Picks and Pans Review: Blessings in Disguise

updated 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/31/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

by Alec Guinness

There won't be another actor's autobiography published for a long time that provides as much enjoyment as this book. The British star of The Horse's Mouth, Star Wars, The Lavender Hill Mob and a score of other films begins his story by trying to explain the mysterious circumstances of his illegitimate birth, and he is enormously kind to a mother who seems to have been all but indifferent to his needs as a child. His first enchantment with the theater came when he attended a play as a teenager and heard the machinery used to make thunder and rain sound effects. It gave him the courage to meet British stage actress Sybil Thorndike. There is a long, thoughtful chapter on religion and how, eventually, Guinness became a Catholic. Other sections are devoted to actress Martita Hunt and director Tyrone Guthrie, Guinness' wartime experiences in the British Navy ("My own lack of know-how and swift rash judgments hampered the Allied Cause like small but irritating gnat bites") and a strange film festival in Mexico. Guinness tells how he met James Dean near a Hollywood parking lot and predicted the fatal accident which killed him a week later. One of the most amusing chapters describes a long and sometimes difficult friendship with poet Edith Sitwell, who with her brother Osbert must be the most eccentric people ever to get through life outside an institution. Guinness describes one weekend at Osbert's country house, where the actor's infant son had to be smuggled in and kept hidden because Sitwell couldn't stand the sight of babies. It is the tone of all this pleasant chatter that makes this book such an infinitely agreeable entertainment: self-deprecating, gentle even with fools and knaves, witty, curious, thoughtful. Guinness writes like a man who has enjoyed a lifelong exposure to brilliant prose and poetry—as indeed he has. (Knopf, $17.95)

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