Tuesday, November 16, 2010

the two (hundred) faces of alec guinness

The other night we watched two movies starring Alec Guinness—the classic Kind Hearts and Coronets and lesser The Captain's Paradise. In fact the second film really ticked me off, as it presented, all in the name of comedy, a beyond-sexist situation as comedy—a man decides he can have the "perfect" woman by setting up two households, one with the stay-at-home domestic, the other with the ready-to-go babe. Of course all the stereotypes backfires, and the women get the better of him, but the old madonna/whore attitudes towards women are still omnipresent for most of the film. Guinness, and his costars, including Yvonne DeCarlo, were better than this.

I'm sure most people, if they recognize the great actor's name at all, immediately think: Obi Wan Kenobi. And he was great in Star Wars. But I come from a movie buff family, and that is only one of very many Alec Guinness movies. He's been in so many—from comedies to dramas to science fiction—that it's hard for me to think of him as only Obi Wan. Although that is my favorite Star Wars movie, and the only one that I think really holds up as a movie. Apparently Sir Alec thought the same:
[his diary entry after viewing Star Wars (1977) for the first time] It's a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel, and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience.
Guinness played many parts, big and small: A Passage to India, Lawrence of Arabia, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Lavender Hill Mob, Great Expectations. In Kind Hearts and Coronets he actually, hysterically, plays eight different roles in one film—all the unfortunate victims of society-climbing Dennis Price. Guinness is amazing, but Price gets all the great lines.

Kind Hearts and Coronets | Robert Hamer | Alec Guinness | Dennis Price | Movie Trailer

Probably his most memorable performance for me would be as the painter Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth. I must have seen this ten times while I was at art school, as it always seemd to be playing in the Parsons auidtorium. And I had already seen it before then on public television. I'm not sure anyone has ever captured so effortlessly an artistic obsession. And made it funny. Much more fun to watch than the other tortured artist biopics that they also showed us back in art school—Kirk Douglas's Van Gogh or José Ferrer's Toulouse Lautrec, or even Charlton Heston's Michelangelo.

THE HORSES MOUTH: Movie Trailer. Watch more top selected videos about: Alec Guinness, Renee Houston

An actor is an interpreter of other men's words, often a soul which wishes to reveal itself to the world but dare not, a craftsman, a bag of tricks, a vanity bag, a cool observer of mankind, a child and at his best a kind of unfrocked priest who, for an hour or two, can call on heaven and hell to mesmerize a group of innocents.
Another favorite Guinness role is as the criminal mastermind Professor Marcus in The Ladykillers. Forget that Tom Hanks tried to remake this classic comedy. I sure did, and avoided it like the plague. Guinness always looks like he is having fun in a role, especially when he is being villainous. And he is especially, evilly, delightful here.

So for a Professor Marcus and a Gulley Jimson and an Obi Wan I can surely forgive him the occasional Captain's Paradise. I hope TCM plays The Ladykillers soon ...

The Ladykillers 1955 Ealing comedy of the same name ...

Flamboyance doesn't suit me. I enjoy being elusive.
[All quotes from Guinness courtesy of imdb]
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