Monday, February 27, 2012

"Blessings In Disguise" by Sir Alec Guinness

It would be hard to argue that Alec Guinness, often referred to as "the man with no face", is one of the finest actors ever. He has triumphed in every arena he has performed in. From stage to screen, from Shakespeare's "Hamlet", to George Lucas' "Star Wars", few actors can really claim to have managed such diverse roles, pulling them all off with perfection, and then some.

Who can forget Mr. Guinness as the indomitable Colonel Nicholson in Pierre Boulle's "The Bridge Over the River Kwai", or the crafty Fagin in David Lean's film version of "Oliver Twist." I can go on, but why?

In this very theatrically toned memoir, Mr. Guinness recounts his early years as the child of a mother and stepfather; who fell in and out of fortune at regular intervals; which left him to his own devices when not confined to boarding school. His childhood straddled the years between the two World Wars, which were amongst some of the most politically interesting decades of the 20th Century. The different characters whom he meets during these years are a fascinating, though odd, assortment of talented people.

He recounts his introduction to the theater, and then acting, naming long forgotten performers; who's names I am unfamiliar with; but through his remarkable style of writing, still manages to convey their wit, and importance, in the theatrical circles of their time.

One of the more amazing things, to me at least, about this book is the way the authors words convey his personality so well. He translates on paper just as well as he did on the screen. I cannot say how his films, or this book, compare to his stage appearances, never having had the honor of seeing him in person. As close as I've gotten to his level of performance is seeing Richard Burton in "Camelot" when I was about 7; I really did think that he was King Arthur; and then seeing Claire Bloom in Ibsen's "Doll's House" when I was 14. Jason Robards co-starred in that, it was a Sunday afternoon matinee in a loft somewhere in Manhattan for $4 a ticket. One of my friends mother's took us there, and I fell in love with Ms. Bloom that day, though she has still never answered my letter.

That's another thing which makes this book so readable. For all his accomplishments, and title, Sir Alec was very much like you and I. For instance, when he was 7 he saw Nellie Wallace in a music hall performance and sent her flowers, just as I had sent a note to Claire Bloom. In Mr. Guinness' case, Ms. Wallace returned the gesture with a note and some flowers of her own. (Ms. Bloom, please take note.)

Through all of his years in the theater; where people are sometimes apt to take themselves too seriously; and in all of his performances as Kings, Colonels, Princes, etc., he never ceased to be Alec Guinness. He even begins the book by stating that he was born out of wedlock. No excuses offered, just the unabashed fact. And that's the way the entire 200 pages, or so, reads, as a collection of facts, presented almost in vignettes that define the author’s life.

At the beginning to the final paragraph Mr. Guinness writes, "At the risk of pretension I have to say that, for me, the great adventure could be yet to come, had I only the courage and strength of will to embark on it: a spiritual journey, all foibles, silliness and ill-will mastered and thrown overboard and a genuine attempt made at achieving total simplicity. A day dream only, I fear. I lack sufficient humility and it is so warm and cozy on shore." That's quite a statement from a very unique and humble man.

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