Author Spotlight: Sir Alec Guinness

Because learning is an endeavor that embraces many linkages, often taking us to places we least expect, tonight’s author spotlight is a fantastic example for the epitome of what our author spotlights are meant to be, leading us into other realms of creativity, imagination and talent that inspire and drive. Do allow me to step back for a moment first.

Drawing by Nicholas Volpe after Guinness won an Oscar in 1957, by Nicholas Volpe via Wikimedia Commons

My fourteen-year-old son being the film aficionado he is, soon into his explorations discovered classic movies, Lawrence of Arabia being one of which he was instantly enamored. I’d seen it myself as a child, and re-watched with Turtle. Not long ago we had the opportunity to experience something no amount of Blu-Ray sessions can capture—watching this epic film on the big screen. Our recent watching ignited a spark that had glowed when seeing it as Turtle cut his teeth on this older epic, which celebrates its 55th anniversary this year: Sir Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal, Emir and leader of the Arab Revolt during the Great War. His deliberate, slow speech and developed Arab accent (copied from a conversation he’d had with Omar Sharif) paired with portrayal of a real-life, complex character who maintained a delicate balance between tribal and new world politics. Guinness’s performance consistently displays the massive effort of such an intense role, all while sustaining a dignified and cool composure, speaking volumes with his coded facial expressions, particularly his eyes, even when he utters not a word. He maintains a magnificent presence.

It may surprise some to know that Guinness does indeed fit into this series by virtue of authoring three volumes of memoir: Blessings in Disguise; My Name Escapes Me and A Positively Final Appearance, also recorded as audiobooks. A Commonplace Book, reflections on life, literature and the world around him, was published posthumously. Within these works we are led through a world of ideas and experiences that touch history, literature, politics and religion, his lifelong craft, observations on society and so much more. His storytelling, whether in film or on paper, brings us closer to the heart of the man as well as the re-discovery of what lives within ourselves.

Born in 1914 London as Alec Guinness de Cuffe, Guinness’s first job was in advertising copy. He later was promoted to understudy (in a role with two lines) for a salary of £1 per week. During World War II he served a commanding role in the Royal Navy and planned to become an Anglican priest, later converting to Catholicism. Each morning he recited the first line of this stanza from Psalm 143, one of the seven known as penitential psalms, expressing sorrow for sin.

Cause me to hear thy loving kindness in the morning;
for in thee do I trust:
cause me to know the way wherein I should walk;
for I lift up my soul unto thee.


Guinness maintained lifetime ties to his Shakespearean acting roots, including parts in Hamlet; Henry V; The Tempest; King Lear and Richard II. His performance links to literature continued with roles in Oliver Twist, Great Expectations and Little Dorritt; Our Man in Havana; Kind Hearts and Coronets; Dr. Zhivago and Tunes of Glory, along with stage productions of The Alchemist; Cyrano de Bergerac; The Cocktail Party and Dylan. Apart from Lawrence, Guinness starred in two other films celebrating significant anniversaries in 2017: The Bridge on the River Kwai (60) and Star Wars (40). He also appeared in the serialized television versions of two of John le Carré’s renowned espionage novels, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People.

The actor is rumored to have had a volatile relationship with director David Lean, who nevertheless considered him to be “my good luck charm” and continued to cast him in films. Guinness went on to win the Best Actor Academy Award in 1957 (The Bridge on the River Kwai), several nominations and, in 1980, an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement. He also won the British Academy Television Award for Best Actor twice, in the role of le Carré’s George Smiley. In fact, le Carré was so impressed with the actor’s performance that he based his characterization on the protagonist in subsequent novels on Guinness. Amongst a number of other honors, Guinness was also appointed, in 1955, Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE), and knighted in 1955.

Sir Alec Guinness married actress Merula Sylvia Salaman in 1938, who also converted to Catholicism. They had a son, Matthew, who followed his father’s footsteps, becoming an actor and working extensively in theatre. Sir Alec passed away in August 2000, aged 86; the Lady Guinness, also 86, followed just two months later.

As a passionate reader with a rather average interest in film, it is not often an actor captures my attention in quite the way Sir Alec Guinness has, and I look forward to exploring his work, especially given that so much of it links directly to literature, an opening that likely will lead me not only to new work to explore, but also the interpretations he bore to invigorate and inspire.

Some great links to peruse:

Sir Alec Guinness biography

The ten best Alec Guinness movies 

Works by Alec Guinness 

A magnificent biography of Alec Guinness

Sir Alec Guinness receiving an Academy Honorary Award for Lifetime Achievement 

From Guinness’s Academy Award-winning performance as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai   (also below)

For our previous Author Spotlight: Lewis Carroll, click here


One thought on “Author Spotlight: Sir Alec Guinness

  1. Pingback: Author Spotlight: A Study and Some Personal Experience of Lewis Carroll – before the second sleep

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