Alec Guinness did not receive Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a BAFTA as well as an Oscar for writing film, for portraying Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth.
Most films about artist whether they be painters or composers tend to be about their hardships while trying to show their brilliance to the public whether it is mental problems, or physical problems caused by the world around them. Well that's not the case of Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth, who does get out of prison at the beginning of the film but it is not standing up for his long standing beliefs about something important, no its for making crank/threatening phone calls to a rich patron of the arts. Guinness certainly can play a great dignity as if it were nothing but that's not the case here. No Guinness even sets out in his own way to make sure no one gets any big ideas about Gulley Jimson starting with the way he speaks. Guinness gives Jimson a very crude growl as his voice that instantly suggests that Jimson is not going to try to be carry himself as the usual artist often seen in films about artists.
This is actually largely a comedic performance by Guinness and a great deal of the comedy comes from the way Jimson tries to continue his artistic ambition through various schemes that can be a bit strange. Guinness is a great scoundrel here and I particularly love his physical mannerisms in this performance. Guinness carries himself with a certain withdrawn quality in the way he walks and interacts with others as if that Jimson is always concealing something about his intents. Guinness always exudes a certain sly mischievousness in his portrayal as Jimson always has something up his sleeve, and always has some sort of idea to get what he wants. Guinness does not create even a wisp of pretentiousness in his portrayal of the way that Jimson intends to meet his artistic needs, which are the ends of his odd schemes even if it tends to be in a fairly round about sort of fashion.
Guinness is very entertaining in all of these scenes with his usual energetic style he can so unassumingly bring to these types of roles. Guinness is probably one of if not the best actor at being hilarious well never seeming like he is attempting to do so. His work as Jimson exemplifies this as all the lunacy in Jimson's behavior certainly seems completely fitting for the way he plays Jimson. The humor is always well earned by Guinness's performance and he creates a incredibly sense of fun as Jimson lays down his schemes on wealthy patrons or his ex-wife. Guinness is particularly funny in the scene where he tries to repeatedly trick an old man always pretending to be some important person with an absurd stuffy voice, than usually ending the call rather abruptly with a violent threat in Jimson's violent growl. Guinness is just great to watch here, and never let's a moment fall flat.
Alec Guinness certainly is one of the best actors at both comedy and drama and this performance is a rather brilliant fusion of both sides of that. It is true that in the broad strokes and on the surface Guinness goes for the laughs, and does that well, but that is not all there is to it. What is particularly amazing about Guinness's work is that the artist part is always something quite relevant to his performance even though Guinness's portrayal never really stops being comedic either. Guinness stays very subtle in this regard and effectively so. Jimson is a rogue to be sure, and most see him as such, but his work suggests that he is truly devoted to what he does. Guinness handles this well by having the rouge overarching yet there is this passion within Jimson that Guinness effortlessly conveys beneath it all, that is always a factor in the man even if it is fairly easy to overlook due to his nature as a man.
Guinness is excellent in any scene where Jimson talks about his work either past or present. In the past Guinness suggests such a nostalgia, and honest pride in Jimson's expression as it is clear Jimson honestly cares for what he does deeply. When coming up with a future work he usually describes the idea in terms of great deal. Guinness brings so much devotion and passion in his performance in these moments, and suggests the real ambition of the man. What is so spectacular about this Guinness never compromises the comedic element of Jimson. Guinness instead brings out these qualities always in a genuine fashion from Jimson he established from the first scene. Guinness since he plays Jimson in this particular also manages to make it so none of Jimson's speeches seem heavy handed in the slightest instead they all carry a very unassuming poignancy.
Guinness excels in both capacities so well and this is perhaps best shown in his interaction with a barmaid with very little self-esteem named Coker (Kate Walsh). Walsh and Guinness are great together and again very funny as Walsh constantly plays Coker as wanting to do Jimson for his behavior, well Guinness always keeps that impish grin. What is so great though is that even while having all this fun there is scene they share together that is really quite tender as Coker explain why she prays despite hating God, and Jimson's describes his ambition after learning the death of the man he use to harass. Both show the characters in less of extremes but still the same people as in their other scenes, and earn this quiet moment completely.
Guinness is especially moving in the scene in his reaction on learning the old man's death. Despite threatening to kill the old man previously Guinness shows a sadness in Jimson and in this moment we see, in its purest form, Jimson's devotion to his art. The sadness Guinness uses to suggest that Jimson has felt the loss of the old man because at the end of the day the man loved his art, which he honestly did care about. Guinness gives a great performance here and the whole idea is quite a
challenge as it would easy enough to well not be particularly funny, or
perhaps just be completely funny and not really brings the depth needed
for the character of Jimson. Guinness creates the full range of character in Gulley Jimson, and never falters once in balancing the different elements of the man.