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Cinematic chameleon 

Alec Guinness' extraordinary career spanned from black comedies to war epics

Unfortunately best remembered for one of his later roles, as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars trilogy, Sir Alec Guinness was not always the plastic action figure plaything of '70s children and poster boy for sci-fi fantatics.

While Guinness, in what had to be the wisest financial decision of his career, earned a 2 percent share of the film's gross, the actor hardly considered Star Wars the capstone to a great career. Guinness forever regretted his indentured servitude to George Lucas' bloated cinematic vision, encouraging the director to write him out of the sequels and once remarking in a fit of thespian pique, "I just couldn't go on speaking those bloody awful, banal lines."

Before his space opera fame, the British-born Guinness was a veteran of the London stage in productions of Richard II, The School for Scandal and The Merchant of Venice, although his famous humility meant he never performed, he felt, in the same class as greats like Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Following a stint as an advertising copywriter and then in the Royal Navy during WWII, Guinness divided his time between the theater and film, though he saw his greatest notoriety in the latter. Guinness worked for 50 years in film, lending his chameleon talents to a variety of roles in 67 productions.

Guinness' humble, ordinary features allowed the actor to mold his face and demeanor to the character at hand, a talent put on amusing display in the 1949 British black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the films featured in the High Museum's tribute to Guinness, who died this year at the age of 86. Kind Hearts and Coronets (Jan. 26) is the tale of a bastard child of England's aristocracy, Louis Mazzini, who is exiled from the d'Ascoyne family along with his mother, who once dared to marry an Italian opera singer. Mazzini then spends his adulthood avenging this injustice by murdering every member of the family who stands between him and the Dukedom. Wickedly clever, Kind Hearts is anything but kind-hearted, as it encourages the viewer to conspire with the murderous Mazzini as he picks off each member of this brutal family, which catches poachers on its land with cruel "man traps" and keeps lowlier members of its clan from being buried in the family plot.

In an inspired comic prank, every member of the d'Ascoyne family is played by Guinness: A Duke, a Banker, a General, an Admiral, two younger d'Ascoynes and even Lady Agatha are gamely played by Guinness in drag. A remarkably silly impersonation, Lady Agatha is an ungainly battle-ax and vehement proponent of women's suffrage shown dressed in elegant frock and bonnet smashing shop-front windows with her cane in the name of the cause.

Though it did not exactly echo Guinness' own circumstance, there is the possibility Guinness took a special pleasure in his impersonation of eight by turns ridiculous, snobbish, drunken, feeble-minded, sadistic and drunken aristocrats. A bastard whose name probably came from his father's best friend -- a member of the privileged Guinness family -- the actor must have certainly felt the limitations the circumstances of his birth placed upon him. And as a result, the actor often seemed to take on roles that contained an element of class critique.

Guinness possessed a perfectly British, low-key acting style, one that shone through in his performance as a mild-mannered drone, Sidney Stratton, on the verge of a great scientific discovery in another of the High's featured films, The Man in the White Suit (Jan. 12), adapted from Roger Macdougall's play. Like Kind Hearts and Coronets, this 1951 combination of social message and slapstick also had a critical undercurrent regarding the exclusionary, woefully stratified British class system.

Though given a scholarship to Oxford, mild-mannered Sidney finds himself upon graduation cast out to flounder without connections or family name in the lower ranks of the textile industry, where his scientific gifts are wasted. At the factory, Sidney is befriended by one of his radical, pro-union co-workers who voices some of the dissatisfaction brewing beneath the surface of this wry comedy. Sidney's invention of a revolutionary stainless, long-lasting fabric at first seems like a boon and potential million-dollar idea to the factory owner, until he realizes the fabric will essentially destroy an industry built on the profit-potential of clothes wearing out.

Our Man in Havana (Jan. 19), the third and least-successful of the Graham Greene/Carol Reed collaborations, has Guinness again donning white suit as a dry-witted straight-man caught in a semi-comic conspiracy. This time Guinness is a vacuum cleaner salesman in Cuba who is mistaken for a British spy and content to carry out the ruse. Our Man's fault is that Greene's dark humor of cold-war Cuba doesn't translate well from novel to film, but the rarity of this film, unavailable on video, makes it well worth a trip to the High.

Guinness mixed up such jocular social commentary with his share of memorable epics, including the wartime action film The Bridge on the River Kwai (Jan. 5), which garnered Guinness a Best Actor Academy Award as the obsessive leader of the British forces.

Knighted in 1959 by Queen Elizabeth II, Guinness was an extraordinary talent who fortunately received some of the recognition he deserved in life and continues to merit praise even after his long, accomplished career has come to a close.

Screenings are held at 8 p.m. Admission is $5, $4 for museum members. Call 404-733-4570.

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