Features Book Reviews Published 31 May 2011

John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star

Extensively revised edition of Croall’s biography.

Neil Dowden

John Gielgud was not only one of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, he also had one of the longest and most varied careers, making his professional debut in 1921 and continuing to work right up until his death at the age of 96 in 2000.

Jonathan Croall brought out an excellent biography later that year, but his new book is much more than a standard revised edition. As the change in subtitle from “A Theatrical Life” to “Matinee Idol to Movie Star” suggests, Gielgud’s screen career is now more fully covered. And with access to unpublished correspondence with the likes of Noël Coward, Alec Guinness and Peggy Ashcroft, as well as new interviews with people he worked with in the theatre and cinema such as Peter Hall, Alan Bennett and Kenneth Branagh, this is an even more rounded portrait of a fascinating, complex figure.

This 700-page tome (about 150 pages longer than the first version) gives an authoritative, nicely balanced account of both Gielgud’s public and private lives. With theatrical forebears on each of his parents’ sides of the family (including his great-aunt Dame Ellen Terry and her illegitimate director/designer son Gordon Craig, whose theoretical writings together with those of Harley Granville-Barker’s were a formative influence on Gielgud), it’s not surprising that he took to the stage as to the manor born.

With his incomparably musical voice, he soon became a star of the classical repertoire, especially of course playing Shakespearean roles such as Richard II, Romeo and above all Hamlet. After the war, he went through a fallow period during the new wave in British theatre before reinventing himself as an actor in contemporary plays by the likes of Bennett, Bond, Storey and Pinter – though he turned down the chance to play Beckett. But Croall also emphasizes what an important, modernizing figure he was as a director, as well as running his own company and even designing sets and costumes, in particular helping to make Chekhov part of the mainstream here.

It is interesting to learn how Gielgud’s unhappy experience of working with Hitchcock led to a 17-year absence from the cinema, before going on to a late-flowering film career including an Academy Award for the amusing if lightweight role of Dudley Moore’s butler in Arthur. (A photo caption incorrectly states he also won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in Becket, but it was only a nomination.)

One fascinating thread running through the book is Gielgud’s uneasy relationship with Laurence Olivier, a very different, more physical style of actor often seen as his rival for crown prince of the stage. Olivier was intensely competitive and much less generous than Gielgud, and was jealous of the latter’s close friendship with his wayward wife Vivien Leigh. Gielgud turned down Ralph Richardson’s offer to jointly run the Old Vic because he didn’t want to be part of a trinity with Olivier, a decision that probably cost him the chance of becoming the first artistic director of the National Theatre, of which he had been a passionate advocate for many years.

Like other gay men of his time, Gielgud necessarily had to lead a closeted life in terms of his sexuality, though this was spectacularly exposed when he was arrested for soliciting in 1953. Croall presents a sympathetic summary of the case, with Gielgud facing this potentially career-threatening moment with courage and dignity. Some light is also shed on the strange and somewhat disturbing relationship he shared for the last 40 years of his life with his partner Martin Hensler, a Hungarian of shadowy background who alienated Gielgud’s friends by putting him down in public.

This is by no means an uncritical biography of Gielgud – Croall illustrates his character defects of snobbery, tactlessness (with the notorious ‘bricks’ he regularly dropped about colleagues) and impatience, as well as his limitations as a performer acting from the neck up – but overall he comes across as an attractively modest man with a mischievous sense of humour, possessing an evergreen enthusiasm for and deep understanding of theatre. This book does full justice to a protean performer who bestrode the stage like a Colossus.

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Neil Dowden

Neil's day job is working as a freelance editor for book publishers such as HarperCollins, Penguin, Faber and British Film Institute Publishing, but as a night person he prefers reviewing for Exeunt. He has also written features on the theatre and reviewed films, concerts, albums, opera, dance, exhibitions, books and restaurants for various newspapers and magazines, including The Stage and What's On in London, as well as contributing to a couple of books on 20th-century drama and writing a short tourist guide to London for Visit Britain. He insists he is not a playwright manqué but was born to be a critic and just likes sticking a knife into luvvies. In fact, as a boy he wanted to become a professional footballer, but claims there were no talent scouts where he then lived on the South Wales coast, and so has had to settle for playing Sunday league for a dodgy south London team. Apart from the arts and sport, his other main interest is travel, and he is never happier than when up a mountain, though Everest Base Camp is the highest he has been so far. He believes he has not yet reached his peak.

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