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.