If John Barrymore’s legacy has been reduced to a series of scandalous anecdotes and “black sheep” allegories, it’s only because his work remains largely unseen by younger generations. After achieving success onstage with some saying he’d made sense out of Shakespeare, he baffled audiences and critics by moving to films, where he immediately became the greatest actor of them all.
Sadly, most of his earliest films are lost and by the time we get to his 1930’s performances we find ourselves watching a man who didn’t really want to be in motion pictures any more. Even if he co-starred with the biggest stars of the era, you can feel that his passions lay somewhere else, which is why he ended up returning to the theater.
This concept inspired playwright William Luce to write Barrymore, a two man play which imagines an aging John, returning to the stage and finds him in rehearsals for what had been his greatest success as a young man: Richard III. The play consists of Barrymore addressing his audience, and interacting with stage manager Frank, as he talks about his life, his work, the scandals that surrounded him and his great passion for his craft. The play debuted at the Stratford Festival in Canada and was quickly transferred to Broadway, where it won leading man Christopher Plummer, the Tony Award for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play, his second after having won for playing Cyrano de Bergerac decades before.
Fourteen years after his Tony win, we find Plummer reenacting this meta show, by returning to this iconic role and turning it into a film directed by Erik Canuel, which is nothing more than a filmed play, but raises questions about Plummer’s career and his similarities to Barrymore. Why did the Canadian actor chose to revisit this character for the big screen on the same year he ended up sweeping all the acting awards for his performance as an elderly gay man in Beginners? Was Plummer, like the imagined version of Barrymore, going through some sort of crisis which had him return to the things he knew he’d been good at?
It’s not that Plummer gives a bad performance in the film—he doesn’t—it’s just that it often seems like a desperate attempt to prove something. But what? Plummer, now in his 80s, is seen playing a man who died at age 60, but who by then had enough emotional baggage to make him feel as if he was truly ancient. While Plummer explains in a behind the scenes documentary that he thought it appropriate to do this part because he was now bringing more depth to the part, you can always see the actor acting. Perhaps the experience onstage, as is usually the case, was more stylized and grand, but the film never allows us to come close to it. It’s as if the director forgets that theatrical elements are a certain way because they’re meant to be consumed in a dark auditorium without the advantages and disadvantages of a film camera.
Plummer does a sensational job in identifying the funniest moments in the play, but he never achieves the emotional potency that would make younger audiences flock to find Dinner at Eight and Grand Hotel. Where Barrymore turns out to be fascinating is in its conception of actors being just as insecure as actresses who are always regarded as divas. Plummer perfectly taps into Barrymore’s fear of disappearing and being forgotten. That he often pokes fun at his own alcoholism is sadder than the fact that he was an alcoholic who died shortly after the play was first performed.
Barrymore could’ve perfectly explored the differences between stage and screen acting.Or it could have used Plummer as a vessel to convey the sad notion that a theatrical performance is meant to be enjoyed and seen by a few. Barrymore should’ve been tinged with melancholy and regret, instead it’s filled with half-satisfying impressions and a lack of purpose, because while the actors have a lot to say, the play itself has not.
Interestingly enough the Barrymore DVD has a great behind-the-scenes documentary that chronicles the play’s history and its transformation into a movie. The documentary also works as an indepth look at Plummer’s illustrious career, as it explores his early theatrical work and judges his success with an impartial tone. Featuring interviews with Helen Mirren, Zoe Caldwell and Julie Andrews, this documentary is the rare case where the bonus features are better than the movie.
"PopMatters (est. 1999) is a respected source for smart long-form reading on a wide range of topics in culture. PopMatters serves as…READ the article