ALEC GUINNESS: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY. By Piers Paul Read. Simon & Schuster. 640 pages. $35.
Ronald Reagan once famously said of redwood trees, If you ve seen one, you ve seen them all.
The same might be said about biographies about great and near-great British stage and screen actors of the first part of the 20th century: Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud, Redgrave, and now, Sir Alec Guinness.
The arc of their lives is so similar: a difficult, poor childhood, the escape into acting, early fame at London s Old Vic, and mastery of the great Shakespearean roles.
There is heroism or not during World War II; the postwar knighthood; the lounging about on movie sets of big-screen epics in the 1950s; the long, slow fade into television; rediscovery by modern audiences; and elevation to pop icon status, thanks to a hit movie.
It s all here in this new biography of Guinness, a hefty read at more than 600 pages, but it s also an intimate, complex portrait of the man more than the actor. Piers Paul Read, an acclaimed novelist and the actor s friend, was approached by Guinness family and was given full access to the late actor s papers, letters, and diaries as well as interviews with friends and family. If there is a recurring theme, it is this:
All his life, Guinness was tortured by his homosexual appetites and soothed by his religious faith, a conundrum only solved in death.
He found acting a welcome antidote to a miserable childhood ( My mother was a whore, Guinness told author John Le Carre, in what must be one of the better opening lines of a biography), but who in later years felt ashamed of his profession, which he ranked far below other forms of artistic endeavors.
His attraction to young men is discussed repeatedly, almost to the point where the reader might want to say, So what?
Read, however, believes the subject is critical to understanding Guinness power as an actor, but he carefully sidesteps the question of whether Guinness consummated those desires. Still, the actor s decision to turn down the lead in the film of Death in Venice in which an aging German writer finds himself in love with a beautiful young man may have stemmed from a sense that the role was too close for comfort.
Predictably, Guinness is all too imperfect a human being. He is a snob and something of a misogynist. His 62-year marriage to Merula Salaman, daughter of a wealthy, artistic family, is by turns loving and cruel.
The couple s harsh discipline of their son, their only child, seems at least borderline abusive, even for the standards of the day.
Still, while Guinness was a passionate convert to Roman Catholicism, the actor never judged his friends in the theater for their sexual preferences.
Read, also a Catholic, carefully and sympathetically chronicles Guinness relationship to the church, noting the actor s occasional crises of faith, and the church s role in providing order and comfort amidst a chaotic emotional and professional life.
Guinness genius was hard to define; by turns bewildered and blank, menacing or whimsical, he was virtually unrecognizable on the street. His versatility was legendary. He played everyone from Hamlet to Hitler to most famously Obi Wan Kenobi in several Star Wars movies, whose scripts he called rubbish.
He was dubbed Man of a Thousand Faces early on after he played eight members of the doomed D Ascoyne family in the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Some call his performance in 1979 as British spymaster George Smiley in LeCarre s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy his greatest, but there are many other performances to relish, from the great Ealing comedies (The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, The Man in the White Suit) to David Lean s epics: Great Expectations, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, and Doctor Zhivago.
If you want to know how Guinness prepared for his roles or to read gossipy tales from those movie sets, look elsewhere. First and foremost, this book is about the rich and strange inner life of a man who also happened to be a member of one of the greatest generations of actors.
While the broad trajectory of that life paralleled Gielgud s or Olivier s, the differences, as usual, can be found in the details.
Read s sensitive, thorough treatment occasionally lacks punch, but his insights into this fiercely private man are so revealing that it s almost as if we re encountering Guinness for the first time.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Mackenzie Carpenter is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette.