Alec Guinness's career spanned generations. Great-grandparents
might recall his days on the British stage. Grandparents may have
seen such classics as The Bridge on the River Kwai and
Lawrence of Arabia. Younger cinemaphiles still picture him
as Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars.
Like most actors, Guinness had more than his share of success with
a few clinkers thrown in. Piers Paul Read reveals the enormity of
his life's work, along with a massive account of Sir Alec's
personal side, in ALEC GUINNESS: The Authorised Biography.
Read, author of more than a dozen books, has done a huge amount of
research, culling letters and journals from Guinness and his
extended Guinness family, as well as a large circle of friends and
acquaintances, to produce an intimate portrait of one of the
greatest actors --- along with fellow Englishmen Olivier and
Gielgud --- of stage, screen and television.
Guinness came from humble roots. His mother was an alcoholic who
never married his father and became an embarrassment to the
celebrity as he grew older. It was a stigma that no doubt weighed
heavily on him as a young man and beyond, and formed his persona.
He was at the same time generous and tight with his money, easily
offended but quick to make friends. These paradoxes form the main
theme for ALEC GUINNESS.
He found a soul mate in his wife, Merula, to whom he would be
married for more than forty years, but once their son, Matthew, was
born, their conjugal relationship was non-existent. Nevertheless,
she was the perfect partner, casting a blind eye to his moodiness
and confusing behavior, especially when it came to Guinness's
"infatuations" with pretty young men.
Read is very careful in his phraseology, employing language such as
"While there is no evidence whatsoever of a sexual relationship
between Alex and this, or indeed, any other man..." and "The exact
nature of Alec's sexuality, however, is not at all clear." Such
refusal on the part of the author to take a stand can be
infuriating, since so much of this psycho-biography is devoted to
Perhaps as a method to fight his demons, the actor sought refuge in
religion, converting to Catholicism and putting great stock in his
friendships with priests and nuns. A significant portion of the
book flips back and forth between the sacred and the profane, so to
speak, with Read reporting dozens of instances of behavior that can
only be viewed as questionable, despite the fact that Guinness does
not seem to have ever acted on his confusing urges. "It would
seem...that Alec felt disordered passions could be controlled, if
not cured, by prayer, repentance and the Grace of God. Yet he was
never able to detach himself altogether from his homosexual
As can be expected from books of this type, the author covers the
major accomplishments in his subject's life, for which movie fans
can be grateful. The details can get a bit much; the book no doubt
could have been shorter than its 600-plus pages but no less
interesting had Read omitted copious recounts of how much Guinness
spent on hotel rooms or lunches.
Ultimately, ALEC GUINNESS is a sad book. One has the feeling that
between the sexual situation, concerns over finances, and
relationships with family and friends --- and despite all of the
artistic accomplishments --- Sir Alec was rarely truly happy. Read
makes us actually feel sorry for the legendary actor.
Reviewed by Ron Kaplan (RonK23@aol.com) on December 22, 2010