Secret Intelligence

Blessings in Disguise

by Alec Guinness
Knopf, 238 pp., $17.95

Concealing itself with a squirt of ink, the octopus makes a cloud which if seen from far enough away looks like a revelation. Alec Guinness’s autobiography has been a big hit in his native country. The British value their actor-knights so highly that they bought even Lord Olivier’s autobiography, an obvious attempt to entangle the curious reader in the outer defenses and leave him there to die of boredom. By turning on the charm instead of the electrified fence, Guinness makes himself even less accessible in his book. He comes out of it as a regular guy, just like you and me but with a measure of acting talent, and he writes well enough to make this fantasy sound plausible. Blessings in Disguise is a heartwarming document, a reassuring pledge of sincerity, like the newspaper which the con man asks you to look after for him until he comes back again with your fifty dollars.

Great deceivers don’t lie, they merely omit. There is no telling how much of his life story Guinness has left out. But there is a suspect docility about what he has left in. This is the tale of how life happened to a nondescript. Broke and unknown in a furnished room, he learns from the great at the Old Vic during the mid-Thirties, makes his name, does his bit in the Royal Navy during the war, becomes a film star more by luck than judgment, receives high honor by a fluke, and winds up shyly blinking in the effulgence of his own apotheosis. One has had so much good fortune.

The reader might need to remind himself that the real Alec Guinness has imposed himself with a success made only more brilliant by the fact that he seemed so unimposing. Whereas the other British stage stars asserted their individual styles with a verve that cried out for comment, Guinness offered little that a critic could pin down. Olivier prowled and yelped, Richardson boomed and lurched, Gielgud made mellow music. Guinness remembers in this book that the only time a critic praised him for making music on the stage, another critic accused him of having no music at all. Guinness forgets to mention that he first pointed out this favorite moment of critical self-cancellation in his contribution to a little symposium called An Experience of Critics more than thirty years ago. He was always, and rightly, pleased with his personal enigma. His colorlessness was his characteristic. On stage he used it to hold his own against those who dazzled, and on screen he used it to leave them standing—or, rather, prowling, lurching, and making music.

There is no denying that Guinness could never have equaled the nectarine sonority of Gielgud’s speeches in Chimes at Midnight or been as weirdly adorable as Richardson in Greystoke. Nor is there any doubt that Olivier, besides being responsible for directing at least two of the greatest Shakespeare films, is far and away the most gifted British actor to adorn…

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