Alec Guinness: So Much More Than Obi Wan Kenobi

The term "class act" seems overused at a time when there are fewer examples of it around, but no more apt expression comes to mind. If anybody had the right to be, it was Sir Alec Guinness.
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Last week, I happened to find a rare television interview from the late '80s, with David Letterman interviewing Sir Alec Guinness, one of my screen idols, whose birthday fell this past Saturday.

The term "class act" seems overused at a time when there are fewer examples of it around, but no more apt expression comes to mind. Sir Alec was measured, friendly, approachable, calm, and not one bit full of himself. A kind, twinkly, somewhat reserved English gent, without a trace of pretense.

If anybody had the right to be, it was he. He played on the boards in his native England with the all the best actors of his generation: Olivier, Gielgud, and Richardson. His filmography, as you'll soon be reminded, is one of the more distinguished out there, reflecting an equal flair for comedy and drama.

Career highlight: Sir Alec won an Academy Award for his stupendous performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957), directed by the masterful David Lean. This superlative war movie marked the third of six Lean/Guinness collaborations.

Talk about self-awareness: he was quoted just around that time to the effect that he was just a character actor who happened to land in starring roles. In many of his best films, he disappears so completely into his characters that you're surprised to see his name in the credits.

Again, what was so striking in that Letterman interview was the sheer ordinariness of the man, apart from his obvious, blazing intelligence. And I mean "ordinary" in the most admirable sense. When you encounter an artist of such prominence who hasn't let all the fame and accolades turn his head or mar his judgment -- well, that is to be admired, even marveled at.

Guinness eschewed a hairpiece in real life (though he most always wore one on film), and led a relatively quiet and private life, married happily to the same woman, Merula, for decades. Together they shared a son, Matthew, who would also become an actor.

His one regret in later life (he died in 2000) was not so much taking the part of Obi Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars (1977), but the fear that moviegoers would only remember him for this part. Frustrating as it is to acknowledge it, he was right to be worried. Too little of his earlier work is known or celebrated by the younger set -- a sad state of affairs that should be remedied.

To honor Sir Alec's enduring legacy and what would have been his 97th birthday, here are eight key Guinness titles well worth sampling. (Note: I've focused on movies where Alec is front and center; though three of his earlier collaborations with David Lean are featured, I've excluded both Lawrence Of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965), where the actor plays supporting parts. Obviously both these evergreen classics are endorsed as well.)

Great Expectations (1946) -- In British director Lean's superb rendering of the Dickens classic, we follow the changing fortunes of Pip, an orphan who reaches young manhood (as John Mills), only to discover he has an anonymous benefactor intent on making him a real gentleman. With his new friend Herbert Pocket (Guinness), Pip sets out to make his mark in bustling, 19th-century London. But just who is Pip's mysterious sponsor? Perhaps the finest Dickens adaptation ever, this rich, fascinating film about chance encounters and changing fortunes begins with a nerve-rattling sequence in a graveyard that's one of the finest moments in British film. Both Mills and Guinness are a trifle old for their roles, but their virtuosity fully compensates. Guinness, in his first significant screen appearance, is particularly striking as Pocket, giving us a tantalizing taste of things to come. A bona-fide classic.

Oliver Twist (1948) -- Left on the doorstep of an orphanage as an infant, young Oliver Twist (John Howard Davies) is subjected to various cruelties at the hands of those in charge of his care. Eventually, he runs away and joins a gang of homeless child ruffians led by the charismatic Fagin (Guinness), a professional pickpocket. Oliver's adventurous life on the streets of London appears to draw to an end after he meets kind-hearted Mr. Brownlow (Henry Stephenson), but Fagin has no intention of letting his ward slip away to a life of genteel comforts. In his second masterful Dickens adaptation, director David Lean expertly abridges the author's long-winded story about a young orphan's changing fortunes in Victorian England into a beautifully paced two-hour film. Among a splendid cast, Guinness and Robert Newton are truly exceptional, respectively playing the captivating Fagin and his evil accomplice, Bill Sikes, with gusto. Also fun to watch is young Anthony Newley as the Artful Dodger. Essentially a tale of triumph in a world of degrading poverty and repellent class bias, Oliver Twist is a first-rate drama brimming with hope, pathos, and fury, from opening shot to last.

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) -- Louis Mazzini (Price), a scheming, financially strapped aristocrat, resolves to bump off the eight relatives (all played by Guinness) that stand between him and a lucrative Dukedom. He devises extremely inventive ways to dispatch each member of the D'Ascoyne line, which includes a banker, a parson, an admiral, and perhaps most memorably, the stately Lady Agatha (not to mention the Duke himself). Though we know Louis won't get away with it, still murder was never so much fun. Everything is right in this wickedly clever tale from the fabled Ealing Studios. "Hearts" was the feature that heralded a golden age of comedy there, with most of its best entries featuring Guinness. The smooth, debonair Price applies just the right air of cool detachment to his despicable character, while an almost unrecognizable Guinness achieves an acting tour de force in priceless portrayals of the eight doomed relatives. One of the top comedies from across the pond.

