By: Jonathan Richards Published online: Friday, January 18, 2013 Appeared in: Pasateimpo
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In 2011, Christopher
Plummer went to Toronto to revive his
1997 Tony-winning performance as
the great and wasted actor John Barrymore and make
a movie record of it. The role is an actor’s dream, a
smorgasbord of everything from dirty limericks to
classical soliloquies, and Plummer plays it to the
hilt. We find the 60-year-old Barrymore in 1942 in a
vacant Broadway theater he has rented to rehearse for
a comeback in one of his triumphs, Richard III. The
great man enters drunk, and the rehearsal degenerates
into wandering reminiscences. Occasionally, almost by
accident, he slips into the business at hand, grasping
for the words that will no longer stick in his boozy
head. Barrymore is at its best when it accepts that it is
a play, and only slips up when it tries to open up into
a movie. 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, only (screens with the
short documentary Backstage With Barrymore). Not
rated. 83 minutes.
Barrymore, screen version of the play, not rated, Lensic Performing Arts
Center, 3.5 chiles
Reviewers of Barrymore, Christopher Plummer’s new movie rendering of his
1997 Tony-winning stage performance, like to identify John Barrymore as Drew
Barrymore’s grandfather. This is a sobering thought (and Barrymore was certainly
a guy who could use a sobering thought). John Barrymore was a huge star,
acclaimed as the leading Shakespearean actor of his time, cited by Orson Welles
as the greatest Hamlet he ever saw. He was a major influence on the generation
of Olivier and Gielgud, though nothing survives of his Shakespeare work but a
few filmed snippets. He was one of the towering movie stars of the silent era. By
the time talkies came along he was in alcohol-fueled decline, but he still made
a string of classics in the early ’30s, including Dinner at Eight, Grand Hotel, and
Barrymore kept threatening to return to the stage, but by 50 his brain was too
pickled to retain lines (in his later film roles his lines were written on black-
boards just off camera). Toward the end, he made his living poking fun at the
caricature of himself as a genial drunken has-been ham. In May of 1942, he
collapsed while rehearsing Rudy Vallee’s radio show, and he died a few days later,
at the age of 60.
The playwright William Luce imagines Barrymore just before his death, in a
vacant Broadway theater, which he has rented to rehearse for a comeback in one
of his triumphs, Richard III. Barrymore enters drunk, and keeps drinking, and the
attempted rehearsal degenerates into a mishmash of wandering reminiscences,
while his frustrated stage manager Frank (John Plumpis) stands offstage feeding
him lines and pleading with him to get down to work.
The role is an actor’s dream, a smorgasbord of everything from songs and dirty
limericks to classical soliloquies, and Plummer plays it to the hilt. When he first
got hold of the play, which Luce wrote for him, Plummer was close in age to its
subject. By the time of the recent revival in Toronto that serves as the basis for
Érik Canuel’s film adaptation, the actor had tacked on about another decade and
a half, although Plummer at 80 is in a lot better shape than Barrymore was at 60.
What is wonderful about the movie is the way it captures and preserves a great
stage performance, something we can only wish had been done with Barrymore’s
fabled Hamlet and Richard III (a few brief, tantalizing clips are available on
YouTube). Plummer loves the character, and he plays him with enormous style
and charm. He comes onstage pushing a rack of costumes and singing an old
song about a gal in Kalamazoo. “Oops,” he says, “I forgot the baby!” He plunges
into the wings and quickly returns with a black doctor’s bag stuffed with booze,
and launches into an evening’s-length monologue, interrupted occasionally by
the poor guy on book.
We hear about John Barrymore’s famous theatrical family, or families — the
Barrymores on his father’s side, the Drews on his mother’s. Barrymore does
wicked impressions of his famous siblings, Lionel and Ethel. He recalls his
ambition to be an artist and his stint as an editorial cartoonist for the New York
Sun, before he gave up and went into the family business. He reminisces about
friendships, and a man who believed in his talent when the world thought him
nothing more than a lightweight matinee idol.
And from time to time, almost by accident, he slips into the business at hand,
grasping for the words from Richard III that will no longer stick in his boozy
head. “Don’t give me a line unless I ask for it,” he snaps at his beleaguered
prompter. “If I forget something, I shall simply say ‘line!’ ” (Short pause.) “Line!”
When Barrymore does stumble upon a passage from Richard III or a
soliloquy from Hamlet, he delivers the words with a passion and a delicacy
that evoke his heyday. The readings seem to come from somewhere deep
within him, wisps of brilliance gathered from a distant star.
The conceit of the piece is that Barrymore is rehearsing in an empty
house, or perhaps one filled with an audience of potential backers. The play
can’t quite decide, and the movie has it both ways. Oddly enough, it more
or less works. In real time, of course, the seats are full of theatergoers, and
Barrymore plays off them. The movie sometimes shows the appreciative
audience, sometimes a cavernous empty auditorium, a theater at its most
hauntingly, vulnerably romantic.
Barrymore is at its best when it accepts that it is a play. Where it slips
up is in Canuel’s attempts to “moviefy” it. The great man kicks a chair
in frustration, and the camera self-consciously relocates to stage right to
watch the chair come hurtling over. Barrymore reminisces about a trip to
Italy with his friend playwright Ned Sheldon, and the movie opens up to
a balcony in Florence. He leaves the stage for the play’s act break, but the
movie follows him down to his dressing room. There are moments when a
cinematic device works, but for the most part anything that distracts from
the essential truth of Plummer’s live performance as that regal wreck John
Barrymore is a bad idea. The play’s the thing.
Barrymore, film adaptation of the play, with Christopher Plummer
7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 18, only
Lensic Performing Ar t Center, 211 W. San Francisco St.