A consummate actor for the past fifty years on stage, screen, and television, Alec Guinness has been a self-effacing person who has shunned publicity and whose scandal-free private life has provided no grist for the tabloids. In his memoirs, Guinness finally removes the makeup and appears in his own person. The fact that he is as good a writer as an actor should be no surprise, for he adapted GREAT EXPECTATIONS and THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV for the stage and won an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for THE HORSE’S MOUTH. After a decade on stage, marked by such highlights as playing Hamlet and acting the Fool to Laurence Olivier’s Lear, Guinness made his film debut in GREAT EXPECTATIONS (1946) and went on to win two Oscars (one for best actor, the second a special award for his entire career) and a knighthood. Yet his beginnings were difficult. Born in 1914, Guinness was illegitimate and found his boyhood to be total immersion in confusion. But if he was “pursued by his infantile demons,” he also had many good angels, and much of the book is a tribute to them.
BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE is not so much an autobiographical narrative as a series of sketches, loosely chronological, focusing on those good angels, with Guinness casting himself in a supporting role. They include Sybil Thorndike and Lewis Casson, Martita Hunt, John Gielgud, Tyrone Guthrie, Edith Sitwell, Edith Evans, Ralph Richardson, and a number of lesser-known individuals, mostly theatrical. Guinness seems to have total recall, creating people and the past in vivid detail, with the skill of a literary artist. The longest chapter is an account of Guinness’ adventures and misadventures in the British navy during World War II. Though he showed plenty of courage, his recollections sound like a Guinness film comedy. A Catholic convert, Guinness devotes a chapter to his religious pilgrimage from youthful atheism to belief. A man of appealing modesty, Guinness has no melodramatic sins and scandals to confess and downplays his triumphs, Oscars, and knighthood. His one boast is that he never lost a friend, and with this volume he is likely to make many more. In addition to its portraits of the author and his friends, BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE is valuable as theatrical and cinematic history.