Saturday, June 4, 2011

Alec Guinness : The Authorised Biography - Piers Paul Read

' You must remember something about Alec, he is a not very nice man trying to be a good one'.

Percy Harris.

 I like biographies and have read my fair share of them over the years, but looking back at my Paul Newman review I realise I'm not good at writing about them! Biographies are a difficult genre to write because they are  attempting the truely impossible, namely getting inside another human being's mind. All the biographer can really achieve is a sort of interpretation of the subject. In saying that biographers can fall into a trap of either being too biased for or against the subject. It is a difficult balancing act, and after having read two biographies back to back, and with totally different styles, I will say that Shawn Levy's biography on Paul Newman is far the superior. Levy brought Newman to life, Read puts Guinness into oblique shadows.

 The problem with Piers Paul Read is that he became friends with Alec Guinness about ten years before his death. Guinness liked Read's novels and after his death Guinness's wife Merula gave Read permission to write Guinness's authorised biography with uninhibited access to all his papers and diaries. She died before it was completed but the Guinness' son Matthew looked it over before publishing. All through the biography I couldn't escape the feeling of having Matthew Guinness looking over Read's shoulder as there is an over-riding feel of vagueness and subtle censorship. Alec Guinness was a very guarded and private man, for very obvious reasons, but somehow Read doesn't capture Guinness in the way Levy captured Newman.

 Even with Guinness' papers etc Read has a knack of dancing around Guinness and not really giving the reader a 'feel' for the man. Remember Read was friends with Guinness and yet he still can't write/paint a literal picture of him. Shawn Levy never met Paul Newman but he makes the reader 'feel' Newman in a way that Read frustratingly doesn't. Read has basically written a dry chronology of Guinness life and danced around his less savoury aspects as if he his afraid to offend anyone.

 Alec Guinness wasn't a nice man as such. He was cruel to wife in his life long belittlement of her and he was aloof from from his son. He was sharp tonged, tack less, and difficult to get along with as he could take offence to the very smallest of imagined slights. Read shows that his upbringing had much to do with this as he was ashamed by being born out of wedlock. His mother refused to tell him who his father was. His mother was an even bigger embarrassment as she was a petty thief and general never do well.

 Throughout his life Guinness kept his humble beginnings secret, as he did with his homosexual leanings. Although married he never had a homosexual encounter and fought all his life against his 'condition'. He became a Catholic so he could confession as an release valve to his homosexuality. He kept it secret because in his early career homosexuality was still illegal in Britain and if known would have been the end of his career. Read says Guinness entered into acting like many homosexuals did because it gave them the ability to be someone else and escape themselves. Apparently most of Britain's male stage actors were gay, including the legendary John Gielgud who helped Guinness in his early years.

 Homosexuality runs right throughout the whole the biography and to be honest I got a bit sick of it. I was starting to wonder if I am the only straight guy in the world. It seemed as if every male in the biography was gay!! Unfortunately Read doesn't really come to terms with Guinness' homosexuality as he frustratingly dances around it. He does give enough to the reader to leave no question about his leaning but he somehow projects a feeling of vagueness about it all. Guinness did marry and stayed with his wife until his death even though he became celibate and stopped having sex with her from the age of forty. This was due to his homosexuality but also because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Read surmises that by being celibate he would be able to keep his yearnings under control. We can only guess at Guinness' mindset as he left nothing in his diaries etc about his homosexuality but there is enough between the lines evidence to see he was tormented by it.

 His homosexuality clashed with his theology. He knew what the church felt about homosexuality and he spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the two. This internal battle Read says is why he was so ill tempered and difficult as the man he projected was not the man he wanted to be. Throughout his life he struggled with bouts of depression and doubts on his acting abilities. There is no question he was a tormented and conflicted man, and I think his high intellect exasperated the problem. He was an intelligent and extremely well read man to be sure, and became quite dis-missive of those who weren't. He hated the British 'class' system and yet became a snob himself, calling the lower classes 'common' and most people he met 'bores'. He was really trying to escape his own back ground and did so by de-basing others.

 He treated his wife quite cruelly and yet there is no doubt he loved her. ( God only knows why she stayed with him because he constantly belittled her even though she was quite intelligent and talented herself ). After stopping the sex the marriage was more one of companionship, and for all his homosexual leanings it appears he never wanted to leave his wife. Read points out Guinness' unease with woman in his acting. His on screen romances were flat and he never fizzed with any of his leading ladies. Even with Grace Kelly he didn't gel 'romantically' on screen. He was also an incurable control freak and extremely bossy. His wife was a talented actress and could have done well in the profession. Guinness made her give it up because he thought if she failed it would ruin his career to!! Again we see Guinness keeping up appearances.

 I found the whole biography too chronological and found myself drifting off at times as Read's narrative failed to engage me. As a biography it is somewhat too long and I'm not a fan of the constant use of letters and diary entries to let Guinness speak in his own words. I found myself skipping them after a while. I was deeply disappointed too at the real lack of depth and look at Guinness career as a whole. Again it is too chronological and nothing new is added to any particular stage performance or film role. All we get is a series of diary entries on what Guinness saw and felt. It makes grim reading at times as he was so dismissive of so many of those he worked with.

 In essence what the biography does show is that Alec Guinness was a very complex and tormented man. His humble up bringing and ambivalence towards his mother saw him become a snob in later life. Combined with his repressed homosexuality Alec Guinness became a difficult person to be around. He could be very generous helping out friends financially but he could also be rude and extremely cutting. In short he wasn't a nice person but he tried very hard to be. All this Piers Paul Read reveals but to be honest I think anyone who meet Guinness professionally or privately already knew this so Read hasn't revealed anything new. He may have just confirmed what everyone knew and explained why.

 Alec Guinness : The Authorised Biography was a disappointment. It is dry and vague. I don't subscribe to the theory that this was so so because he was vague and secretive about himself. I think Read had the Guinness family shadow looking over his shoulder and he was politely held back from really going deeper into his subject. It is far too chronological and provides so very little on the aspects of Guinness' career I wished to know more of. For instance there is virtually nothing in regards to The Bridge on the River Kwai and how he personally felt about his Oscar. This is poor as it was Guinness' greatest role and is hardly mentioned. Very disappointing considering I have just seen four of his films recently, and is the reason I read the biography in the first place.

 In all Guinness' character is revealed within an examination of why he was the way he was. Somehow though Read doesn't deliver the reader Alec Guinness, only a dry shadow of the man. After finishing I couldn't escape the feeling that was Read's intention. Authorised biography yes, but really the sort of biography Guinness himself would want written about himself, vague and unrevealing. Hard to recommend as it provides very little on what the reader wants to know about Guinness, and the constant letter and diary entries are a pain. I can't describe it as little more then a non-biography, forever skirting around but never going in.

Click here for a review from 2003, the year of publishing:


  1. Interesting review. It is tough to "get a feel" for the subject when the teller is too friendly. I often don't read biographies of people I admire as I don't want their "person" to affect how I enjoy the work. Still, when I do read, I'm not satisfied with "vague."

  2. I'm the opposite as I feel what they are in private can come out in their work. I think Guinness was a good example of this. His amazing intellect and desire to hide his real self made him the actor he was. For me he is without doubt one of the 20th Centuries greatest actors.

  3. Very poorly written.

  4. Most of his friends had an inkling regarding his homosexuality.
    Kay Walsh said something about "I thought something else about him and I still loved him".
    A great actor with a block on his shoulder that he carried throughout his life.