Who’s the best actor? That’s not a question, of course, that affects the future of the human race, nor can it even be answered. Film acting is radically different from stage acting, not only in distance but in selection—the film actor is subject to the director’s and editor’s determination of which moments get saved and which get scrapped. Nor can we go back and review the stage work of Olivier in relation to Edmund Kean the way we can compare Philip Seymour Hoffman with Rudolph Valentino or Meryl Streep with Marjorie Main—should we ever want to.
Still, what’s the Web for if not to make outlandish statements? So I’ll say, unequivocally: Alec Guinness. Or, more modestly, let’s just say he was an extraordinary actor.
We’ve just been on a toot of watching Alec Guinness movies: The Lady Killers, The Horse’s Mouth, Kind Hearts & Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, and last night Tunes of Glory. Of course I’d seen others—Bridge on the River Kwai, the Star Wars stuff, etc.—but there’s something immensely rewarding about watching one actor play radically different roles, from buck-toothed psychopath to buzz-cut Scots officer to eight outlandish murder victims.
What distinguishes him? First off, his transformations draw our interest the way that Dickens can sketch a character in half a dozen words. But it extends to much more than a good makeup job and a different vocal placement or accent. People have different rhythms of thought, different degrees and tempi of response. People have a consistency within their inconsistencies, but what’s interesting about a dramatic character are the surprises, the changes of direction or intent or emotion that we wouldn’t have expected. Even in a broad farce like The Ladykillers, he’s the only one of the quintet of hoodlums who allows a complexity of character within his cartoonish madness.
In an interview he once said that he doesn’t have the character solid until he finds his walk. That’s evident not only in the contrast between Gulley Jimson’s dog-trot and Jock Sinclair’s ramrod swagger, but in his overall physicality. All too often, even with stage actors who’ve had extensive conservatory movement training, we see people acting from the head up, as if on TV, unless the role allows them to flip and flop like Frankenstein’s Creature. I can’t recall as shocking/moving effect as at the climax of Tunes of Glory, after an officers’ rivalry has resulted in a suicide, when Guinness (the victor) has a sudden breakdown that flings him against the wall in a cramp of grief, as if a toy soldier is snapped in two.
Auto mechanic, author, sheepherder, heart surgeon, actor—they come in all levels of skill. I have great appreciation of our craftsmen.