Kenneth Tynan on Alec Guinness, circa 1952

He can — and this is rare — act mind, and may be the only actor alive who could play a genius convincingly: Donne, for instance, Milton, Pope, or even Shakespeare…would be comfortably within his grasp.  But he is not, and never will be a star, in the sense that Coward and Olivier are stars.  Olivier, one might say, ransacks the vaults of a part with blowlamp, crowbar, and gun-powder; Guinness is the nocturnal burglar, the humble Houdini who knows the combination.  He does everything by stealth.  Whatever he may do in the future, eh will leave no theatrical descendants, as Gielgud will.  He has illumined many a hitherto blind alley of subtlety, but blazed no trails.  Irving, we read, was rapt, too: but it was a weird, thunderous raptness that shook its fist at the gods.  Guinness waves away awe with a witty fingertip and deflects the impending holocaust with a shrug.  His stage presence is quite without amplitude, and his face, bereft of its virtuosity of make-up, is a signless zero.  His special gift is to imply the presence of little fixed ideas, gambolling about behind the deferential mask of normality.  The characters he plays are injected hypodermically, not tattooed all over him; the latter is the star’s way and Guinness shrinks from it.  Like Buckingham in Richard III he is “deep-resolving, witty”; the clay image on whom the witches work.  An innocence, as of the womb, makes his face placid even when he plays murderers.

Whether he likes it or not (and I suspect he does), his true métier will continue to be eccentrics — men reserved, blinkered, shut off from their fellows, and obsessed.  Within such minority men there is a hidden glee, an inward fanatical glow; and in their souls Guinness is at ease.

That is from Kenneth Tynan, Profiles, which is in fact a remarkable and remarkably good book.

Comments

Guinness's line reading of "With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners" as Prince Faisal in "Lawrence of Arabia" is close to my all-time favorite.

Arguably the best movie ever made.

"He does everything by stealth."

Well, he is best known for Jedi mind tricks.

I've often seen it said that Alec Guiness hated the Star Wars movies but there is no good evidence that he did. Sure, he said he hated them, but that's not good evidence as it's likely he would have said the same thing if he liked them. But either way, they made him a lot of money.

And made him immortal (both on-screen and IRL). Outside film school, I suspect that few still watch Olivier.

And made him immortal

The sickening cult of Star Wars will not last forever. Every other film or TV program he ever made will be remembered long after the actors in Star Wars have gone the way of Buster Crabbe.

But will people buy dolls related to them? I doubt.

The actress who played Anakin's mother did a perfect job.
That movie is worth watching for her performance, I think it is about 20 minutes long.

Please, I beg of you, just send me the Shmi cut.

But yeah, if you gave me Liam Neeson, Pernilla August, and a crate full of whisky, I could probably make you a decent movie.

My dad's favorite actor is/was Guiness. He's read a bio and autobio of him, and in the autobio Guiness said he had no idea what Star Wars was about, and while making it thought it was pretty silly. But he was eternally grateful to George Lucas for casting him, and paying him a % of the profits instead of a salary. He didn't hate it one bit, he was just bemused by it.

Certainly those old time actors like Guinness, Hopkins, Olivier were much better than the mostly models pretending to be actors that 'act' today. However, I once saw something that said: "Richard Burton was a natural in acting, but Lawrence Olivier was an overachiever who had to work hard to get to where he was", so there. Even back then they had such distinctions of ability.

Bonus trivia: I acted in my elementary school play, sixth grade, and got so much fan mail from the first graders. It helped me later in my career: I can give a public speech without getting too nervous or passing out, like Neil Armstrong once claimed almost happened to him from nerves. TC is also OK in front of a stage.

I'm Ray Lopez and I adopt this opinion: "Just as James Agee (deceased) and Pauline Kael (alive, but retired) remain the best writers on the Art of Film, so Kenneth Tynan (again, deceased) is still the best writer on the Art of Theatre. Tynan wrote so beautifully and wittily and lovingly about the stage and the people who inhabit it and he was also responsible in a major way for the success of the National Theatre of Great Britain along with his friend and professional partner, Laurence Olivier. (an essay on Olivier is one of the high-points of this book.) It was Tynan who "discovered" Harold Pinter, who "made the career" of John Osbourne and was a major factor in reviving the career of Noel Coward, after years of neglect: as Literary Manager of the National, it was Tynan who urged a revival of Coward's classic "Hay Fever."
This collection of 50 essays is absolutely essential reading for anyone who has a love of theatre or simply of celebrity and star power. No one writing today writes as well as Tynan did nor consistently shows his affection for Show Business. If you regularly read today's so-called critics, you come away with the feeling that they become INSULTED that plays they dislike were actually produced!
I highly recommend this book. It is passionate, charming and, at times, really funny stuff. But, please, do yourself a favor and haunt every used book shop you know to find a copy of Tynan's out-of-print collected theatre reviews from the U.S. (he wrote for "The New Yorker") and England called CURTAINS. It is absolutely the best book of criticism you'll ever read."

He was also very comical. Kind Hearts and Coronets--where he plays 8 different members of the D'Ascoyne family--is a masterpiece (1949).

