Alec Guinness, the Eight-Faced Man
Aug 27, 2000
Review by David Abrams
Rated a Very Helpful Review
Pros:Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness, Alec Guinness and Dennis Price
Cons:THICK British accents sometimes muddle dialogue
Before there was Eddie Murphy, there was Alec Guinness. Before the Klumps, the d’Ascoynes.
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Decades before Murphy made his mark playing a simultaneous multitude of characters in the Nutty Professor movies (and flicks like Life and Coming to America), the impeccable Guinness put the first chalk mark on the wall when he took on eight different roles—all members of the d’Ascoyne family—in 1949’s Kind Hearts and Coronets. While Murphy transforms himself with pounds of latex (and a sprinkling of digital imagery), Guinness did it all with a minimum of makeup, depending instead on good old-fashioned acting. Not to take anything away from the fine abilities of Mr. Murphy, but Sir Alec could stump the Klumps any day of the week.
When he died at age 86 on August 5 of this year, Guinness was generally regarded as one of the finest thespians the United Kingdom ever produced, sharing the spotlight with Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud. Like his colleagues, Guinness got his start with “legitimate” acting, i.e., the the-ah-tah. Stage roles in classics by Shakespeare, Chekhov and Shaw eventually landed him a plum role as Herbert Pocket in David Lean’s 1946 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. If you’ve ever seen that delightful movie, it is impossible to forget Guinness’ pale, socially-stammering Pocket.
It was a triumphant debut and launched Guinness on a career that would arc through an astounding gallery of characters: Fagin in Oliver Twist, a Cold War spy in Smiley’s People, an Arabian rebel in Lawrence of Arabia, and, in perhaps his greatest performance, a starch-stiff British prisoner-of-war in The Bridge Over the River Kwai. He also played Julius Caesar, Adolph Hitler, Sigmund Freud, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, King Charles I and Pope Innocent III.
Sadly, Sir Alec is best remembered by the current generation for his rather brief roles in the first three Star Wars movies as the droll, droning Obi-Wan Kenobi. I say “sadly” because Guinness hated the part. He reportedly urged George Lucas to give the character an early send-off, then later said: “What I didn't tell him was that I just couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines. I'd had enough of the mumbo jumbo.” Mumbo jumbo or not, Star Wars earned him plenty of Tatooine shekels, which allowed him to take other roles where he didn’t end up as an action figure on Wal-Mart shelves.
As a tribute to the actor’s illustrious career, Epinions member knix organized today’s write-off in which several of us are celebrating some of our favorite “pints of Guinness.” We were free to pick any of his dozens of films to review…as long as it wasn’t one of the Star Wars flicks. I chose the delightful Kind Hearts and Coronets; others found different treasures from the Guinness filmography. When you’re through here, please go read the offerings by my fellow reviewers Andrew_Hicks, fdknight, redwolfoz, mangiotto, janesbit1, energy81, Stone77777, ZentropaJK, Brundledan, brando814, knix, Donlee_Brussel, Curtis_Edmonds, bigjack, Macresarf1, lars_lindahl, ChrisJarmick and psychovant. You can find their reviews on their member profile pages or by going to this link: www.redwolf.com.au/epinions.
Kind Hearts and Coronets is the kind of black comedy that could have only been delivered by the likes of Guinness and other dry-wit Brits back at the mid-point of the 20th century. It was released by Ealing Studios, which was then at its heyday (Ealing also produced two other Guinness favorites: The Lavender Hill Mob and The Man in the White Suit). The studio specialized in the kind of acerbic English humor that’s so dry, putting butter on the characters’ breakfast toast would lead to apoplexies and fainting spells. How else do you explain the droll humor found in Kind Hearts’ murder, revenge and a pending execution?
As the movie opens, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) is sitting in prison, neatly dressed in a silk robe and dining on gourmet victuals as he pens his memoirs. He’s an elegant, impeccable figure of the Edwardian era and we immediately ask ourselves, “How on earth did such an upper-crust chap end up so far below the crust?” Louis is about to tell us as he launches into a dapper, ironic narration while the events of his life play in a series of rapid flashbacks.
He was born to the daughter of a duke and a penniless Italian singer, who promptly keels over dead at the sight of his newborn son. Unfortunately, Louis’ mother was disowned by the dukedom when she married below her class. When she dies and the family refuses to inter her in the ancestral vault, Louis is forced to bury her in a “hideous suburban grave.” That’s when he vows to claim his birthright, to take revenge on the d’Ascoynes, to prune the family tree, as it were. And so, he sets about killing, one by one, the remaining members of the aristocracy…who, oddly enough, all resemble Alec Guinness.
While he is cold-bloodedly dispatching Guinness many times over, Louis is also torn between two women. On the one hand, there’s Sibella (Joan Greenwood), his childhood friend who wanted to marry someone richer than the poor opera singer’s son…so, she wed a boorish businessman who gives her money but not happiness. Then there’s Edith (Valerie Hobson), the widow of one of his victims with whom he finds himself falling in love.
The movie clips along at a blistering pace, the witty dialogue traversing its course like a babbling brook through the labyrinthine plot. There are twists, there are turns, there are British accents so thick you could slice them up and serve them with tea and crumpets. At times, it’s hard to catch everything the characters are saying, but there’s such an air of good cheer and icy humor that you shrug it off and go with the flow.
Dennis Price as the wronged heir is simply marvelous in the lead role. While he made many more movies in the 1950s and 60s, it’s a shame he never got more roles like this. Sadly, he spent the last years of his career appearing in movies like The Erotic Rites of Frankenstein, Theatre of Blood and Horror Hospital. But here, he’s at his peak, completely in control of his craft and giving the film its spark.
If Price is the spark, then Guinness is the flame. When they talk about tour-de-force, this is the kind of performance (er, performances) they’ve got in mind. Sir Alec is a shape-shifter, barely recognizable as he cascades through eight different characters—ranging from a happy-go-lucky photographer to an admiral who goes down with his ship to Lady Agatha the suffragette. Each d’Ascoyne is carefully constructed and we always get the feeling that it’s an entirely new person—perhaps even an entirely new actor—we’re seeing on the screen. Some of the ill-fated d’Ascoynes have substantial scenes, others appear only briefly before they are blown to bits, drowned, shot or otherwise lopped from the family tree. Every new Guinness is a revelation, each is an utter delight.
My personal favorite of all the d’Ascoynes was the good-hearted photographer Henry who befriends Louis. He’s a simple, charming fellow who sneaks away from his teetotaling wife to take a nip of whiskey in the darkroom every now and then. He’s such a likeable fellow, I really hated to see him go.
Rather like the way I felt on August 5.
Farewell, Sir Alec…You will be gravely missed…
In 1932, [Guinness] went to work as an apprentice copywriter in a London advertising agency. “The very first thing I did was on impulse to phone Martita Hunt and ask her to give me acting lessons,” he recalled years later. “After a few lessons she sent me packing.” In fact, after 12 lessons, Miss Hunt, a renowned actress who later played Miss Habersham with him in Great Expectations, told the drab and emaciated young man in 1933, “You’ll never make an actor, Mr. Guinness.”
—from the New York Times obituary
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