When British actor John Gielgud died in 2000 at the age of ninety-six he was a revered institution of stage and screen, and the last survivor of the golden age of British classical acting. He had had an extensive network of show business relatives to get him started. His doting mother was part of the large Terry clan, whose most famous member was the legendary stage actress Ellen Terry.
An admixture of paradoxes, Gielgud was at the same time shy and garrulous and chronically insecure yet conceited. His early theater days were marked by criticisms of his over-perfect diction, awkward body movements, and effeminacy (he was homosexual), but his burning ambition to be a major theater star triumphed. Beginning at the age of seventeen, he progressed from small provincial theaters to the West End, and by the late 1920’s had become a matinee idol. He was widely praised for his sensitivity in the plays of Chekhov and Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, which was considered his greatest role.
Gielgud's interest in the cinema was minimal after he appeared in his first film, a 1924 silent. For the next forty years his screen roles were very sporadic, and it was not until he was sixty that he turned to making movies on a regular basis. He won the Academy Award for his supporting role in the 1981 film Arthur; thereafter he devoted his career to cinema and television in which he remained active to the end of his life.
Although written in a rather dry style, Jonathan Croall's book effectively captures the essence of the complex man behind all the accolades. Although he was not quite the avuncular man presented on the world's movie screens, John Gielgud was always generous to his fellow performers and a beloved figure well worthy of the honors lavished on him.