I've just finished "Sir John Gielgud: A Life in Letters," 500 pages of correspondence (edited by Richard Mangan) over an 87-year period from 1912 to 1999. Short review: It gave me a lot of pleasure. Long review: It's an indispensably frank look at the person I'd guess to be the greatest actor of the 20th century.
I say "guess" because he stopped appearing onstage long before I could appreciate him in America or travel to London to see him. His film and TV work is sporadic. Like Laurence Olivier, one of his two great British theatrical peers (the other being Ralph Richardson), he appeared in a lot of trash late in life to pay for the costly upkeep of a rural estate. But onstage, he could play anything from Shakespeare to Restoration comedy to Harold Pinter.
The jacket describes him as "best known for his Academy Award-winning role in the hit comedy 'Arthur.' " I wonder if that's true, now that 31 years have passed. That modestly funny comedy about an alcoholic millionaire (Dudley Moore) cared for by a shrewd butler (Gielgud) belonged to the Reagan years; I doubt Gielgud is known at all to anyone under 35.
To get to know him, listen to his recordings of "Hamlet" from the 1940s and "King Lear" from the 1990s, or watch Alfred Hitchcock's "Secret Agent" or Joseph Mankiewicz' "Julius Caesar." Or read this book, in which he comes across as kind, greedy for approval (as all actors are), bawdy, anxious, publicly diplomatic and privately blunt, capable of great love but also capable of greatly exploiting -- perhaps without realizing it -- those who loved him.
Like many members of the British upper class born before World War I, he was mildly racist and anti-Semitic. He loathed many landmarks of 20th-century culture -- "Carmina Burana," "Waiting for Godot," "The Godfather," Stephen Sondheim's musicals, Tom Stoppard's plays -- while admitting his devotion to "Dallas" and "Dynasty" and repeatedly delighting in trips to Disneyland. Yet when he offers advice, as he does about Romeo to actor Richard Sterne, he writes so intelligently that you don't want to see the role done any other way.
I gobbled the book in chunks, because he wrote to entertain his correspondents as much as inform them. As I read, I realized that not only will we never see another actor so versatile and dedicated in my lifetime -- at least, none are on the horizon -- but we will probably never see modern books like this one.
Who prints out e-mails with an eye toward helping future biographers? Who even bothers with long e-mails, anyway? You can't make a book out of a celebrity's dribblings on Twitter: "Full house tonight in Omaha. U rock, Nebraska! Next stop, Tulsa. Drummer sick, had bad cheez fries ha ha."
I don't mock abbreviated communication, because I use it myself. But it tells us only about a mini-moment in time; we don't use it to express deeper feelings or have philosophic discussions, as letter writers used to do. We could collect entries from a celebrity's blog, if he took the time to write more than a paragraph, but those are public utterances carefully written for mass consumption; they rarely reveal the most private aspects of a person, as letters can. So enjoy Gielgud's book, out now in a $16.95 paperback from Arcade Publishing. You won't see its like -- or his -- again.