Alec Guinness was one of the great acting knights of the century. His reputation is sometimes overshadowed by that of the great triumvirate of Olivier, Gielgud and Richardson and it is true that his theatre work is slightly less distinguished than that of the big three, but when it comes to film acting, he far outstrips them.
He was born illegitimate but his mother managed to send him to boarding school. From there he got a job as a copywriter, but always wanted to act. He enrolled at Fay Compson's studio until his money ran out and then started the long slog up the bill. He can be seen as an extra in Evensong, but apart from that he ignored the cinema. By the time war broke out he was a respected classical actor and had played Hamlet at the Old Vic.
He saw war service with the Royal Navy and entered films properly with the small but memorable role of Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations. For the next fifteen years or so he was Britain's premier film actor. Other actors may have been bigger stars but he had the range to tackle a huge variety of roles and styles.
When his golden period ended, he went back to the theatre and took small but significant parts in a variety of films. The most important of these films was Star Wars. His tiny percentage of the gross made him very rich and meant he didn't have to take any work he didn't fancy. His role as Smiley in two television adaptations of John Le Carre novels was also very well regarded.
The most important element in his characterisations was the humanity with which he imbued them. From the innocent scientist in The Man in the White Suit to the mad Colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai, his characters were utterly believable. Even when he played all those D'Ascoynes in Kind Hearts and Coronets each one had a reality within the style of the film.
Of course, with such a large range, there is the odd embarrassment. His Fagin was widely criticised for being a Jewish stereotype (though that is how he is in the novel) and he got a lot of stick for blacking up for A Passage to India. And he was never going to pull off playing Hitler. But these are minor quibbles compared to the embarrassments the Big Three put themselves through in the last part of their careers.
Ultimately, when the theatre performances of his contemporaries are no longer within living memory, Guinness's classic film performances will remain to entrance future generations.
|1949||Kind Hearts and Coronets|
|1949||A Run for Your Money|
|1951||The Man in the White Suit|
|1951||The Lavender Hill Mob|
|1953||The Captain's Paradise|
|1953||The Malta Story|
|1955||To Paris With Love|
|1957||The Bridge on the River Kwai|
|1958||The Horse's Mouth|
|1959||Our Man in Havana|
|1960||Tunes of Glory|
|1961||A Majority of One|
|1962||Lawrence of Arabia|
|1963||The Fall of the Roman Empire|
|1965||Situation Hopeless but not Serious|
|1966||The Quiller Memorandum|
|1972||Brother Sun, Sister Moon|
|1973||Hitler, the Last Ten Days|
|1976||Murder by Death|
|1977||To See Such Fun|
|1980||The Empire Strikes Back|
|1980||Raise the Titanic|
|1983||Return of the Jedi|
|1984||A Passage to India|
|1988||A Handful of Dust|
|1993||A Foreign Field|
Alec Guinness at Amazon UK
Alec Guinness at Amazon US