British actor and Academy Award-winner Sir Alec Guinness will be forever enshrined in cinema's Hall of Fame for his wryly cool Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi in George Lucas' phenomenal franchise blockbusters Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and The Return of the Jedi (1983). Although somewhat embarrassed over the giddy fan acclaim he garnered in the space opera movies, calling them “fairy tale rubbish...with excruciating dialogue...very noisy but warm-hearted,” he had wisely negotiated a percentage of Lucas's profits for playing the role and wound up a very rich man in the last decades of his life.
For all you millennials who only know Sir Alex as the avuncular mentor to Luke Skywalker, Guinness's massive body of film work is a study in excellence. He had a face for character parts and a grounding in Shakespeare at the Old Vic that carried over onto the silver screen in unforgettable portrayals that are the epitome of film acting. He commanded the screen and you never, ever took your eyes off him. Subtle and constantly shape-shifting, never making a wrong choice, he's an actor's actor.
The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is saluting this giant of movie actors with a July retrospective that covers nearly all the bases: Alec Guinness: A Man For All Seasons. His early screen debuts in David Lean's Great Expectations (1946), as foppish Herbert Pocket (though Martita Hunt, as if dressed in cobwebs, steals the film out from under him as dissolute, vengeful Miss Havisham), and then most amazingly as the most greasy and opportunistic Fagin in Lean's soot-stained Oliver Twist (1948), perhaps the greatest of all Dickens's screen adaptations.
Guinness's comic chops are abundantly displayed in four iconic comedies that only the British producers, the Ealing Studios, knew how to put across: Robert Hamer's black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), where Sir Alex plays nine family members killed off one by one for the inheritance; Alexander Mackendrick's The Man in the White Suit, with Guinness as a shy chemist who invents a fabric that never soils or wears out, to the great displeasure of the world's clothing manufacturers; Charles Crichton's The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), a caper of a crime farce with Guinness as an unassuming bank teller who hatches the perfect robbery; Alexander Mackendrick's ghoulishly funny The Lady Killers, with Guinness posing as a chamber musician whose intricate plot for a bank heist with his cronies goes comically awry under the dubious eye of landlady Katie Johnson.
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The final two films offer Guinness in his great actor mode: Ronald Neame's sardonic Tunes of Glory (1960) with Guinness playing a troop-favorite Major who faces his replacement in the Scottish highlands regiment; and David Lean's stirring The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), with Guinness in his Academy Award-winning portrait of martinet Colonel Nicholson, a prisoner of war, who oversees the building of a bridge for the Japanese.
If these favorites whet your appetite, I urge you to find other gems that MFAH isn't programming: Lean's resplendent Lawrence of Arabia, the tear-stained romance Doctor Zhivago and the erotically charged A Passage to India (all boosted by Guinness's perfection); Ronald Neame's The Horse's Mouth (for which Guinness received an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay Adaptation); and Anthony Krimmins's delightfully jaundiced The Captain's Paradise, in which Guinness as a ferry boat commander has the perfect life with two separate wives. His final film work, posthumously, was the use of his honeyed voice as Obi-Wan in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). No matter what glories he accomplished on screen, he couldn't escape that galaxy far, far away.
MFAH film schedule:
Great Expectations, 7 p.m. July 7
Oliver Twist, 7 p.m. July 8
The Man in the White Suit, 7 p.m. July 14
Kind Hearts and Coronets, 7 p.m. July 15
The Ladykillers, 7 p.m. July 21
The Lavender Hill Mob, 7 p.m. July 22
Tunes of Glory, 7 p.m. August 4
Bridge on the River Kwai, 4 p.m. August 5
Alec Guinness: An Actor for All Seasons runs July 7 through August 5 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/film. $7 to $9.