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Friday, 29 April 2016

What Alec Guinness really thought of Star Wars and its fans: "Idiotic" hobbies and "childish banalities"

Alec Guinness in Star Wars

Sir Alec Guinness brought Star Wars gravitas and star power. In return, it garnered him an Oscar nomination, a new generation of fans, and a good deal of money. But the actor-knight would become increasingly curmudgeonly about Star Wars and its fans, deriding autograph collectors for their "idiotic hobby" and saying of the film: "I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned." 

Here, Episode Nothing takes a look at Guinness's troubled relationship with his most successful film.

Alec Guinness interviewed about about Star Wars in 1977

Happy times: Alec Guinness and  Mark
Hamill on 
the set of Star Wars in 1976

Back in 1977, when the whole world seemed to be taking about the thrilling new science fiction movie that had stormed the American box office, Alec Guinness seemed to be a keen supporter of George Lucas and his vision. 

Ahead of the film's London opening that December, Guinness suggested to The Times that had always known Lucas was on to something special.

“When we started work on Star Wars it was all so calm, so gentlemanly,” he said. “No fat cigars, no tough language. I remember someone on the set criticising Lucas because of his lack of display and announcing that the film was going to be dull. So I took him aside and said: ‘Mark my words, this film is going to have distinction’.”

Around the same time as he spoke to The Times, Guinness gave the above television interview to Michael Parkinson, whose chat show Parkinson was a Saturday night institution in Britain. Not only does it show Guinness speaking highly of Star Wars (though gently mocking Lucas and Gary Kurtz), but it gives us a sense of the way Star Wars had charmed almost everyone who had seen it. A lot of goodwill surrounded it back in the days when Star Wars was a film rather than a franchise.

But despite his public support, Guinness had doubted Star Wars, even while he was making it. In 2003, Piers Pal Read's Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography revealed what he had said about the film in his diaries and letters.

On March 18th, 1977, when shooting was about to start, Guinness had written to his friend Anne Kaufman that "new rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper – and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable". (If that date is right, he must have written this letter even before filming began, just before flying to Tunisia.)

On April 16th, with the Tunisian shoot over and studio work under way at Elstree, Guinness confided to his diary that filming "has been tedious to a degree – hot, boring and indecisive. Apart from the money, which should get me comfortably through the year, I regret having embarked on the film. I like them all well enough, but it's not an acting job, the dialogue, which is lamentable, keeps being changed and only slightly improved, and I find myself old and out of touch with the young."

Perhaps what that diary entry really reveals is the understandable anxiety of an actor taking part in a bewilderingly complicated production, among people thirty or forty years younger than him. And when he finally saw the completed film in June, 1977, Guinness was won over like everyone else, writing in his diary:

"It's a pretty staggering film as spectacle and technically brilliant. Exciting, very noisy and warm-hearted. The battle scenes at the end go on for five minutes too long, I feel; and some of the dialogue is excruciating and much of it is lost in noise, but it remains a vivid experience. The only really disappointing performance was Tony Daniels as the robot – fidgety and over-elaborately spoken. Not that any of the cast can stand up to the mechanical things around them." 

Since he could not have expected these words to be published any time soon, this, then, must have been Alec Guinness's honest reaction to Star Wars in 1977, and it was not very different from most other people's.

When did Alec Guinness come to resent Star Wars?

Alec Guinness in the role he didn't like to talk about 

Alec Guinness didn't win the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Star Wars (the statue went instead to Jason Robards for Julia), but the money must have been some consolation. Having signed for $150,000 plus two per cent of the gross, he was gifted another quarter of a per cent by George Lucas as the film's success grew. (In the Parkinson interview, he says Lucas offered him an extra half per cent but then scaled it back to a quarter; but Read's biography points out that Guinness's own diaries suggest the offer was always an extra quarter.)

His gratitude for the money may have been one reason he returned to make short, little-publicised appearances in the sequels, although the fact that Lucas asked him very nicely on both occasions seems to have influenced his decision too.

