theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
John Gielgud had a venerable theatrical pedigree for his great-aunt was none other than the celebrated Victorian actress Ellen Terry. The theatre was not so much his chosen milieu as his entire universe, the outside world occasionally intruding but generally on the periphery of theatrical life in all its infinite variety. An inveterate and delightfully chatty letter-writer, in the course of his ninety-six years Gielgud corresponded frequently with family and friends as this weighty new collection of his letters, expertly edited by Richard Mangan attests. With the advent of email, letter-writing has become almost an art-form and Gielgud was certainly a dedicated practitioner of the art, the letters consolidating the popular perception of him as a warm, humorous individual, naturally modest and with an evergreen interest in gossip.
This much, together with his homosexuality, is probably already familiar, but where the book breaks new ground is in its unvarnished presentation of Gielgud’s private life, here seen in candid close-up. For a long time subject to much romantic frustration he finally found a long-time companion in Martin Hensler and by interweaving this intimate material with the colourful chronicles of his professional life, a more comprehensive and satisfying portrait of Gielgud emerges.
Generally he was a perceptive person and an appreciative friend, many of the letters to his fellow thespians – like close friends Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh – burst with a vitality and perspicacity characteristic of the man. Working in Hollywood on the set of Julius Caesar Gielgud described the young Marlon Brando impressing him as “a funny, intense egocentric boy of 27… He is very nervous indeed…mutters his lines and rehearses by himself all day long.” He could also be caustic in his comments. Recalling a chance encounter with Greta Garbo to an ex-lover he reflected, “Met Miss Garbo on Park Avenue looking like a displaced charwoman. I’m sure she cuts her own hair with nail scissors. Distantly gracious and that beautiful smile.” The volume is overlong but this caveat aside, it offers a welcome opportunity to gain a vivid glimpse into the life of one of Britain’s most distinguished actors.
Amanda Hodges © 2004
Originally published on R&V 04-04-04
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