Most movie actors lavish on us the gift of their charisma. That is star quality: the mass production of ego. But there is another, circuitous route to film immortality. An actor who would follow this course must be more daring. He must hide in front of the camera, collapse his personality and confound our expectations, remake himself with each role. He knows there are blessings in disguise. It is the opposite of star quality: black-hole quality.
"Alec Guinness," wrote critic Kenneth Tynan admiringly, "has no face." So true. Sir Alec, who died this month at 86, was the most self-effacing screen actor imaginable, often retreating under a mountain of makeup. He borrowed the props of anti-Semitism to create a monstrously engaging Fagin for Oliver Twist. He found the proper wigs and noses and shadings for each of the eight doomed D'Ascoynes, one of them a woman, in the elegantly misanthropic high comedy that was Kind Hearts and Coronets.
Guinness would search the globe for new accents and characters: Japanese (A Majority of One), Bedouin (Lawrence of Arabia), Russian (Doctor Zhivago), Indian (A Passage to India). His transparency made it easy for him to incarnate specters; he was Marley's Ghost in Scrooge and Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars--the role that heaped on him the annoyance of multigenerational fame. But "the force" was not with Guinness; delicacy and subversive wit were.
Should we look for the "real" Guinness in any of these beguiling, watchful creatures? Or in the hint of melodramatic mystery in his childhood as the illegitimate son of a man whose identity he didn't know? No. Guinness's art is beyond the reach of psychoanalysis or stargazing. His 1985 autobiography, Blessings in Disguise, begins with these words: "Enter EGO from the wings, pursued by fiends. Exit EGO."
In his memoir he spoke of himself in the third person, as if Alec Guinness were another, lesser role: "He is well aware he is not in the same class as Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson." Guinness is certainly in the class of these great actors, but he is not of their species. They were always out front, filling a stage or a screen with their presence. Guinness was an inside man, guileful--a master spy, all the more imposing for his invisibility. And more than any other British actor of his stature, Guinness had a miniaturist style that was made for movies. He knew the camera would find him. But not find him out.
The camera was delighted to find the young Guinness popping into Great Expectations as the giddily genial Herbert Pocket. It embraced him, in Guinness's grand postwar decade of Ealing Studios comedies--both as that Candidean innocent, the creator of a miracle fabric in The Man in the White Suit, and as the mousy banker who nearly pulls off the legendary Eiffel Tower paperweight caper in The Lavender Hill Mob. It saw him locate the suicidal pride of the colonel in The Bridge on the River Kwai. The camera may even have captured an on-the-fly self-portrait when the older Guinness sat, purring and omniscient, for the role of George Smiley in the two '80s mini-series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People. Perhaps, in the sum of these men, we caught a profile of the composite Guinness character: he defined what it meant, at the sunset of the empire, to be an Englishman.