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Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography

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Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. With a talent recognised by discerning critics from his very first appearance on the stage, he gained a world-wide reputation playing roles on the screen such as Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and Sidney Stratton in "The Man in the White Suit." His performance as Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the Riv Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. With a talent recognised by discerning critics from his very first appearance on the stage, he gained a world-wide reputation playing roles on the screen such as Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and Sidney Stratton in "The Man in the White Suit." His performance as Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" won him an Oscar and, in his later years, he captivated a new generation of admirers as George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars." Guinness was a man who vigorously guarded his privacy and, despite publishing an autobiography and two volumes of his diaries, he remained an enigma to the general public and a mystery even to his family and closest friends. After his death in August 2000, his widow, Merula, asked the author Piers Paul Read, who had been a friend of her husband, to write his authorised biography. Given full co-operation by the Guinness family and free access to Sir Alec's papers, including his private and unpublished diaries, Read has written an enjoyable, yet penetrating and perceptive account of an intriguing and complex man. Read shows how Guinness's quirks of character and genius had roots in the circumstances of his early life. His marriage to Merula Salaman, a young actress of great promise, is chronicled by the many hundred letters Guinness wrote to her when serving in the Navy during World War II, while his post-war diaries reveal that readjustment to civilian life was traumatic, with doubts about his talent and a confusion about his sexual nature leading to bouts of severe depression. Guinness's conversion to Catholicism in 1956 partly exorcised his demons, but he never wholly escaped the contradictions of his life -- his domestic ties vying with wayward passions, a yearning for holiness with an intolerance of constraint, a raw sensitivity to the feelings of others with an irascible and domineering nature. Yet from the diaries and letters to his friends quoted extensively in this biography, there emerges a man of great compassion, generosity, wit and charm -- intellectually curious, a talented writer, a great gossip, bon viveur and munificent host.


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Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. With a talent recognised by discerning critics from his very first appearance on the stage, he gained a world-wide reputation playing roles on the screen such as Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and Sidney Stratton in "The Man in the White Suit." His performance as Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the Riv Sir Alec Guinness was one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century. With a talent recognised by discerning critics from his very first appearance on the stage, he gained a world-wide reputation playing roles on the screen such as Fagin in "Oliver Twist" and Sidney Stratton in "The Man in the White Suit." His performance as Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai" won him an Oscar and, in his later years, he captivated a new generation of admirers as George Smiley in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and Obi-Wan Kenobi in "Star Wars." Guinness was a man who vigorously guarded his privacy and, despite publishing an autobiography and two volumes of his diaries, he remained an enigma to the general public and a mystery even to his family and closest friends. After his death in August 2000, his widow, Merula, asked the author Piers Paul Read, who had been a friend of her husband, to write his authorised biography. Given full co-operation by the Guinness family and free access to Sir Alec's papers, including his private and unpublished diaries, Read has written an enjoyable, yet penetrating and perceptive account of an intriguing and complex man. Read shows how Guinness's quirks of character and genius had roots in the circumstances of his early life. His marriage to Merula Salaman, a young actress of great promise, is chronicled by the many hundred letters Guinness wrote to her when serving in the Navy during World War II, while his post-war diaries reveal that readjustment to civilian life was traumatic, with doubts about his talent and a confusion about his sexual nature leading to bouts of severe depression. Guinness's conversion to Catholicism in 1956 partly exorcised his demons, but he never wholly escaped the contradictions of his life -- his domestic ties vying with wayward passions, a yearning for holiness with an intolerance of constraint, a raw sensitivity to the feelings of others with an irascible and domineering nature. Yet from the diaries and letters to his friends quoted extensively in this biography, there emerges a man of great compassion, generosity, wit and charm -- intellectually curious, a talented writer, a great gossip, bon viveur and munificent host.

