The Life of 'The Man of a Thousand Faces' ; A New Biography Examines the Talent - and Torment - of Alec Guinness

Article excerpt

In the early days of his career, legendary stage and screen actor Alec Guinness played the lead in a 1938 experimental production of "Hamlet" at the Old Vic. One critic praised the novice, noting: "This young actor is obviously not trying any of the things in Hamlet which are the ABC of the part ... he rejects mordancy."

Throughout his distinguished career, Guinness struggled to bring in-depth, analytical characterizations to his roles. In his new authorized biography "Alec Guinness," Piers Paul Read is also to be praised for rejecting the easy way out. He describes Guinness's internal conflicts without sarcasm or cynicism. But when it comes to deeper analysis of the man and his work, the book falls short.

Read chronicles the pitiful circumstances of young Alec's childhood, from an absent, unnamed father to a drunken, felonious mother, to the influence of a few stern but supportive teachers and mentors.

His early life motivated him to move up and out. Discovering a talent, or at least an interest, in performing, he demonstrated the mix of naivete and bravery that marked his whole life by tracking down the phone number of acclaimed actor John Gielgud. Impressed with the big-eared, eager lad, Gielgud sent him to actress Marita Hunt for lessons. From there Guinness won a place at the Fay Compton Studio of Dramatic Art. He then staggered from job to job, living nearly in poverty, but shining in small roles. He became known as a man of a thousand faces - and none. By the late 1930s, he was one of the inner circle of London's theater elite.

His eventual move from the stage to film was not driven by ambition. …


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