In 1979, while shooting his short appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, Guinness told unit publicist Alan Arnold (who was writing a book, Once Upon A Galaxy: A Journal of the Making of The Empire Strikes Back) that "at times during Star Wars I was perhaps a bit puzzled, but I never lost faith in the project." Yet, at some time in the coming years, he would turn decidedly sour about Star Wars, and about its fans in particular. 

Alec Guinness on Star Wars: his autobiography and diaries

Like many fans, I'm sure, I picked up Guinness's autobiography Blessings In Disguise in a bookshop in 1985 and checked the index for references to Star Wars. It merited just one line, and that was just an insistence that he had not really pocketed as much money from it as people thought. Back on the shelf it went. 

Watch the above video with David Letterman and you can almost see Gunness's flesh crawl when, at around 10 minutes 30 seconds, Letterman introduces the subject of Star Wars and prevails upon him to say "May the Force be with you".

But his 1996 journal My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, while charming in many ways, made upsetting reading for Star Wars fans. In it, he stated that he would not be appearing in any Star Wars sequels, and went on to complain about every day’s post bringing “photographs from Star Wars demanding autographs”, adding: “The English usually make their demand without photograph, envelope, stamp or money … It’s mean and hard of me but from 1st January 1996 I am resolved to throw it all in the waste bin unopened … I no longer have the energy to assist teenagers in their idiotic, albeit lucrative, hobby.” (Presumably he didn’t bin the royalty cheques, though.) 

His second volume of diaries, A Positively Final Appearance, covered the period when the Star Wars Special Editions came out – a time when a Chinese waiter said to him: “Sir Guin, now that Star Wars is being shown again, you will be famous once more.” And it was clear that Guinness was becoming ever more bitter about the whole subject.

This time, Guinness wrote that “I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned”, and told the astonishing story of how he had once reduced a twelve-year-old fan in San Francisco to tears by ordering him never to watch Star Wars again: “His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’, she barked. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of secondhand, childish banalities.”

What made a great actor so sour about a film that he had once found "exciting" and "warm-hearted"? Maybe he was understandably chagrined at being perpetually asked about one role of the hundreds he had created on stage and film. And maybe he was letting some encounters with the more eccentric kind of Star Wars fan affect his perception of all of them. But it's sad that he came to feel this way about his greatest commercial success. 

Alec Guinness as
George Smiley
I – and I'm sure plenty of other young people – came to Guinness's other films through Star Wars. After seeing Star Wars, I would watch anything with a Star Wars connection. I came to hear about Guinness's Ealing comedies; I watched them and loved them. I discovered Bridge On the River Kwai, The Swan, The Horse's Mouth, The Fall of the Roman Empire, his two TV outings as George Smiley, even Raise the Titanic. (Actually, I only watched Guinness's cameo in that; if he really wanted to be ashamed of a film, why not that one?). In a way, Star Wars led me to discover and appreciate a lot of his best work.

Had I ever met him, I might have tried to explain that to Sir Alec. Although if I'd met him after reading A Positively Final Appearance, I might just have called "May the Force be with you!" and watched him squirm.


Dec Cart said...

If he was around today, he and Parkie could have a moan-0ff. Guiness could complain about owning 2.25 percent of 'Star Wars' and Parkie could grumble about how the BBC wanted to move his show forward by an hour or so, forcing him to quit in disgust and hold the sort of stone-faced press conferences usually reserved for abducted children.

And they have the cheek to say the younger generations are unappreciative.

But I'll give Alec Guiness his due as a professional. He thought it was all bollocks yet he gave a brilliant performance. He's great in Star Wars.

Darren Slade said...

Ha! Thanks Dec. I must admit I didn't know about Parkinson's angry press conference. As a kid, I would have loved Parkinson to be moved forward an hour (or more). I wasn't allowed to stay up for it, so somehow I thought of it as being terribly sophisticated and desperately wanted to see it.

Parkinson's grumpiness notwithstanding, it was a very good show I think (going by the episodes I caught up with later), largely because it was made at the right time -- when many of the great movie stars were at the time in their careers that they would do a British chat show.

Guinness was indeed brilliant in Star Wars. The prequels, in which good actors give wooden performances, only made me admire his performance more. And at least when Star Wars came out, he recognised the film's quality.