The life of 'the man of a thousand faces'

A new biography examines the talent - and torment - of Alec Guinness

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 naiveté 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. Guinness, an avid reader, wrote a stage adaptation of "Great Expectations" which caught the notice of director David Lean, who was adapting the book for film. Lean didn't use Guinness's script but did cast him in the movie - a 1946 cinema masterpiece that launched Guinness's film career.

Work always competed with the rest of Guinness's life. Married in 1938, he alternated between affection and cruelty to his wife Merula. Charming at times, obnoxious at others, he alienated many friends, and even his son Michael, over and over throughout his life.

Underneath it all, Guinness was roiled by competing demands: a deep devotion to the Roman Catholic Church, to which he enthusiastically converted in his 20s, and a tormented attraction to young men.

Read draws on a commendable number of primary sources, including personal diaries, letters, journals, reviews, and interviews. Yet he fails to unearth the relationships between the man and his roles.

Readers familiar with Guinness's remarkable career, including his Oscar-winning role in "Bridge Over the River Kwai" and stage triumphs in productions from Shakespeare to Ionesco\, will likely be left longing for much more insight into how this complex, tortured man fuelled these wildly diverse characterizations.

• Tony Vellela writes about theater and the arts from New York.

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