I was just finishing a thoroughly enjoyable and informative phone call with Marian Luntz, curator of film and video at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, when she caught me off guard with an outpouring of gratitude. We had been discussing the museum’s upcoming retrospective on that great British star of stage and screen Sir Alec Guinness titled “An Actor for All Seasons” when she thanked me—for not mentioning Star Wars.
Guinness, who enjoyed a long, varied and successful career as “an actor’s actor’s actor,” is primarily remembered today as the original Obi-Wan Kenobi, a role that garnered him an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. His Jedi career was both a blessing and a curse. For one, unlike so many other great stars, Guinness is fortunate to have such a recognizable role. But on the other hand, so many of his other, superior roles are eclipsed by Star Wars’ massive popularity. Luckily the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston will be screening eight of his brilliant non-Obi-Wan performances from July 7 through August 5.
The first two films of the series, adaptations of Dickensian classics Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, are directed by notable British director David Lean, known for his grand Hollywood epics like Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago. The two films mark Guinness’ first starring roles, as well as some of Lean’s earliest and best work. But Guinness didn’t automatically snag the role of Fagin, the ancient pickpocket leader in Great Expectations: “Guinness had to persuade David Lean to portray Fagin, did extensive research into the role and took his screen test in full costume and makeup,” Luntz says, giving viewers a glimpse into Guinness’ dedication to his craft and commitment to a role.
The following four films of the series will give audiences a glimpse at some of Guinness’ greatest comedic roles and the versatility he brought to the screen. The Man In the White Suit, The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob (which features a young, pre-fame Audrey Hepburn and earned Guinness a Best Actor nomination) will be shown. And while each one is a classic in its own right, it is Guinness’ performances in the black comedy Kind Hearts and Coronets that must be seen to be believed. In it, he plays nine different members of a royal family who are murdered one by one, a niche style of acting mocked in recent years because of Eddie Murphy's infamous Nutty Professor.
The final two films of the series show both yet another side of Guinness and what are considered by many to be his best role. The films, Tunes of Glory and the film that won Guinness his Academy Award for Best Actor, Bridge On the River Kwai, feature Guinness in emotionally complex dramatic parts as polar opposite military officers. In Tunes, he plays a disorderly Major who plays an active role in the death of his replacement, whereas in Bridge he plays a tyrannical disciplinarian who makes life exceedingly difficult for his troop in a Japanese P.O.W. camp, his rigidity unintentionally bringing about death and destruction.
Seven of the eight films will be shown in their original 35mm format, courtesy of the British Film Institute, a part of what Luntz refers to as the Museum’s “commitment to repertory film programming … presenting films meant to be seen on the big screen, before the proliferation of ways to watch movies.”
So for Guinness fans, cinephiles or those who are curious to discover for the first time the true screen talents of Obi-Wan, this series should not be missed.
Screenings July 7 through August 5. Tickets $9. The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300. Tickets and showtime available here.