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Alec Guinness, master chameleon

The late actor showed remarkable range in a long career that took him from stage to screen to knighthood.

February 01, 2009|Dennis Lim

To many moviegoers who came of age in the '70s, Alec Guinness was synonymous with the cowled "Star Wars" guru Obi-Wan Kenobi. For this most chameleonic of actors, whose career ranged from London's West End to Broadway, from Ealing comedies to David Lean epics to John le Carre thrillers, this was apparently a source of consternation (he claimed to throw out all "Star Wars" fan mail unopened).

Guinness, who died in 2000 at age 86, was a junior member of Britain's circle of acting knights, but Sir Alec was always a little different from the likes of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave. While the others were capital-T thespians, great, showy technicians whose tendency was to deliver a theatrical master class even on film, Guinness was a more nimble and interior performer, better attuned to the scale of everyday life and to the tricks of screen acting.

His first big part was as a heavily made-up Fagin in Lean's 1948 "Oliver Twist," which he followed with an eight-role tour de force, playing every member of the noble D'Ascoyne clan -- including an admiral, an elderly parson and a suffragette -- in "Kind Hearts and Coronets" (1949).

He was such a malleable presence he could even cross ethnic lines, back when that sort of thing was more acceptable in Hollywood, as an Arab prince in "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) and an Indian scholar in "A Passage to India" (1984).

The Ealing films, the pride of British postwar cinema, made Guinness a star. Five of them can be found in "The Alec Guinness Collection," out this week from Lionsgate (the same films were issued in a 2002 Anchor Bay set).

"Kind Hearts and Coronets," directed by Robert Hamer, is the dark jewel among Guinness' early films, truly an ageless wonder with a masterful poker face and ice in its veins. Like that film, the other Ealing comedies revolve around elaborate schemes but are more genial in tone.

In "The Lavender Hill Mob" (1951), directed by Charles Crichton, Guinness plays a bank clerk who smuggles gold bars out of Britain by turning them into Eiffel Tower paperweights. In Alexander Mackendrick's "The Man in the White Suit" (1951), he's a chemist who invents a dirt-proof fabric that gets labor and management conspiring against him.

"The Ladykillers" (1955), a black-comic caper and the last of the Ealing classics (also directed by Mackendrick and feebly remade by the Coen brothers in 2004), features one of his more outlandish performances, as a fiendish heist mastermind. "The Captain's Paradise" (1953), a bit of a throwaway, features Guinness in a relatively rare romantic role as a ferry captain with two wives in two ports.

Another Guinness title, 1959's "Our Man in Havana," is being released this week (as part of Sony's Martini Movies series). Directed by Carol Reed, based on the Graham Greene novel and set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the film combines espionage intrigue with flavorsome locations. Guinness, of course, makes a perfect spy (as he would later confirm when he played Le Carre's George Smiley).

Peter Ustinov called Guinness "the outstanding poet of anonymity," and with his pleasant but unremarkable features, he certainly looked the part of the everyman. But perhaps more to the point, here was an actor who relished the idea that he could be, in a quite literal sense, any man.


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