Alec Guinness appeared in several movies based on Charles Dickens' stories of lost and abused children. No wonder. Although he wasn't an orphan...

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“Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography”
by Piers Paul Read
Simon & Schuster, 624 pp., $35

Alec Guinness appeared in several movies based on Charles Dickens’ stories of lost and abused children. No wonder. Although he wasn’t an orphan, he never knew the identity of his father, his stepfather took a one-way trip to New Zealand, and his mother, Agnes, was a rocky horror show.

She often abandoned him in public places, then returned drunk to pick him up hours later. After he began to have some success as an actor, she cleaned out his belongings from his apartment, sold them and left him with the pawn tickets. Many years later, he bonded with actress Eileen Atkins, who suffered from a similar relationship.

“I actually hate my mother,” she found herself saying in Guinness’ presence. “Alec heard this and I think he was so relieved to hear someone say this, and that you could actually say it.”

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Nevertheless, he spent much of his life supporting Agnes, who returned the favor by drunkenly dragging Guinness’ intimidated child, Matthew, into bed with her. (When they found out about this, Guinness and his wife showed her the door.)

It was Guinness’ own 1939 stage adaptation of “Great Expectations” (he wrote and starred in it) that led David Lean to cast him in Lean’s 1946 film version. This led to Guinness playing Fagin in Lean’s “Oliver Twist” (1948), Marley’s ghost in “Scrooge” (1970) and, perhaps most memorably, William Dorrit in the six-hour 1987 movie of Dickens’ “Little Dorrit.”

Guinness was nominated for Academy Awards for his performances in “Little Dorrit,” “The Lavender Hill Mob” (1952) and “Star Wars” (1977), but in “Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography,” author Piers Paul Read mentions only the time when Guinness won an Oscar — for playing the proud, stubborn Col. Nicholson in Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957). (Fortunately, there’s a complete list of Guinness’ awards and nominations in the back of the book.)

Read, who was close to the Guinness family, sometimes seems more interested in what Guinness was eating than in what he was achieving as an actor and writer. Read lists restaurant menus and dinner guests and notes Guinness’ impressive consumption of champagne and caviar, yet he has little to say about such Guinness landmarks as “The Ladykillers” (1955) or such underrated films as “Last Holiday” (1950) and “Our Man in Havana” (1959).

Fans of Guinness’ television work, especially his performance as intelligence officer George Smiley in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1979) and “Smiley’s People” (1982), may get more satisfaction out of Read’s account of how Guinness was chosen for John le Carré’s miniseries. Read is especially good at demonstrating the closeness between le Carré and Guinness, who cleaned the author’s shoes when le Carré came to Guinness’ home for weekend visits.

But he’s even better at dealing with Guinness’ stage career, and especially the belittling behavior of Guinness’ mentor, John Gielgud, who felt that Guinness had a talent only for playing eccentrics and supporting characters. The more distant Laurence Olivier even mocked Guinness’ performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night” by telling him that “I never realized before that Malvolio could be played as a bore.”

Backstage sniping takes up a good deal of the book, which repeatedly tries to present Guinness as a closet case who ogled handsome young men and belittled his long-suffering wife, Merula. If it’s true, he certainly covered his tracks well. Read, who wrote the best-selling “Alive,” spends many pages trying and mostly failing to establish Guinness’ preference for men.

This may reflect his own frustration, as Guinness’ pal, to come to any conclusions about an enigmatic performer who slipped so easily into many different roles. He quotes one admirer, Alan Strachan, as feeling that Guinness’ special talent may have been “the ability to convey that he has a secret.” Commenting on Guinness’ 1984 autobiography, “Blessings in Disguise,” Read calls it “a dance of the seven veils in which the striptease never takes place.”