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Biography of Alec Guinness delivers only half the story

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``Alec Guinness: The Authorized Biography'' by Piers Paul Read; Simon & Schuster ($35)


Here's what Sir Alec Guinness wrote in a letter to a friend about working on the movie that would come to eclipse his career, ``Star Wars.''

"Rubishy dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper ... I just think, thankfully, of the lovely bread. ... I must off to studio and work with a dwarf (very sweet - and he has to wash in a bidet)."

The voice and manner of Guinness comes through crystal clear in his "authorized biography," a work by family friend Piers Paul Read. The author of ``Alec Guinness'' was handpicked by Guinness' widow to sort through the late actor's letters and diaries and make some sort of definitive recounting of his life.

It isn't. Because what we know about Guinness or care to know has to do with his work, the films that endure - The Bridge on the River Kwai,''Great Expectations,'' Kind Hearts and Coronets,''Star Wars'' - and his splendid late-life TV miniseries Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy'' andSmiley's People'' - performances that live on now on DVD.

Read gives short shrift to that work. The legendary films, Guinness' annoyed relationship with ``Star Wars'' and what it meant to his legacy, his gift for mimicry and transforming himself for roles, all are treated too briefly for any true fan to be satisfied with this biography.

Read does give a good accounting of Guinness' early years and first breaks in the theater. It was a life that so paralleled something out of Dickens that Guinness adapted ``Great Expectations'' for the stage years before David Lean cast him as Herbert Pocket in the film version.

Read focuses on Guinness the man. And even though he was possibly a closeted homosexual (who may have never acted on those desires), even though he kept his wife at a distance and his son at a greater one, the picture that emerges isn't that interesting.

Guinness was a chilly British fussbudget, a poor boy who grew rich and lived his life in imitation of the aristocracy around him. He suffered from depression, and never seemed to get much joy out of anything.

Even his more "monstrous" aspects, his velvet-gloved "cruelty" to his wife, his efforts to distance himself from the drunken thief of a mother who had him out of wedlock, all seem tame and tepid by the standards by which film-star biographies are measured.

Read used his access to the Guinness diaries to build a convincing case for the man's repressed sexuality. He expounds, at length, on Guinness' religious quest for meaning. But being a bit of a bore, Guinness always opted for the safe - endless flirtation with younger men, but no action. Endless religious questioning, leading to staid and traditional Roman Catholicism.

Read suggests that this was a life half-lived, and that this is reflected in the work. Guinness was great at subsuming his personality on stage and screen because he didn't really have one. He took fewer and fewer risks as an actor until the only thing he was suited for was a role as a bearded, unflappable Jedi, or a dapper, dull and officious spy.

``Alec Guinness'' is a thoroughgoing account of the man behind the mask. We learn all about his war years; the put-downs he suffered from the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud, the man who launched his career; his long-suffering wife; his cherished dog; and the country home he earned and kept for almost half a century.

But Read leaves out the mask itself. Thus, ``The Authorized Biography'' feels like only half the story.


(c) 2005, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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