Troy Patterson
June 02, 2000 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Sir John Gielgud remembered

”It’s very flattering to be enshrined in celluloid,” John Gielgud once told critic Kenneth Tynan, ”but it isn’t essential. My job is to be successful on the stages of two cities — London and New York.” That was 1952, the halfway point in a life that ended May 21 in Aylesbury, England, after 96 years. Then, Gielgud’s job merely entailed reshaping the interpretation of Shakespeare and holding a rep as a stage actor whose truest peer was Laurence Olivier. Most of the ”very flattering” stuff — a haphazardly brilliant screen career and, to accompany it, fame of such Wellesian proportions as to qualify him to shill Paul Masson wine on TV — was yet to come.

Gielgud made his professional debut in 1921 as a herald in Henry V and delivered his one line so badly that he was barred from speaking for the rest of the season. But by the end of the decade, he was earning unprecedented raves for his glosses on the heroes of Shakespeare and Chekhov; his 1936 Hamlet — a role he acted more than 500 times — came to be regarded as one of the century’s best. Along with his work in the West End and on Broadway (where he would win three Tonys), he appeared in a handful of mostly forgettable films, movies he would call, in hindsight, ”simply awful.”

In 1953 — the year he was knighted — Gielgud played Cassius in Joseph Mankiewicz’s Julius Caesar; subsequently, his approach to movie work took on a lean and hungry look. While continuing his stage acting (and directing such landmark hits as a 1964 modern-dress Hamlet starring Richard Burton), he increasingly lent his plummy voice and noble nose to the screen. Gielgud seemed never to meet a period piece he didn’t like, be it high- (1964’s Becket), middle- (1982’s Brideshead Revisited), or lowbrow (Bob Guccione’s bawdy 1980 Caligula). He more than once confessed that he took his Oscar-winning role — that of the bone-dry butler serving a dipsomaniacal Dudley Moore in Arthur — mainly for the pay, saying ”I thought it was rather common.” Maybe so, but it was Sir John’s sublime talent to elevate even the basest material to shining and regal glory.

When not lording it over his beloved stage, Sir John managed to shoot 80-plus films. Here, five we love.

Secret Agent (1936)
Gielgud is the moral center of this early Hitchcock classic: a dandyish novelist-turned-spy who finds gravity when the enemy agent he has helped assassinate turns out to be innocent. Clearly, he could have played the movie-star game had he so chosen.

Chimes at Midnight (1965)
His best Shakespeare for screen, as Henry IV in Orson Welles’ moving stitch job of five of the Bard’s dramas. Scheming to hold his kingdom together, Gielgud’s Henry is both intensely regal and the epitome of the uneasy head that wears a crown.

Providence (1977)
As a dying writer who casts family members as fictional pawns in a last-ditch novel in his mind, Gielgud gives the film performance of his career. His Clive Langham is bitter, kind, profane, childish, proud, funny, terrified — above all. he’s deeply felt.

Arthur (1981)
Out of nowhere, mainstream success and a Best Supporting Actor Oscar as Hobson, supercilious butler to Dudley Moore’s title prat. Arthur: ”I’m going to take a bath.” Hobson: ”I’ll alert the media.”

Prospero’s Books (1991)
Director Peter Greenaway’s avant-shock reinterpretation of The Tempest was Gielgud’s last major role, and one that saw him out with a high-art bang. How many stars do you know who are willing to do nude scenes at the age of 85?

— Ty Burr

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