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Gielgud, John (1904-2000)


Main image of Gielgud, John (1904-2000)

Not many actors rack up film credits over eight decades, and perhaps especially not when it takes them half their lives to believe fully in film as an actor's medium. By the end of his life (and he was still acting in his last year, crossly changing his agent at 96 because of a failure to cast him in a TV version of David Copperfield), Sir John Gielgud was a consummate screen actor.

He had won an Oscar for the butler role in Arthur (US, d. Steve Gordon, 1981), but this engaging bit of froth obscures the real greatness of his film work, above all in his Shakespearean roles.

These latter included: the austere, conspiratorial Cassius in Julius Caesar (US, d. Joseph L.Mankiewicz, 1953), stealing the notices from an all-star cast; an affecting Clarence in his rival Olivier's Richard III (1955); an unforgettably poignant Henry IV, chilled with pain, age and disappointment, in Orson Welles's elegiac Chimes at Midnight (Spain/Switzerland, 1966); and reaching an apotheosis in Peter Greenaway's audacious reworking of The Tempest as Prospero's Books (1991), in which his Prospero, bravely naked for some of the time, set the seal on a lifetime's achievement in bringing Shakespeare, and this role in particular, to life.

Born to a famous acting family - his great-aunt was the celebrated Ellen Terry, great-uncle Fred Terry came to fame as The Scarlet Pimpernel, grandmother Kate Terry Gielgud memorably played Cordelia at 14, his brother Val Gielgud (1900-1981) was a playwright and (mainly radio) producer who appeared in a few films - he was stagestruck from the first.

Educated at Westminster School and, after training at RADA, made his stage debut in 1921. The stage was the great allegiance of his life and he played a huge range of classical and modern roles, his theatrical career occupying eight columns in the last volume of Who's Who in the Theatre (1972). He was not an impressive young romantic lead (his 1924 Romeo was all poetry and too little passion) and the physicalities of Othello (1961, Stratford) were beyond him.

Not much else was, though, and in 1970, a decade after Olivier had embraced the Angry Young Men, Lindsay Anderson co-starred him with Ralph Richardson in David Storey's play, Home. In one magisterial leap, he had moved conclusively into the modern idiom.

In his final decades, film (and TV - see Brideshead Revisited, 1981, for example) claimed more of his attention. Apart from an engaging Inigo Jollifant in Victor Saville's The Good Companions (1933) and starring in Hitchcock's Secret Agent (1936), his early film work is largely insignificant.

By the end, he had become a great film character actor - not just in Shakespeare, but in such treasurable roles as the dying writer in Alain Resnais' Providence (France/Switzerland, 1977), the hell-fire priest in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (d. Joseph Strick, 1977), the suave diplomat who utters a four-letter word with aplomb in Plenty (UK/US, d. Fred Schepisi, 1985), the zealous environmentalist in The Shooting Party (d. Alan Bridges, 1984), and Mr Touchett, ancient, wise and generous, in The Portrait of a Lady (UK/US, d. Jane Campion, 1996).

He was heaped with honours for his work in all the acting media and a 1953 charge for homosexual soliciting caused no dent in the public acclaim in which he was held, though it caused him great unhappiness.

He was knighted earlier in 1953, received honorary doctorates from prestigious universities, and was made Chevalier of the L├ęgion d'Honneur; he was the author of volumes of autobiography (Early Stages, 1939; An Actor in His Time, 1979) and of reflections on the craft of acting (Stage Directions, 1963; Acting Shakespeare, 1991); he recorded a great deal of poetry (including his famous one-man show, The Ages of Man) and drama (including Hamlet and The Importance of Being Earnest); he produced both straight plays and opera; and he masterminded some of the greatest theatrical seasons of the century.

In terms of the performing arts, it is no exaggeration to say that he towered over the century; cinema was lucky to secure its share of his last few decades.

Biography: Gielgud: A Theatrical Life by Jonathan Croall (2001).

Brian McFarlane, Encyclopedia of British Film

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Selected credits

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Classic documentary pondering the future of a baby born in 1944

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Moving drama starring John Hurt as a grotesquely deformed man

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Adaptation of J.B. Priestley's popular play about a performing troupe

Thumbnail image of Murder on the Orient Express (1974)Murder on the Orient Express (1974)

Star-studded adaptation of the Agatha Christie mystery

Thumbnail image of Richard III (1955)Richard III (1955)

Laurence Olivier's definitive version of Shakespeare's great history play

Thumbnail image of Secret Agent (1936)Secret Agent (1936)

Hitchcock thriller starring a young John Gielgud

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Jonathan Miller's startlingly imaginative version of Lewis Carroll's fantasy

Thumbnail image of Brideshead Revisited (1981)Brideshead Revisited (1981)

Lavish, standard-setting adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's novel

Thumbnail image of Richard II (1978)Richard II (1978)

BBC Shakespeare adaptation with Derek Jacobi and John Gielgud

Thumbnail image of Romeo and Juliet (1978)Romeo and Juliet (1978)

BBC Television Shakespeare version of the classic doomed romance

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Starry mystery that launched a spate of 1980s Agatha Christie adaptations

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