Friday, 20 May 2016

Did Alec Guinness really make a young fan burst into tears? The story of the boy who saw Star Wars 102 times

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi

Today, Episode Nothing returns to the subject of Sir Alec Guinness and the contempt he came to show for Star Wars

It turns out there is a fascinating postscript to his story about the time he made a child promise never to see the film again. And it might just shed some light on the great actor’s complicated relationship to his most successful film.

Alec Guinness and the boy who promised never to see Star Wars again

Alec Guinness influencing the weak-minded in Star Wars

A short while ago, I wrote a blog post charting the uneasy relationship between Alec Guinness and Star Wars. The film earned him an Oscar nomination and an awful lot of money, but Guinness had doubts about it even during the shooting, and in later years he came to despise it.

In that post, I mentioned the story that Guinness told in his 1999 memoir A Positively Final Appearance, about his meeting in San Francisco with a “sweet-faced boy of twelve” who “told me proudly he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times”.

You can hear Guinness reading the passage in the above clip (as edited by the DJ Danny Baker, who subverts the passage by playing the Star Wars theme under it). Guinness wrote that “Looking into the boy’s eyes, I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form” and he asked the young fan to do something for him.

“‘Anything, sir, anything!’

“‘Well,’ I said, ‘do you think you could promise never to see Star Wars again?’

“He burst into tears. His mother drew herself up to an immense height. ‘What a dreadful thing to say to a child!’ she barked, and dragged the poor kid away. Maybe she was right but I just hope the lad, now in his thirties, is not living in a fantasy world of second hand, childish banalities.”

For anyone who read or heard it (and it was inevitably circulated a lot among people who had never read the whole book), this was a sad story. It illustrated how jaded Guinness had become about Star Wars, but it also showed how he had failed to grasp that a love of Star Wars could lead fans onto his other great films, from Kind Hearts and Coronets to Bridge On the River Kwai.

But there is a twist in the tale, because it turns out that in telling this story, Guinness may have taken more than a little dramatic licence.

In fact, he may have told a whopping lie.

And the odd thing is that whereas the alternative version of the story is quite sweet, one of Britain’s greatest actor-knights chose to tell it in a way that would make him seem like a bit of a jerk.

The Star Wars fan from Alec Guinness’s memoirs comes forward

Alec Guinness in 1979, in the BBC's
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

The story from A Positively Final Appearance was retold, unchallenged, many times. Then, last December, an actor, writer and theatre director named Daniel Henning told a new and astonishing version of the story on Buzzfeed.

Henning came forward to identify himself as the twelve-year-old fan who was asked never to watch Star Wars again. And he said things didn’t happen the way Sir Alec said.

Henning was already an actor who had been in a film, The Black Stallion, in the year the meeting took place. (That movie's director, Carroll Ballard, had been responsible for second unit photography on Star Wars, while its producer was George Lucas’s mentor, Francis Coppola.) He knew a bit about Guinness and went with his mother to see a gala tribute to the star at the San Francisco International Film Festival in October 1979.

After an assembly of clips from his films, Guinness answered questions from the audience. That was young Daniel’s opportunity to announce that he had seen Star Wars 102 times and to ask for the actor’s autograph. Guinness, he recalls, fell out of his chair, before pointing his finger and saying “I’ll see you after the show”.

The subsequent conversation backstage unfolded more or less as Guinness recalled it, Henning says – except that it did not end with him bursting into tears.

In Henning’s recollection, Guinness signed his autograph, writing: “To Danny, Remember you promised never to see Star Wars again. Love, Alec Guinness.”

According to Henning, he walked away beaming, carrying his treasured autograph, after Guinness told him and his mother how wonderful it was to meet them.

Henning says he’s mystified that Guinness changed the story in the way he did. “Why did he change the story from his being kind and gracious and lovely to his being so mean to a child that the child busts out crying and his mother becomes haughty and drags him away?” he wrote.

