CurtainUp Reviews My Name Escapes Me

The Diary of a Retiring Actor by Alec Guinness

I would have posted this review of My Name Escapes Me the slim diary of Sir Alec Guinness with its slyly double entendre title. Blame it on Sir Alec that I got detoured into reading John Updike's 500 page novel In the Beauty of the Lilies. You see, as Guinness the actor was able to submerge his ego deep within a cornucopia of faces and personalities (not excluding women), Guinness the writer manages to seduce you with his still vigorous intelligence to follow the markers in his rendering of his ordinary out-of-the-mainstream existence. Thus, his comments worked like a link on a web page, prompting me to pick up the novel I began but did not finish last summer.

Thank you Sir Alec--for nudging me into this second and very enjoyable re-reading of Lilies. (Incidentally, one of Updike's key characters, a budding movie star, mentions Guinness' multiple roles in The Lavender Hill Mob as a performance that inspired her). And thank you Sir Alec for reminding readers that whether you're a retired actor or financier, the life of the mind continues to provide much satisfaction even to those now sidelined to the spectator section of life's playing field.

Like other recent actor biographies and autobiographies (Coleen Dewhurst and Charles Laughton) and Sir Alec's own 1986 autobiography Blessings in Disguise, (scheduled for re-release), this is not a tell-all celebrity authored book. Neither is it a roadmap for would-be thespians. Instead, it is the next best thing to having a visit with a delightful British gentleman. As the double entendre title makes clear, this follow up to the autobiography gives us a glimpse of a man who had a retiring nature even in a very public career and before literally retiring from a world in which the name Alec Guinness was a hallmark for excellence.

His life with his wife of sixty years is not very different from any other bookish octogenarian's. It consists of the routine puttering around the garden, watching quot;the telly" and reading the paper and books. For excitement there are occasional holidays abroad, (health permitting), and trips into town (London) to visit an art gallery, see a play or share a meal with an old friend. Not surprisingly his friends tend to be from the theatrical and movie world. And while he brings the keen observer's eye that helped him to get inside the characters he portrayed to his commentary about friends, living and gone, these small gems of observation are never tattle-tale mean or envious.

When he and his wife "give lunch" to Lauren Bacall he describes her as looking "stunning as a sort of female Hamlet; black trousers, black chiffon, Armani blouse, black coat and black black black glasses. That is what she should have worn in The Visit in Chichester--and her own hair, not a red wig."

Nor are his ruminations on the frailties that come with being eighty-two years young ever curmudgeonly or self-pitying. The shadow of "Dr. Alzheimer" may impinge on his ability to memorize long parts, but his ego does not get in the way of his enjoying the small parts that come his way. He does complain when one such part in a movie to be filmed at Cambridge forces him to pass up a holiday in Lake Como, but as with less pleasant forfeitures, his complaint is more whimsical than whiny: "Oh, dear! I want my Cambridge cake and to eat it on Como." When faced with a serious eye problem, Sir Alec ruefully comments that he is at last ready to play King Lear. He's also philosophical about an octogenarian actor's place in the scheme of the name game, as evidenced in his amusement at the young autograph seeker who turns out to have wanted his signature "to give his granny a thrill."

While literary allusions of all sorts dot this very literate actor's diary, his greatest friend in need is always the Bard; to wit, he prefaces his entry about a series of calamities in his quiet existence with
"When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in Battalions
( King, Act 4, scene 5, line 78 Hamlet.).
Shakespeare also provides the closest thing to a zinger emerging from Guinness' pen, the actor on the other end of its point being another knighted actor, Laurence Olivier. The not so benign Olivier told Guinness, about to go on the air for a final run-through of a televised version of Twelfth Night "Marvelous, old cock! I never realized Malvolio could be played as a bore.'' But Guinness has the last word when he addends this with quintessential Guinness whimsy: ''Suchlike encouragements were part of his repertoire. Yet I was fond of him.''

It would be untrue to say Sir Alec ignores old age since he is never unaware of it, as when he states "It seems an impertinence, when pushing eighty-two to deliberately associate with people a lot younger than oneself, feeling that possibly one might interest or entertainment. Of course it isn't quite that: secretly one hopes and longs to draw on the vitality and brightness of the young, and above all, to be able to join in their laughter. How is one to grasp the all-pervasiveness of time."

The introspective aspects of life in the last quarter of the allotted cycle notwithstanding, the 18-month diary (from New Year's Day 1995 to June 6, 1996 which coincides with D-Day and his son's birthday) is a testament of this one-of-a-kind senior citizen's continued interest in everything and everyone around him. To give just a few examples:

His tour of the new Globe theater bring us an actor's insights into the proper spatial relationship between stage and audience and acoustics and how the grand old provincial theaters have horsehair under their gilded decorations to give the right resonance to the human voice--and how reassuring it was for an actor to walk "to the stage of any of those big old theaters and you know at once that you're going to be heard with little effort."

Television news coverage prompt him to anger and dismay (i.e. a program documenting American mothers training tiny-tot daughters to be beauty contest winners) and laughter (-i.e. watching Madam Speaker, that wonderful intrepid lady, looked as if she was at the wheel of a pirate ship in a high wind, turning vigorously from port to starboard while shouting out her 'Order!Order')

It's all best summed up in his preface when he states:

"I have been unable to disguise my phobias, irritations, prejudices . . . childishness and frivolity. Sometimes, I hope, my occasional enthusiasms emerge." They do--and that's the charm of this book.

As a concluding aside--In his review of this book for The New York Times. John Simon, a critic known more for his dislikes than his likes, expressed extravagant admiration for Sir Alec generally and this book in particular. Now if some of Sir Alec's non-acerbic wit rubbed off on the more sour Simon that would be an item for the other Guinness book!

Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

My Name Escapes Me is published by Viking. Its 214 pages include an index but no photos and it's available on line at the Amazon book store
My Name Escapes Me On Line (Hard Cover Book) .

It's also available as an Audio Cassette My Name Escapes Me Audio . A largeprint paperback will be available in January 1998 (and can be ordered now)

My Name Escapes Me Largeprint Paperback .

For those of you intrigued enough to also read John Updike's In the Beauty of the Lilies, this is now available as a paperback, also at Amazon Fawcett Paperback

©right September 1, 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp. Information from this site may not be reproduced in print or online without specific permission from

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