whore.” Read shows how lifelong bitterness at his illegitimate birth in 1914 left the actor with a permanent sense of depression and insecurity. Guinness is a great, classic character, as multifaceted as his many roles, and Read (“Alive”), with access to all the Guinness personal diaries, family correspondence and input from Guinness’ son Matthew, delves deeply into thesp’s wounded psyche. He effectively analyzes the inner drive that helped Guinness to conquer crippling personal problems and fulfill his talent.

At the age of 8 or 9, Guinness found he “liked to dress up and pretend to be other people or animals,” and the thin young man with “sticking-out ears, who had no father, a dreadful mother and almost no money” focused on stars he admired — Charles Laughton, Buster Keaton and particularly John Gielgud, an early and powerful mentor.

When he auditioned for “Antony and Cleopatra” at the Old Vic, Guinness had to endure a director screaming, “You’re no actor … get off the fucking stage.” He eventually impressed critics and auds as Osric in “Hamlet” and built a stage career that brought him a 1964 Tony award for “Dylan.”

Throughout a 62-year career (1934-96), Guinness sought to give his portraits depth and dimension. He was determined not to be an actor like Laurence Olivier, whom he felt was “technically brilliant but humanly shallow” and a man who undermined other actors to boost his own standing.

Read paints a fully rounded picture of Guinness’ marriage to Merula Salaman, from initial fears about his competence as a lover to a long, conflicted, ultimately fulfilling relationship that lasted from 1938 until their deaths in 2000.

The author doesn’t avoid Guinness’ less attractive traits, including a crucifyingly critical tongue and contempt for those who failed to meet his high standards. One passage, describing his “relentless assault” on Merula’s poor spelling, says, “Your spelling, my love, is worse … if that is possible … You ought to be put in gaol, my sweet, until you can spell the word CINEMA.”

His selfishness is dramatized when Merula, a gifted actress in her own right, wants to resume performing on the stage and he opposes it, insisting their marriage wouldn’t work if both pursued acting careers. What apparently cemented an unbreakable bond was their conversion to Catholicism, along with Merula’s willingness to submerge her own identity.

Guinness’ theater and film work comes alive through comprehensive coverage of such British triumphs as “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” in which he brilliantly portrayed eight parts, and David Lean’s “Great Expectations.”

Read describes Guinness’ pleasurable Hollywood forays (“The Swan” with Grace Kelly) and excruciating ones (“A Majority of One”), and does a dynamic job of depicting physical and personal problems that created tension during shooting of “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” “The heat, humidity, the poisonous snakes and centipedes, the logistical demands of building such a complex set in the middle of the jungle” were a trial, and he quarreled with Lean until they were no longer on speaking terms.

Guinness’ Oscar for “Kwai” was a happy ending to a brutally unpleasant experience, and he went on to appear in Lean blockbusters “Lawrence of Arabia,” “Dr. Zhivago” and “A Passage to India.”

“Star Wars” brought Guinness wealth and enlarged his international profile, although he disliked living in the shadow of Obi Wan Kenobi and had little admiration for the film’s “lamentable” dialogue. He describes George Lucas as a “small, neat-faced young man with a black beard with tiny, well-shaped hands, poorish teeth, glasses and not much sense of humor. But I liked him.” More than anything in his versatile career, Guinness’ line “The force will be with you” insured immortality.

In the last third of the 632-page book, Read often overdoes the detail, and his emphasis on Guinness’ possible homosexuality is unsatisfying. Lacking sufficiently concrete evidence of gay relationships, he probes the performer’s mind or searches for clues, as though on an obsessive quest for answers he never quite delivers. The subject begins to feel gratuitously overemphasized.

But Guinness is so intriguing and unpredictable a personality that he can’t be reduced to anything specific or banal. Whether flagellating himself (“I reserve my horrors for my own awfulnesses”), struggling to forge an intimate bond with son Matthew or coping with the cancer that eventually killed him at 86, Guinness is a compulsively absorbing personality, and Read admirably captures his complex nature.

More Reviews

  • Hugh Jackman 39th Brit Awards, Show,

    Concert Review: Hugh Jackman Sparkles and Shines at the Hollywood Bowl

    Hugh Jackman is out to prove he truly is the greatest showman. On Friday and Saturday night, Jackman’s “The Man. The Music. The Show.” world tour stopped in Los Angeles for a sold-out two nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Ten years ago, Jackman hosted the 2009 Oscars just a few blocks south of the venue at [...]

  • Adam Lambert Queen

    Concert Review: Queen and Adam Lambert Capitalize on 'Bohemian Rhapsody'

    About half way through Queen and Adam Lambert’s Saturday night show at the Forum in Inglewood, guitarist Brian May took the stage solo to perform a few numbers. He began by acknowledging that day’s 50th anniversary of the first manned moon landing, as the video screen behind him streamed a real-time replay of the Apollo [...]

  • A Faithful Man

    Film Review: 'A Faithful Man'

    French actor Louis Garrel has been married twice, first to Iranian talent Golshifteh Farahani, and now to model-cum-actress Laetitia Casta. He has also directed two features, the first a free-wheeling love-triangle comedy called “Two Friends” in which Garrel plays the cad who comes between his best friend and the object of his obsession (played by [...]

  • Because of Winn Dixie review

    Regional Theater Review: 'Because of Winn Dixie,' the Musical

    Watching the musical “Because of Winn Dixie” at Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Conn., it’s hard not to think of another show that premiered in the same regional theater 43 years ago. It, too, featured a scruffy stray dog, a lonely-but-enterprising young girl and a closed-off daddy who finally opens up. But “Winn Dixie,” based [...]

  • Above the Shadows

    Film Review: ‘Above the Shadows’

    Grief-fueled romantic fantasies can be tricky for filmmakers not named Wim Wenders. Everyone aspires to make “Wings of Desire” with its stirring immediacy, beautiful imagery and pressing poignancy, but most wind up delivering something closer to its decent but dreary American remake, “City of Angels” — which could also be said for writer-director Claudia Myers’ [...]

  • The Lion King The Gift

    Album Review: Beyoncé’s 'The Lion King: The Gift'

    Before touching down on what Beyoncé has called her “love letter to Africa,” it’s important to see what may have brought her to the mother of mankind, with its wide vistas and sonic planes, for “The Gift” in the first place — beyond, of course, voicing Nala in the film and whatever international marketing tie-ins [...]


    Off Broadway Review: 'Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow Moscow'

    There’s something about Anton Chekhov’s whiny sisters that invites comic sendups of “Three Sisters” like the one Halley Feiffer wrote on commission for the Williamstown Theater Festival. Transferred to MCC Theater’s new Off Broadway space and playing in the round in a black box with limited seating capacity, the crafty show feels intimate and familiar. [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content