Column: A Guinness to savor

GARY PAUL GATES

GARY PAUL GATES

I’ve been an avid admirer of the brilliant British actor Alec Guinness for more years than I care to count, and I recently had the delightful experience of revisiting — over a short time frame — three of his best films.

This cinematic fling began on a Friday evening earlier this month when my wife, Phyllis, and I looked at a TCM airing of “The Lavender Hill Mob,” the 1951 comic crime caper that was one of his first big hits.

Then two nights later, we were part of a merry group that gathered at the home of friends here where we had a splendid dinner and viewed a special screening of “The Horse’s Mouth,” which revolved around Guinness’s inspired portrayal of a raffish, eccentric artist named Gulley Jimson.

And two nights after that, I was among the loyal corps of cinema buffs who attended the latest presentation of the esteemed Movies at the Library series. That Tuesday evening happened to be a screening of another Guinness gem, “Tunes of Glory,” a riveting tale about class conflict in a Scottish military barracks.

All three of these pictures were made in the 1950s and each of them is now widely regarded as a classic.

Watching Guinness at the top of his form in movies I saw for the first time many years ago unleashed a flood of vivid memories. In particular, I recalled an interview I had with him back in 1964.

Like many other young journalists from that era, I started out at a news agency — in my case, United Press International — and after two years of covering sports for UPI in Detroit, my hometown, I managed to maneuver a transfer to the National Desk in New York.

My main job there was to work on big headline stories — politics, civil rights and other front-page stuff that comprised UPI’s stock-in-trade. But my great passion was film and theater and so from time to time, as a reward for my labors in the trenches of hard-news coverage, I was allowed to do feature pieces on luminaries in  those glamorous spheres of endeavor.

When I heard that a production of a new play about Dylan Thomas had opened on Broadway with Alec Guinness in the title role, Guinness zoomed to the top of my to-do list. I made arrangements to see the show and set up an interview with its star.

The play, called simply “Dylan,” focused on a series of visits Thomas made to America in the early 1950s to give public readings on college campuses and other citadels of high culture.

No one ever read poetry better than Dylan Thomas. He had an actor’s flair for drama and was blessed with a rich, booming voice that he used to maximum effect on the podium. And Thomas’s robust performances were fueled by his extravagant personality.

He was rollicking, boisterous, a fellow who drank far too much and took delight in creating mischief and/or havoc.
In the play, Guinness skillfully captured Thomas’s flamboyant nature  as well as the dark insecurities that lurked beneath the surface. In the spring of 1964, he was awarded a Tony for that season’s best performance by an actor.

At my urging, our interview took place over a casual lunch at the White Horse Tavern, a cozy pub in Greenwich Village that was renowned for having been Thomas’s favorite watering hole during his periodic sojourns in New York.

Early on in our conversation, I told Guinness that I assumed this was not his first visit to “the Horse.” “You’re quite right,” he said. “When we were in rehearsal, I came down here a few times. Mainly for the talk, you know. And the atmosphere.”

When I brought up Thomas, Guinness freely admitted that he still felt “a little intimidated” by the larger-than-life character he was playing. He went on to say that the challenge was to strike a balance between “the man’s glorious talent and the dreadful demons that drove him to drink himself to death. As I’m sure you know, Dylan was only 39 when he died.”

Then, after a long pause, he murmured in a voice that had dropped to a whisper, “What a loss.”

I mentioned that when I saw the play, the thought crossed my mind that Dylan Thomas was a real-life version of the mischievous, heavy-drinking painter that Guinness played in “The Horse’s Mouth.”

“Ah, Gulley,” he said with an elfin grin. “You know, of all the roles I’ve been privileged to play, that one is my favorite. Hands down.”

We then talked about some of those other movie roles: the mild-mannered crook in “The Lavender Hill Mob,” the eight different characters he played in “Kind Hearts and Coronets” — a virtuoso triumph if there ever was one — and the obstinate colonel in the epic World War II drama, “The Bridge on the River Kwai.” For his performance in that film, Guinness won the Academy Award for Best Actor.

At another point, I offered my belated congratulations for his having been knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1959.

“Oh, let’s not get into that,” he said with a hearty laugh. “You Americans must think we are all raving mad with our ‘Sir This’ and ‘Lord That’ business. What can I say? We’re trapped in our traditions.”

And so it went. I must confess I was utterly charmed by Sir Alec’s deferential manner and, especially, his subtle, self-deprecating wit. My favorite exchange came toward the end of our interview when I asked if there was a new Guinness movie looming on the horizon.

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” he said. “There’s something coming out soon called ‘The Fall of the Roman Empire.’ I play an emperor — Marcus Aurelius.”

“Good!” I exclaimed. “I’ll look forward to seeing it.”

His reply to that was punctuated by a sly smile: “Oh, I shouldn’t bother with it if I were you. It adds little to Gibbon.”

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