I try not to write like that. Somebody might think I was a little egotistical.

You should not try to write like that unless you are Kennth Tynan. Nor should one attempt to imitate his destructive self-indulgence. But what it joy it was in the 1960s and 70s to be able to regularly read Tynan's reviews and then his diaries. We didn't know it at the time, but it was a golden age of entertainment criticism and feature writing, with John Simon, Vincent Canby, John Lahr, Penelope Gilliatt -- I'm sure I'm forgetting people. These people could write.

John Simon still writes, he has a blog which he updates about once a month. A couple years ago he listed his favorite 20th century music - (including some 21st century composers, like Montsalvage and Dutilleux) and it is a really good list, and he explains it well.

The man in the white suit is great example of this. Guinness plays an inventor who invents self cleaning ever lasting cloth.

Which puts all the northern English washerwoman and cloth factory workers out of work. Something we know happened anyway for different reasons.

Guinness successfully plays the genius in a way few actors could. It is an interesting film from an economics of technical progress point of view.

That was one of my early favorites.

Has there ever been a good study done demonstrating that when a specific actor attempts to convey specific but subtle emotion, that s/he is highly likely to be successful? How important is language, tone and body language? How important is context? I suspect without a lot of context, few if any actors would be very successful at conveying emotion. I suspect acting relies a lot on the observers' theory of mind. (I.e. is not objective). Perhaps A.I can shed light on it. If they need to know the context the actor is in in order to determine what the emotion is being conveyed, then it's the scene or the writing more than the actor that deserves credit. IS there such thing as "great acting"? I really don't know.

Seems LESS objective than figure skating competitions. But I can't rule out that it is something that I just can't sense very well. (My EQ is lousy).

Actors who are the center of attention onscreen are the kinds of people who also tend to be the center of attention in real social situations. It's hard to say what makes some people socially charismatic -- very subtle nuances of posture, facial expression, and vocal emphasis seem to be key elements. I think that you're right that AI might be able to illuminate the topic -- by identifying these nuances and the charisma-enhancing combinations in which they occur.

I suspect tastes have changed. Olivier always seems to be overacting to me. His revered Hamlet is nearly unwatchable.

Guinness is my favorite. His performance in The Bridge On the River Kwai is amazing: he even has the audience rooting for him. There are so many great performances. Of course, each is similar, his characters in film reflective of his own stoicism. Often overlooked is his performance in Smiley's People, the six-part BBC adaptation of John le Carre's novel. Then there is his performance as the half brother of Dr. Zhivago: his character is both intensely caring (searching for Dr. Zhivago's daughter) and feared (as head of the Soviet Union's domestic police). He captured both sides of the character. Those three performances took Guinness through the three epochs of the 20th century: the Russian Revolution, WWII, and the Cold War. And, of course, there is his role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, in which he takes the audience to the distant future rather than the past.

The scene in Dr. Zhivago in which Guinness quietly enters the room full of people and snaps his finger and everyone cowers in fear tells one everything one needs to know about life in post-revolution Russia. I often think of that scene whenever Trump displays his authoritarian side, and how much Trump would like to have the power and respect of Lieutenant General Yevgraf Andreyevich Zhivago.

I could not agree more about his performance in Smiley's People. When I read Tynan's description above my first thoughts were George Smiley in the BBC's adaptation of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

Guinness great as Charles I in Cromwell (1970).

Guinness had no problem playing larger than life, over the top characters. 'Tunes of Glory' presents one such example, where his Jock Sinclair dominates the film, loudly.

Several of the roles, namely the Duke and the General, in 'Of Kind Hearts...' were gruff bellicose types, requiring film overacting. He happily obliged. He had no trouble chewing the scenery as Hitler, too boot.

These types of roles were fewer for Guinness than for others, but much of that is garden variety typecasting. Burton could play many types of roles as well, but most of his work is some version of 'the angry young man', even when he was older.

Don't you all forget Sir Alec in THE LADY KILLERS, Fagin in OLIVER TWIST also directed by David Lean - THE HORSE'S MOUTH & TUNES OF GLORY...and the LAVENDER HILL MOB...He was known to follow strangers down the street and imitate their walks...

Alec Guinness's performances haven't dated in the slightest. Neither have Ralph Richardson's or Michael Redgrave's. Olivier, on the other hand, is pretty unwatchable in everything but a few minutes of Wuthering Heights. John Gielgud seems of a different era, but is still magnificent. But Guiness, Richardson, and Redgrave still leap off the screen as effectively as they did 70 years ago, a remarkable achievement for three men who are primarily stage actors.

Relatively few American stage actors have stood up as well from that era. Fredric March is pretty amazing. Fonda moved effortlessly from one to the other, although he made his bones in movies. But most Broadway stars were like Sam Levene, Helen Hayes, Zero Mostel and made movies without ever having the same level of stardom. Broadway musical actors had better results: Andrews, Streisand, Kelly, Kaye. But even then you had Mary Martin, Elaine Stritch, Angela Lansbury and others who were much bigger on Broadway than movies. (Lansbury became a big TV star, but much later in life.)

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