Sir Chameleon

Book cover
Alec Guinnessby By Garry O'ConnorApplause. 516p $29.95

In 1970, at the age of 56, Alec Guinness, by then one of the best-known character actors in the world, sat for a formal portrait. Michael Noakes, the artist, recognized the overwhelming challenge of the task. “How does one paint what lies beneath the surface of the skin?” asks biographer Garry O’Connor as he reflects on the portraitist’s quandary.

He might have identified it as his own quandary as well. Actors as a rule, and Guinness spectacularly, make their living by being someone else. The good ones are creatures of infinitely malleable surfaces, which they manipulate to reveal the interior not of themselves but of the characters they are pretending to be. The wigs and greasepaint, the shouting and tears, are all make-believe in the service of a larger truth. Who is this aging, nondescript person who was in turn Hamlet and Shylock, Dylan and Ross on the stage, King Faisal in “Lawrence of Arabia,” Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars,” Colonel Nicholson in “Bridge on the River Kwai” and eight different people in “Kind Hearts and Coronets”?


The question morphs into a riddle when the central figure amid all these personalities protects his private life aggressively, almost pathologically. Where lies the reality between Guinness the recluse and Guinness the exhibitionist? Do the three volumes of memoirs Guinness compiled during his lifetime and the collection of diaries published after his death in August 2000 really get to the core of the man?

Garry O’Connor thinks not. Guinness, he believes, uses these apparently personal revelations as just one more set of disguises, another strategy for concealing his secret self from others and distancing it from himself. Sir Alec spent his life trying to move beyond his past. The son of a single mother who drank heavily, he lay awake at night as gentleman callers stumbled up the back stairs. His name “Guinness” appears on the birth certificate, but does little to resolve the question of paternity. During World War II, he served in the Royal Navy as Lieut. Cmdr. Cuffe, using his mother’s family name. Disguise, impersonation, deception and denial protected the secret shame of his lowly origins.

The second secret sprang from Guinness’s bisexuality. O’Connor makes much of this. Guinness was once arrested for lewd conduct, but avoided the blot on his record by giving a false name. Hiding his real identity was matter of great concern to a young actor at a time when homosexuality was a criminal offence. O’Connor regards Guinness’s 60-year marriage as another mask to deceive the world and himself. Limiting his family to one son and indulging in public rudeness to his wife as he waded into the crotchety thickets of old age offer corroborating evidence of the dark secrets hidden behind the curtain of a conventional marriage. In this context, his conversion to Catholicism was primarily an anchor of moral certitude, acceptance and respectability to ease the burdens of his confused secret life.

In addition, his Catholicism suggests the “snobbery” that brought Guinness into the same cast as the famous literary converts of mid-century England. He sent his son to Beaumont, a Jesuit boarding school, and made retreats at the historic abbeys, but felt little kinship in the faith with his Irish servants. Should this be a matter of concern or reproach to a man of Guinness’s social standing? O’Connor thinks it is. He is a thorough, but not a generous biographer.

Thoroughness brings its own baggage. O’Connor constructs his story through a mosaic of anecdotes rather than cohesive exposition. The table of contents, for example, includes 31 references to “Catholicism” and an additional 18 in the subheading “conversion to.” Over hundreds of pages one is left trying to piece together from fragments the events that led up to his conversion and its effects, if any, on his personal life and art.

In similar vein, Guinness’s sexual ambiguity runs like a silver thread through a vast tapestry of relationships and rumors, always standing out from the context yet never forming an image of its own. More to the point, does it make any difference? As critics have become more comfortable in recognizing the sexual ambivalence of many great artists, doesn’t this preoccupation show a bit of prudish voyeurism? (Pardon the oxymoron.) Sexual orientation does make a difference, of course, if it affects the art, a point that O’Connor insinuates but does not demonstrate. Guinness’s refusal to kiss actresses during rehearsal, for instance, may well be a manifestation of his discomfort with women and unhappy recollection of his mother, as O’Connor insists. It could also be a sign of his shyness, dislike of public displays of intimacy, gentility or simply a professional’s trying to keep an edge on the performance until it counted.

The author’s thoroughness has another drawback. As former director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and author of biographies of Paul Scofield, Ralph Richardson and Lawrence Olivier, O’Connor knows the world of the London theater from the inside. Most readers get no closer than occasional good seats in the balcony. Many in the parade of actors, writers and producers that O’Connor marshals for this pageant simply march by as names vaguely recalled from Playbills or old movies. Without an insider’s intimate knowledge of the personalities, most readers, I fear, will miss the significance of the revealing or gossipy detail these people are intended to add to the story.

At the end of “Citizen Kane,” after listening to five versions of the life of George Foster Kane, the reporter wonders how one ever knows a man. The filmmaker Orson Welles was on to something. For statesmen, saints and philosophers, the search for the real person underneath the public persona is worth the effort. It can be an illumination. An actor is different. His art consists in hiding his identity, and Guinness was a chameleon. Guinness wrote copiously about himself, but autobiographers are amateur historians at best, and at worst manipulative liars. O’Connor was right to mistrust his subject’s own accounts of his life.

How then does one ever know Alec Guinness? Which Alec Guinness? The plain, balding man with jug ears sitting for a Noakes portrait in an ill-fitting business suit, unsure of his sexual identity and his motives for becoming a Catholic, strikes me as far less interesting than the towering artist up there on the screen. I would prefer to know Alec Guinness by studying Col. Jock Sinclair in “Tunes of Glory.” At the last, Alec Guinness is not his neuroses but his art.

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