Good Night, Sweet Prince: Richard Corliss on John Gielgud

As Sinatra was to popular music, so John Gielgud was to theater: The Voice. It could draw a word out into a long cello note or quaver like the lead fiddle in the pit of a Victorian melodrama. It made Shakespeare's verse immediately comprehensible and ethereal: perfectly analyzed, beautifully felt. Declaiming the final scene from King Lear in his solo Shakespeare show The Ages of Man, Sir John sounded like a noble basset. "Howl, howl, howl, howl!" The tone was mournful, then (an octave higher) deranged, then weirdly ecstatic and finally strangulated, stilled.
For nearly 80 years in theater, film, radio and TV, Gielgud, who died last week at 96, gave such passionately acute readings in works sublime and not so; what other actor would be pleased both to be the definitive romantic Hamlet, which he acted some 500 times, and to lend regal pedigree to Bob Guccione's pornific Caligula? Who else could earn critic Kenneth Tynan's prickly compliment "the finest actor on earth, from the neck up"?
Which is to say, Sir John was not Laurence Olivier. Gielgud lacked his rival's physicality and physique. The Gielgud visage was squinty, Magoo-like, and he didn't care to wear tights because of his knock-knees. As a stage presence, Olivier was all sexy, pyrotechnical danger, a swashbuckler and a rogue, a bounding bounder. Gielgud was more remote, passionate mainly in melancholy. If theater is drama, then Olivier is your man of the century. If it is poetry, the mining of meaning from sound, then Gielgud fits another phrase Tynan applied to him: "Not so much an actor, as the actor."

The actor was virtually born one: great-nephew of actress Ellen Terry and second cousin of designer Gordon Craig. By 21, in Chekhov and Coward, he was a London fixture. He directed and starred in the renowned 1935 Romeo and Juliet (the cast included Peggy Ashcroft, Edith Evans and Alec Guinness), advancing Olivier's career by swapping roles (Romeo and Mercutio) in mid-run. Later he championed bold young playwrights, directing Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, starring in Christopher Fry's The Lady's Not for Burning, Edward Albee's Tiny Alice and Edward Bond's Bingo.
In the '70s he teamed with the third great theater knight, Ralph Richardson, in two modern mystery plays: David Storey's Home, in which two old gents chat thrillingly into their dotage; and Harold Pinter's No Man's Land, with Gielgud superbly seedy as a down-on-his-art writer. Yet his first love was Shakespeare, and one imagines the feeling was mutual. In the celebratory book Sir John, Guinness recalls a dinner in the '30s when Gielgud dithered about which of many projects to do next. One chum finally said, "Oh, shut up, dear! Just stick a crown on your head and get on with it!"
He even got on with film. He made his first one in 1924, but took ages to feel at ease before the lens; in Hitchcock's 1936 The Secret Agent he is agonizingly squirmy. Eventually he logged some 130 credits in films and TV, most of them after he turned 75. He won an Oscar as the proper, patient butler in Arthur, but his great turns are in Alain Resnais' Providence, as a novelist with nightmares, and in Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books--where he not only played his favorite Shakespearean magician but spoke almost all the dialogue and appeared nude!
He was a demanding director; he'd fire actors and, before the sentence was finished, rehire them. Yet he was as loved as he was respected. Generous and easily weepy, he was also, in Guinness' words, "brilliantly tactless," dropping the brick of an insult that he could make vanish with a blithe demurral. In his 90s, when he might have sat at home with his lover Martin Hensler and his beloved Times crosswords, this old theatrical cat was often on a film set, spinning anecdotes of the legendary actor-managers Henry Irving and Herbert Beerbohm Tree. "When I was young," he said, "we wore our best suits to rehearsal and called the leading man 'Sir.' Now they wear jeans and call me John."
To the Method kids in jeans, Sir John's classical diction might seem as fuddy a theater relic as tights and gaslights. Yet on the night after his death, on a West End stage, Edie Falco and her American co-stars in the gritty play Side Man paused at the end to pay tribute, leading a final standing ovation, to a man whose love of the theater was so artful and ardent.
Outlasting the century he brilliantly ornamented, Gielgud will live longer still, as long as the melody of his voice and vision resound in films, recordings and grateful memories.

© 2000 Richard Corliss/TIME 


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