In his early films Alec Guinness became known for his droll comedy, but in the course of a long and distinguished career, brought an equal depth and complexity to drama, adventure and even science fiction.
By Miguel Pendás
Alec Guinness’s characters always seem to know more than they are letting on. You can sense a great enigma behind the sly smile, the understated response. In his early films he became known for his droll comedy, but in the course of a long and distinguished career, brought an equal depth and complexity to drama, adventure and even science fiction.
When Guinness died in 2000, the world lost one of the great character actors of all time. Former Festival director Claude Jarman had tried for years to get him to attend the Festival for a tribute without success. "Each year we would send him a letter," Jarman once said. "Each year (we would) get one back with his regrets." But in 1979, "Persistence paid off."
The Festival tried something that had never been done before and hasn’t been done since: A tribute program was scheduled with film clips for Opening Night instead of a new feature film. A 90-minute program with film clip highlights of Guinness’s career was presented to a near-capacity black-tie crowd including numerous celebrities and "a gaggle of corporate executives," as one reporter put it, at the Palace of Fine Arts, at $125 a head. After the tribute, all went off to the Grand Ballroom at the St. Francis for dinner.
Guinness was a crowd-pleaser and drew tremendous press coverage. Every major daily on the West Coast sent a reporter to cover the event.
Buddy Rogers, husband and costar of the late Mary Pickford, was there (also to appear at a Festival retrospective of the work of America’s Sweetheart); author Sidney Sheldon; Oscar-winning screenwriter Ernest Tidyman; Fay Kanin, who had just been elected the first woman to head the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; screen vampire Christopher Lee; actor Carl Weathers (best known for playing Apollo Creed in the Rocky movies); George Lucas, who had directed Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, and his wife, film editor Marcia Lucas and perhaps the biggest attention-getter of the evening aside from Sir Alec himself: San Francisco 49ers running back O.J. Simpson and his date, Nicole Brown. Earlier that afternoon Guinness had been welcomed at City Hall by Mayor Dianne Feinstein.
At the tribute, Guinness was the soul of wit and charm. "Seeing my face in so many closeups in the last 90 minutes," he said, "the experience has been rather like what I’m told it’s like to drown, when all your past passes before you."
The clips included scenes from his first films, Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, directed by David Lean, the Ealing Studios comedies The Ladykillers, Captain’s Paradise, The Man in the White Suit and his breakthrough film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, in which he played eight different parts. The clips ended with a powerful scene from The Bridge over the River Kwai, for which Guinness won the Best Actor Oscar.
The following afternoon Guinness was gracious enough to do the tribute again for a more plebeian audience, with the clips program shown in an expanded version, followed by an extended Q&A session. An audience member asked what role would he like to remembered for as his greatest contribution to British cinema. "Oh my," said Sir Alec. "That makes it all seem very grand indeed." He sighed. "Well, I suppose I might say Tunes of Glory."
Many asked questions about how he creates his characters. "Olivier supposedly chooses his characters by their noses," he replied "I used to feel I couldn’t start on a character until I knew how he walked." He told of how, as an impoverished drama student who couldn’t afford the price of a theater ticket, he roamed the streets of London copying people’s walks.