Oscar Actors: Guinness, Alec–The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

Alec Guinness

Alec Guinness

This year marks the centenary of Alec Guinness, the distinguished British actor and international star, who was born April 2, 1914.




The estimable Film Forum in New York is running a retrospective of Guinness’ work throughout the month of June.

For young American moviegoers, who came of age in the 1970, the name of Alec Guinness connotes the guru Obi-Wan Kenobi, the popular part of the old wise spiritual warrior he played in George Lucas’ cult movie trilogy “Star Wars,” for which he received his last competitive Oscar nomination (in the Supporting Actor category).  However, contrary to popular notions, the intimate association with the “Star Wars” movies did not bring a sense of joy but some resentment and even consternation; he claimed to have thrown out all the “Star Wars” fan mail unopened. (More about this later).

nw0qarmwtdaYoung viewers may not realize that Guinness, who died in 2000 at the age 86, was one of the greatest chameleon actors of both British and international cinema, boasting a career that had spanned six decades.  In his glorious career, Guinness had appeared in just about every medium of entertainment: stage (London’s West and New York’s Broadway), film (both in the U.K. and Hollywood), radio, and TV.

A decade or so younger than the quartet of giant British performance quartet of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, and Michael Redgrave, Guinness was a different kind of actor. While the others were masterful thespians—all eccentric–who liked to show off their bravura talent, range, and skills, Guinness was a more interior, perhaps even modest (if this is the right word) actor, one better attuned to the scale of everyday life and to the tricks of disguise and disappearance into his roles.

doctor_zhivago_5_sharifHis colleague Peter Ustinov has called Guinness “the outstanding poet of anonymity.”  And indeed, drawing on physical appearance, which was appealing but not remarkable, Guinness could look like an ordinary man.  He was an actor who relished the idea of transforming himself, quite literally sense, into being and playing every man and any man.

Despite an impressive range, Guinness is perhaps best remembered for two cycles of films, the first of which defined by its genre—comedy–and the second by its director—David Lean, with whom he enjoyed six collaborations, ranging from 1946 to 1984.

Smart Alec, the Comedian

Guinness first made his mark in appearing in the Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s.  This uniquely English genre–and pride of British post-WWII cinema– made Guinness an international star.  These comedies, which were gratefully put together in the “Special DVD Alec Guinness Collection,” in 2002, include: “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949), “The Lavender Hill Mob” and “The Man in the White Suit” (both in 1951), and “The Ladykillers” (1955).

Though he had appeared in “Great Expectations,” as Herbert Pocket, Guinness’ first big part was as a heavily made-up Fagin in another Lean film, “Oliver Twist,” in 1948, which he followed with an eight-role tour de force, playing every member of the noble D’Ascoyne clan, including an admiral, an elderly parson, and a suffragette, in “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”

Guinness was one of three major British actors, along with Olivier and Gielgud, who, immediately after the Second World War, successfully transitioned from Shakespearean theatre in England to Hollywood blockbusters.  As well as a 1957 Oscar Award, he has also won a BAFTA Award, Golden Globe, and  Tony Award.

star_wars_episode_iv_2_hamill_fordAnother Guinness’ British film, “Our Man in Havana,” from 1959, should be singled out. Directed by Carol Reed, based on the Graham Greene novel and set in pre-revolutionary Cuba, the film combines espionage intrigue with flavorsome locations.  Guinness makes for a suave spy, a profession he would later play to perfection as George Smiley, in John Le Carré’s famous thriller novel.

David Lean Collaborations

Guinness won his greatest acclaim and international popularity for his extensive work with director David Lean. He played Herbert Pocket in “Great Expectations” (1946) and Fagin in “Oliver Twist” (1948), which was controversial due to charges of anti-semitism interpretation by the director.  Most famously of all, Guinness played the unyielding British Col. Nicholson in the Second World War prison drama, “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957), for which he won a well deserved Best Actor Oscar.

Despite a difficult and often hostile relationship, Lean, referring to Guinness as “my good luck charm,” continued to cast Guinness in character roles in his later films: Aran leader Prince Feisel in Lawrence of Arabia; the title character’s half-brother, Bolshevik leader Yevgraf, in Lean’s blockbuster “Doctor Zhivago” (1965); and Indian mystic Professor Godbole in Lean’s last theatrical feature, “A Passage to India” (1984).  He was also offered a role in Lean’s “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970), but declined, because at that time, he had come to “mistrust” Lean and considered the earlier close relationship as strained.

Guinness won a  Tony Award for his Broadway performance as poet Dylan Thomas in Dyaln.  Guinness made his final stage performance at the Comedy Theatre on May 30, 1989, in the play A Walk in the Woods.  In all, between 1934 and 1989, he played 77 parts in the theatre.

Life of Awards

In 1959, Guinness was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for services to the arts.  He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, and an Honorary Oscar Award for lifetime achievement in 1980.