I don't normally like to use this space as an obituary column for departed luminaries of the cinema. Occasionally, however, we lose a figure of such towering eminence that it seems improper not to mark his or her passing with a tribute. Still, this is the first time I have felt inclined to recommend to you a retrospective of the films of someone whose primary vocation was not moviemaking.
Sir John Gielgud, who left us recently at the age of 96, was, first and foremost, a man of the theater. Although he made comparatively few films, it is a mark of his stature as an actor that the impressive shadow he cast over the stage spilled over into the world of cinema to create a screen presence as commanding as that of most purebred movie stars.
During an astonishing stage career that spanned 67 years, from 1921 to 1988, Gielgud established himself as Britain's premier interpreter of verse, especially the immortal lines of William Shakespeare. He possessed one of the theater's great voices, renowned not so much for deep, resonant vocal muscularity, but rather for its sheer beauty. Gielgud's speaking voice was an unbeatable combination of a sonorous timbre, which was an endowment of nature, and the ability to modulate it with taste and precision, which was the result of years of dedicated effort at learning and perfecting his craft.
Motion picture roles seemed to be almost a lark for Gielgud; a way of keeping one's hand in and enriching one's bank account between stage roles. This is not to suggest that he gave them less than his best effort, however, only that he didn't take them seriously as resume items. For a sampling of Gielgud's screen work, look for these titles on home video.
"Secret Agent" (1936). Based on two of Somerset Maugham's tales of Ashenden, the secret agent, this early Alfred Hitchcock thriller features Gielgud as Ashenden. Along with two other agents, played by Madeleine Carroll and Peter Lorre, he is assigned to travel to Switzerland to kill an enemy agent. The operation goes flawlessly, until they discover that they have bumped off the wrong man.
"Julius Caesar" (1953). This lavish MGM production was conceived as the most ambitious screen version of Shakespeare anyone had attempted up to that time. John Houseman, co-director of Orson Welles's famed Mercury Theater, produced the film, which boasted an impressive cast drawn from both the United States and England. Gielgud was cast as Cassius, one of the roles in which he specialized on stage. If the film accomplished nothing else, it was worth making to give us a permanent record of Gielgud's interpretation of this role.
"Richard III" (1955). Despite the fact that Gielgud plays the relatively small role of George of Clarence, Richard's doomed brother, this film is unique in that it includes in its cast the only two actors who can reasonably be regarded as Gielgud's peers on the English stage. Ralph Richardson, who plays the Duke of Buckingham, and Laurence Olivier, who plays Richard, and who directed the film, comprise, along with Gielgud, a trio of actors that utterly dominated British theater during most of the Twentieth Century.
"Providence" (1977). This amazing film is impossible to describe briefly, but I'll try. Gielgud plays an elderly novelist, dying from a painful and repellent condition, who is working on his final novel. He is incorporating members of his family into the plot. We watch the scenes he's writing being played out, but in the besotted writer's growing state of inebriation he gets them muddled, so that they begin speaking each other's lines. Screenwriter David Mercer and director Alain Resnais skillfully weave multiple levels of fiction into a mesmerizing cinematic tapestry, but the real virtuoso work is done by Gielgud, who manages the required combination of range and subtlety with the confident aplomb of a past master.
And then, of course, there was "Arthur" (1981). It was a clever movie, and a fine role, for which Gielgud won an Academy Award, but I must confess that one of my motivations in writing this column was my fear that Gielgud would be remembered by too many moviegoers only for this one performance. By all means, treasure his wryly lovable portrayal of Dudley Moore's butler - I do, too - but never forget that this man was also, by common acclaim, the greatest Hamlet of his generation.