21 January 2011

"A Positively Final Appearance" by Sir Alec Guinness

A Positively Final Appearance
Alec Guinness
Date of Publication: 1 October 1999
Date of Purchase: 19 July 2010
Cover Price: $24.95
238 Pages
ISBN: 0-670-88800-1

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I ended 2008 by reading Sir Alec Guinness's autobiography, Blessings in Disguise and 2009 with his journal, My Name Escapes Me so I was eager to conclude last year with this last volume of reflections and anecdotes from the venerable thespian.  Unfortunately, my vitamin D deficiency got out of control again, leaving me unable to concentrate long enough to read more than a few pages at a time so rather than finish on New Year's Day as planned, the reading was drawn out for nearly a full month.

This journal spans Summer 1996 through the end of 1998.  Guinness shares his observations on world events (the death of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Lewinsky scandal chief among them), his activities (lots of going to the theater) and sprinkled throughout are reminisces of old colleagues and friends.  It is this last category that makes A Positively Final Appearance so engaging.  I guiltily confess to being among the youthful audience woefully unfamiliar with most of the names he drops.  Ever mindful of this handicap, though, Sir Alec crafts his anecdotes in such an accessible fashion that my previous ignorance of Bea Lillie does not hinder in the least my enjoyment of a bizarre cruise ship tale of the woman shared near the end.

Voracious readers will particularly appreciate reading Guinness, who frequently informs us of what he has been reading.  Unlike me, he liked to re-read favorites.  Anyone with even a passing interest in theater should appreciate the insights into performances past.  In many ways, these two journals (more so than Blessings in Disguise) are a primer for theater students and enthusiasts.

Which reminds me: don't come here looking for much about Guinness's film career.  It's rare that he was compelled to comment upon that part of his career, and more often than not it's merely to recall how dissatisfying it was.  Star Wars fans in particular should beware; he shares a particularly scathing anecdote early on about the movies and its fans that may not endear him to those whose adoration of the movies has transcended into worship.  Here's a particularly scathing passage:
"A refurbished Star Wars is on somewhere or everywhere. I have no intention of revisiting any galaxy. I shrivel inside each time it is mentioned. Twenty years ago, when the film was first shown, it had a freshness, also a sense of moral good and fun. Then I began to be uneasy at the influence it might be having. The first bad penny dropped in San Francisco when a sweet-faced boy of twelve told me proudly that he had seen Star Wars over a hundred times. His elegant mother nodded with approval. Looking into the boy's eyes I thought I detected little star-shells of madness beginning to form and I guessed that one day they would explode.
'I would love you to do something for me,' I said.
'Anything! Anything!' the boy said rapturously.
'You won't like what I'm going to ask you to do,' I said.
'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 secondhand, childish banalities."
A Positively Final Appearance as a title was intended as a jab toward the tradition of billing a stage performer's "final" appearance on stage as a marketing gimmick, but unfortunately it turns out to have been the truth for Guinness.  He passed away 5 August 2000, not long after the publication of this journal.  Readers really ought to begin with the aforementioned Blessings in Disguise and then come to his two journals in chronological order.  The lion's share of his stories are to be found in the autobiography, whereas the structure and tenor of the journals make them more of a two-volume coda to that work.

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