30 review for Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography

  1. 4 out of 5

    Christopher

    This mostly is concerned with his spiritual life, which is not uninteresting. But, if you're after details of his work life, this is not the one. This mostly is concerned with his spiritual life, which is not uninteresting. But, if you're after details of his work life, this is not the one.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    Standard fare as biographies go. Reads a bit like a diary at times. Surprised to find out Guinness was already a pious Anglo-Catholic when he was received into the Catholic Church, surprised b/c Guinness's own story was that his Anglo-Catholicism was not very devout or genuine--not true. He strikes me--horrifyingly--as a spiteful and catty man whose Catholic religion kept him from being worse. The author, Read, at least twice compares him, in this respect, to another horrible but interesting man Standard fare as biographies go. Reads a bit like a diary at times. Surprised to find out Guinness was already a pious Anglo-Catholic when he was received into the Catholic Church, surprised b/c Guinness's own story was that his Anglo-Catholicism was not very devout or genuine--not true. He strikes me--horrifyingly--as a spiteful and catty man whose Catholic religion kept him from being worse. The author, Read, at least twice compares him, in this respect, to another horrible but interesting man, Evelyn Waugh. Guinness seems to have reversed roles and been the one who pecked at his constantly about small things. A notable comment about English Catholics of the 20th-c.: they much preferred the redeemed sinner than the saint, i.e. much more heartening or relieving to hear about there being hope for curs like Waugh than about genuine conversions which bear significant fruit and actual change. The biographer cannot really say anything at length about the artistic dimensions of Guinness's stage and film acting, or else Guinness's own work can't bear the analysis. The latter is truly suggested by the fact that his choices of film especially later in life seems driven by money-making, wh. Guinness was good at. Despite his sophistication, he seems always to have been bourgeois, the kind constantly concerned by money-matters but constantly affecting, in small ways, not to be so. Can't say I leave the book liking Guinness more; given that this is an authorised biography, that means Read's is on this score a genuine accomplishment.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Sujata

    A very informative read about Alex Guiness and the details of his life, his friends and family the movies he starred in, etc. I liked there were photos of certain movies and photos of certain periods in his life. It was a first bio I learned about his reading preferences, his favourite authors, his love of Catholic religion and learning about his wife Merula and her family as well. It was a very detailed book of his life.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Alex Leach

    Excellent biography by Piers Paul Read, one of Britain's best writers - check out his great novel 'The Upstart' and his factual account of the Great Train Robbery. Excellent biography by Piers Paul Read, one of Britain's best writers - check out his great novel 'The Upstart' and his factual account of the Great Train Robbery.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Nancy

    Read gives a wonderful history of people in the worlds of both theater and literature. It is gripping sometimes; always interesting. Guiness was a very human man.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Katharine Holden

    Full of interesting details, like a letter or diary entry written at the time by a man who meets Guinness during the war and thinks of him as a well-read officer named Cuffe.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sylvia Tedesco

    There is another book listed here by Paul R. Read authoring "Alec Guiness". A mistake. Great biography! There is another book listed here by Paul R. Read authoring "Alec Guiness". A mistake. Great biography!

  8. 4 out of 5

    Karen

  9. 5 out of 5

    Kathy

  10. 4 out of 5

    Dani

  11. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  12. 4 out of 5

    Dan Eggleston

  13. 5 out of 5

    Noel Entee

  14. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Rogers

  15. 4 out of 5

    Richard

  16. 5 out of 5

    Michael Smith

  17. 4 out of 5

    Narti

  18. 4 out of 5

    alan leitch

  19. 5 out of 5

    Flaubertian

  20. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  21. 5 out of 5

    James

  22. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  23. 4 out of 5

    Richard Fitzgerald

  24. 4 out of 5

    Stuart

  25. 5 out of 5

    Nathan Emmons

  26. 5 out of 5

    Ruth Holladay

  27. 5 out of 5

    C BOLT

  28. 4 out of 5

    Alibrarian

  29. 5 out of 5

    Lisa

  30. 5 out of 5

    Fatima Arif

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