He is a personal favorite of mine. Most people remember him for his Oscar winning performance as Dudley Moore's butler in 1981's Arthur. He was more romantic than Laurence Olivier, & more sensitive than Ralph Richardson. Sir John Gielgud was the greatest Shakespearean performer of the 20th century. His portrayal, as a very young man, of Hamlet is considered the best of all time. Gielgud is one of the few entertainers who have won an Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, & Tony Award. Known for his beautiful delivery, he was called the "voice that wooed the world". He was still acting on stage at the age of 82 & he now has a West End theatre named after him.
On stage, Gielgud knew exactly what he was doing, but for half of his time on this earth, he was a big old mess in private. Gielgud was a revered acting talent, but his career was almost ended by his sexuality in a time when being gay was considered a crime. Today, when homosexual acts between consenting adults have been legal in Britain for more than 40 years, it is difficult to imagine that gays were taking enormous risks to be together. Sex acts between men, even performed in total privacy, were against the law & could lead to ruined careers & several years in jail.
One incident in Gielgud’s life so crippled him, that although he was at the apex of success when it happened, he contemplated suicide. In 1953, after a rehearsal of his starring role in A Day By The Sea, the 49 year old actor, enjoyed drinks with friends, & then went on the hunt for an intimate encounter. He visited one of London's infamous underground public lavatories seeking sex. Gielgud had done this before, but this time he was arrested by one of Scotland Yard's young recruits picked for their looks & assigned to the urinals for the purposes of entrapment.
"A Plague Over England" was the phrase invented by the then-Home Secretary David Maxwell Fyffe, who vowed to wipe out homosexuality before it destroyed the country. As a result, the police were arresting more than 10,000 gay men a year. Against this background that clueless Gielgud was arrested. A former public schoolboy who came from a famous theatrical family, he had never been in any doubt that he preferred men.
One of his first acting jobs in the 1920s was to understudy the very gay Noel Coward. In 1926, during the run of Coward's play The Constant Nymph, Gielgud had his first serious romance, with actor John Perry, who gave up his own stage career to live with his much more successful lover in a flat in Covent Garden.
Gielgud's homosexuality was common knowledge in the theatre world, but audiences only knew of his astonishing talent. After his Hamlet became a box office sensation in 1934, the British public idolized him. Other actors- Alec Guinness, Edith Evans & Richard Burton thought he simply the best there was.
In 1953, the year of the Elizabeth 2’s Coronation, Gielgud was nominated for a knighthood. It was the very height of his remarkable career. He was directing himself in a new production, & he had a new lover- interior designer Paul Anstee. Despite his new knighthood, & being one of the most celebrated actors in the world, there he was, the actor was arrested & charged with "persistently importuning men for immoral purposes".
Despite his high profile, Gielgud was not recognized. He was fined & urged to see a doctor about his perverse sex life, a common recommendation at a time when homosexuality was considered a medical problem. Gielgud's luck did not last, a reporter from London's Evening Standard happened to be in court that morning & recognized the actor's silver voice. When Gielgud was on his way to rehearsal that same afternoon, he saw his name on the front page of the late editions of the newspaper.
The humiliation was too much for the sensitive Gielgud. A Conservative peer, Lord Winterton, called for him to be horsewhipped in the street after being stripped of his knighthood. His company of players were very supportive, & when the play finally opened, Gielgud's adoring public proved more than understanding & applauded giving him the blessing he longed for. This vindication was not enough for Gielgud, & 5 months into the run, he suffered a breakdown & was forced to leave the play.
Our own USA government denied Gielgud a visa to tour The Tempest around the country. Choreographer Frederick Ashton denounced Gielgud as having "ruined it for us all". Soon after, Gielgud’s acting style would fall out of style, yet he continued to work by moving in the modern theatre, doing the works of Pinter & Beckett. Gielgud continued to work into his 90s. He had roles in 3 films in 1997, including the piano tutor in Shine.
His career enjoyed a renaissance in his old age. He even achieved respectability in his love life. At a Tate Gallery exhibition in the 1960s, Gielgud met artist Martin Hensler, 30 years his junior, who shared his love of gardening. They remained a couple for 40 years, & died only months apart in 2000.