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Force of One

The late Sir Alec Guinness was a powerhouse long before Obi-Wan Kenobi

Sir Alec Guinness played characters older than himself for so long that when he died on August 5, the age listed in his obituaries came as a jolt to many fans. Only 86? No way. Surely he was in his early fifties, at the very least, back in 1949, when he played all those parts in Kind Hearts and Coronets. And he had to be pushing 65 in 1958 when he starred in The Horse's Mouth. Hell, everybody knows he was at least 100 when he appeared so Forcefully in the first Star Wars trilogy. Right?

Not quite. Guinness, whose 66-year career encompassed everything from Hamlet to Obi-Wan Kenobi, was born in 1914. He came of age in humble circumstances, and relied on handouts from friends while working his way through school. Years later he would theorize about the secret of his success: He developed his prodigious versatility as an actor as an unintended consequence of his life-long desire to reinvent himself. He was an illegitimate child who never knew his father. In fact, he didn't even know the surname on his birth certificate was Guinness until he was 14. Maybe, the great actor admitted, he was able to submerge himself so completely into different characters because, throughout most of his youth, he dearly wanted to be somebody -- anybody -- else.

You could argue, of course, that genius also had something to do with it.

Dennis Price (right) is the nominal star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but Alec Guinness, who played eight different characters, is the reason for the film's endearing appeal.
Museum of Fine Arts
Dennis Price (right) is the nominal star of Kind Hearts and Coronets, but Alec Guinness, who played eight different characters, is the reason for the film's endearing appeal.

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A two-week program featuring six movies from the late Sir Alec Guinness's filmography
(713)639-7531
The Glassell School of Art's Freed Auditorium, 5101 Montrose

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It might be asking too much of any retrospective to fully convey the enormous diversity of the late, great actor's oeuvre. Wisely, Museum of Fine Arts film curator Marian Luntz has chosen to maintain a tight focus in The Genius of Guinness, the two-week program set to begin Friday, September 8, in the Glassell School of Art's Freed Auditorium. The MFA series -- planned, it should be noted, before Guinness's death -- concentrates on the movies of a ten-year span, 1949-1958, most of which were produced by the legendary Ealing Studio of London.

Established and operated by Sir Michael Balcon, Ealing specialized in comedies characterized by their droll wit, understated satire and straight-faced absurdity. (Decades after the studio's closing, critics continue to use the term "Ealing comedy" as a kind of shorthand to describe Local Hero, Saving Grace and other contemporary comedies in the Ealing spirit.) Ealing productions such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob made Guinness an international star. But then again, Guinness did as much for these movies as they did for him.


Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949): Strictly speaking, Guinness isn't the lead in this elegantly cold-blooded black comedy. Dennis Price smoothly plays the nominal protagonist, Louis Mazzini, a remorselessly resourceful young man whose late mother was disowned by her aristocratic family when she married beneath herself. Inconsolably bitter -- and despite his lowly social status, acutely snobbish -- Louis plots to methodically murder eight relatives who stand in line ahead of him to inherit a dukedom. A half-century ago, moviegoers were genuinely shocked by this blithely amoral approach to class-conscious upward mobility. And even now, there's something unsettling about the savagery that lurks just beneath the film's brittle wit. Which, of course, makes the funny business all that much funnier. Price is surprisingly sympathetic in his haughty insouciance, and he gets terrific support from Joan Greenwood as Louis's petulant (and married) mistress and Valerie Hobson as a high-minded widow who falls in love with her late husband's executioner. But Guinness is the main reason for the movie's enduring appeal; he plays all eight members of the doomed D'Ascoyne family: a cruel duke, an adulterous snob, an amateur photographer, a blustery general, a vain naval officer (who thoughtfully dies without any help from Louis), an elderly banker, a boring clergyman and, most memorably, a matronly suffragette. Guinness's versatility is nothing short of remarkable. Better still, the multiple casting is oddly comforting: It's difficult to think of Louis as a heartless fiend when his "victim" repeatedly returns to life. Warning: There has been serious talk of a possible remake with Robin Williams in Guinness's role(s). Be afraid. Be very afraid. (7:30 p.m. Friday, September 8)


The Ladykillers (1956): Try to imagine a hybrid of Humphrey Bogart and Dr. Caligari, and you're ready for Guinness's weirdly stylish turn as a would-be criminal mastermind in this mischievously sardonic farce. Outfitted with enormous teeth -- even bigger than Matt Dillon's choppers in There's Something About Mary -- Guinness plays Professor Marcus, a vaguely creepy fellow who presents himself as an amateur musician when he rents an upstairs room in the shabbily genteel home of Louisa Wilberforce (Katie Johnson), a seemingly harmless old lady. Marcus hopes to use the room, and the old lady, while conducting a heist with a motley crew of co-conspirators. (Chief among the cohorts: Peter Sellers as a chubby-faced teddy boy and Herbert Lom, who would later play straight man to Sellers's Inspector Clouseau, as an excitable tough guy.) But the tables are turned -- repeatedly, hilariously -- as the improbably resilient Ms. Wilberforce sparks a chain reaction of comic mayhem. The Ladykillers may start out as a conventional comedy about dumb crooks and cute geezers, but the humor turns progressively harsher and darker as the thieves fall out and the body count rises. Trivia note: After directing this movie and The Man in the White Suit, Alexander Mackendrick moved to America to make the deliciously cynical Sweet Smell of Success. (7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 9)

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