“When you hear my story, it’s a fun story. It still tells you the issues he had with Star Wars, but you get to see the gracious man that I got to see. When he tells the story, he’s a curmudgeon. A man who would make sweet-faced boys cry. Because he was so concerned that I would be living in a fantasy life.”

Why did Alec Guinness change the story?

The book in which Alec Guinness
told of meeting the twelve-year-old
Star Wars fan

It’s always possible, I suppose, that Guinness genuinely remembered these events differently, or that he was telescoping more than one real life story into one anecdote. Perhaps he went around telling young boys not to watch Star Wars again wherever he was.

But discarding this theory for a moment, perhaps the episode tells us just how much Guinness’s contempt for the film grew over the years. In 1977, he was generous about it. Over the next few years, he was a little less so. By old age, he seemed tormented by it, and exasperated by the fans who wrote to him for autographs, or who called out “May the Force be with you”.

I wonder whether this episode just reminds us what a complicated man Guinness was. In this interview, Piers Paul Read, who wrote the authorised biography of Guinness, says: "
Alec was a nasty man trying very hard to be good”. Discussing the actor’s conversion to Catholicism, he says "he was suffering from tremendous bouts of depression, because of his homosexuality and the contradiction between that and his love of [his wife] Merula and his family, and looking for a faith that would give him something to hold it all together”. 

There was clearly a lot in his life that Guinness was ashamed of, or struggling to come to terms with. Perhaps it’s not too unreasonable to imagine that the success of Star Wars was another of those things. It’s a film he found tiresome to make, yet which made him a huge amount of money. He had to reconcile his appreciation of the money with his lukewarm feelings about the movie and his disdain for its fans.  Maybe this “nasty man trying to be good” told this particular story in the way it would have gone it he had given his nasty side free reign.

Did Daniel Henning stay true to his promise not to see Star Wars again? The answer is in his post. Suffice it to say that, fortunately, he was not traumatised the way the Alec Guinness version of the story might suggest.


Unknown said...

Perhaps Guinness was more pissed off with Star Wars by the time he recalled the incident than when it actually happened so the reminiscence was a bit harsher than the event itself.

Darren Slade said...

Yes, that's quite possible I think. An odd episode altogether. Thanks for commenting, Dec.

johnnyivan said...

Such a good article. Nice to see the record set straight.
The first time I ever heard Guiness' version was from none other than Garick Hagon himself, when I met him at a convention :)

It reminds of Kenneth Williams who wrote in his diaries of how depressing it was to receive another apalling and vulgar 'Carry On' firm script. He felt disgusted with him himself for doing the Carry On films. I've no doubt that Williams could have done much better work and he knew it too.

I suppose it's quite possible that Guinness had become very bitter too, and retold the story in that nasty way through a different perspective and attitude which blinded him to how others might truly perceive him as a result.

I only watched Tinker, Tailor , Oldier Spy as a kid, because he was in it. Pretty sure I was baffled by it!

Darren Slade said...

Thanks John. Good point about Kenneth Williams and his similarly disapproving attitude to the Carry Ons - although Williams was pretty dismissive of a lot of the projects he worked on (he was even sour about Orson Welles' stage production of Moby Dick, which many thought was one of Welles' greatest achievements).
I watched Smiley's People because of Guinness. Didn't understand much of the plot but I loved his performance. I must go back and try to follow that and Tinker, Tailor...

Jamie Clapperton said...

Lovely story. Guess Mr Guinness was more concerned about giving a good show /read, than anything else. Good luck to him.

Anonymous said...

Starwars is one of the most successful franchises of all time, it’s very possible he meant another boy. Theres at least hundreds who have seen it 100 times.

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure he didn't have a bipolar disorder. I have seen clips where he said it was wonderful to be a part of something that resonated and became such a large part of EARTH CULTURE, not just this country or that. It changed the world and our view of the universe.
I'm paraphrasing but that was the just of it. They showed it at the lucasfilm investors meeting.