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) -- The story is all-too- familiar: for many years, the mild-mannered Henry Holland (Guinness) has earned his humble living transporting gold to banks, and one day, decides to take some of the booty for himself. With his trusted friend Alfred (Stanley Holloway), who manufactures paperweights, Henry concocts an ingenious plan to get the gold safely out of the country. The unfolding of Henry's daring scheme creates some of the most sublime comic situations you'll see on a movie screen. The prodigiously gifted Mr. Guinness seems tailor-made for the part of Henry, our seemingly timid protagonist with a very naughty, greedy side to him. Among the slew of top British character actors supporting him, the garrulous Holloway (who famously went on to play Alfie Doolittle in My Fair Lady) complements Guinness particularly well. This top heist comedy is also notable for introducing the world to a screen superstar: look fast for a tantalizing first glimpse of Audrey Hepburn in a walk-on part. (Her character's name is "Chiquita"!)

The Man In The White Suit (1952) -- After he's booted from a job at a textile factory for conducting an unauthorized (and costly) experiment in the research lab, amateur scientist Sidney Stratton (Guinness) finesses his way into the lab of rich competitor Alan Bimley (Cecil Parker). With the help of Bimley's comely daughter Daphne (Joan Greenwood), Sidney manages to continue his experiments, and invents a miracle white fabric that never stains and lasts forever. But the unions and industrialists aren't too happy with the implications of a product that never needs to be replaced. One of the snappier Ealing satires, Alexander Mackendrick's wry, wonderful "White Suit" is built around the expressive comic performance of Guinness, playing a dreamy, obsessive chemist without the means (or the elite credentials) to fund his pet project. Greenwood, always a fine mix of dotty and genteel, is a lovely, airy presence as Sidney's champion, and the cast of eccentric Ealing character actors (like the wheezing Ernest Thesiger) is top notch as well. Mackendrick slyly incorporates a bit of political commentary into this seemingly frivolous farce, poking fun at the machinations of industrial tycoons and union activists alike. Buoyant and funny, this "White Suit" wears exceedingly well.

The Ladykillers (1955) -- Criminal mastermind Professor Marcus (Guinness) and his motley crew of thieves are planning a daring bank robbery. To provide suitable cover, they masquerade as a group of amateur musicians and take lodgings at the home of kindly old Mrs. Wilberforce (Katie Johnson). The Professor assumes the aged landlady will remain unobstrusive and clueless to their machinations, but he sorely underestimates her. Man In The White Suit director Mackendrick and Guinness reunite in this peerless black comedy, which benefits from William Rose's ingenious story and the finest casting a comedy could hope for. Guinness's Marcus is the essence of smarmy charm (check out his false teeth, which create a slightly menacing quality). The gang itself is a truly inspired bunch of misfits, including Cecil Parker, Herbert Lom, and a portly Peter Sellers (the latter two would reunite years later for the Pink Panther series). But it's the diminutive Katie Johnson who very nearly steals the picture, her Mrs. Wilberforce projects a steely will cloaked in Victorian gentility. (Not to be confused with the inferior Coen Brothers' remake starring Tom Hanks.)

The Bridge On The River Kwai (1957)
-- Colonel Nicholson (Guinness), a spit-and-polish British officer, endures a humiliating confinement in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during the Second World War, and is forced to lead the building of a bridge for the movement of Japanese materiel, a task which slowly begins to consume him, blurring his sense of allegiance. All the while we watch the relationship between him and the formal but civilized camp commandant (Sessue Hayakawa) evolve from outright hostility to something close to mutual respect. Ultimately, an American officer (William Holden) who knew Nicholson in the camp but has since escaped, is assigned to return and blow up the bridge. Based on a true story, this riveting war film, shot in Sri Lanka, represented a new career peak for director David Lean, who'd go on to direct ever more ambitious epics. Top-notch acting (Guinness won an Oscar after initially turning down the role), authentic atmosphere and a brilliant script add up to grand adventure and powerful human drama. The whole ensemble cast is superb, notably Holden, Hayakawa, and the late, great Jack Hawkins.

Tunes Of Glory (1960) -- Major Jock Sinclair (Guinness), the rugged and popular temporary commander of a Scottish battalion, is resentful when replaced by Lt. Colonel Basil Barrow (John Mills), a rigid leader from an old, distinguished military family. Thus begins a bitter, barely suppressed struggle between these equally determined officers for the allegiance of their men- a struggle that becomes every bit as deadly as what they might face on a battlefield. Ronald Neame's peerless battle of wits is a bitingly perceptive examination of the British class system as manifested in military life, exposing the dire consequences when two men of opposing wills, backgrounds and character collide in competition for the loyalty of the soldiers they lead. Both Guinness and Mills, reunited fifteen years after co-starring in "Great Expectations", seem to feed off each other's superlative talent here, each delivering powerful portrayals of two very different men. Don't miss that jaw-dropping conclusion. An unsung triumph.

Pint of Guinness, anyone?

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