Christopher Plummer gives life to the title role in Barrymore, a filmed performance of the 2011 revival of the 1997 Broadway play, written by William Luce, that netted Plummer a Tony for Best Performance and show by the Theatre and Interpretation Center at Northwestern University. John Barrymore was an outrageous figure on stage, on the screen, and inreal life, so it's understandable what would make him a suitable subject for what is essentially a one-man show. As the character is written and as Plummer plays him, Barrymore is hardly distinguishable from the desperate, manic-eyed Broadway producer Oscar Jaffe he played in Howard Hawks' 1934 classic movie, Twentieth Century, but in addition to his inherent flamboyance, he has been ravaged by years of alcoholism. When Barrymore first appears on stage (the movie begins as a recorded version of a performance in front of an audience, then a performance in which the audience is absent for most of it,) he's drunk, and Plummer plays him as a man who's used to being drunk. He staggers slightly, he slurs his speech, but this is clearly Barrymore's natural state by this point in his life. He's a tattered wreck of the great actor who stunned audiences with his performances of Shakespeare, but he's adapted to being a wreck and handles himself as well as he can.
The device around which Barrymore is framed is a fictional attempt by John "Jack" Barrymore to make a triumphant return to the legitimate theater as Shakespeare's Richard III in what is an attempt to recapture some of the brilliance that made him a sensation before his prolonged self-destruction. As he staggers out to the middle of the stage, wearing a pinstriped suit, Barrymore can recite doggerel, he can recall with detail the failures and successes of his life, but he can't remember the play's opening soliloquy to save his life. For this, he is assisted by a prompter, Frank (John Plumpis), who feeds him his lines while remaining in the shadows. (The live audience was unable to see Frank at all, but in the filmed version, we can see him standing in the wings, his face obscured at all times.) Barrymore's a wreck, but he's certainly had a hell of a ride to get there. He went through four marriages, hammed his way through countless film and stage roles, and did so while carrying on the tradition of America's foremost acting family, the younger brother of Ethel and Lionel Barrymore, and the son and grandson of famed stage performers. Jack's father, Maurice, was a talented stage actor who specialized in playing dandies, before alcoholism destroyed him, as it would his son, something not lost on Jack. “That was your legacy to me,” the younger Barrymore comments as he imagines seeing his father in the mirror.
The concept of the actor as a wreck is hardly a new one, and one thing that Luce's play fails to convey is what makes Barrymore specially worthy of attention. It may be related to the way he could call attention to himself unlike any other actor. “Modulation” was not a word in John Barrymore's vocabulary; he didn't tone down his hysteria when a camera could capture him in a more intimate setting, but his antics almost certainly couldn't have been that much less overbearing on stage. In the play, Barrymore reads a letter, which he carries in the pocket of his suit coat, sent to him by George Bernard Shaw, in which Shaw lambasts Barrymore's Hamlet after seeing his debut in London. He doesn't seem like a drunk who lives for drink; he seems to regret what's become of him. Other famous drunks didn't regret a drop that they downed. Their lives were given over to the bottle, to the hedonism that accompanied it, and they let their fates play out accordingly. I would think that John Barrymore would belong to the this group, particularly given all of his triumphs on stage and screen that his degradation couldn't take away from him, but here, we get a character who's desperate to prove that he's still got it.
As Barrymore, Christopher Plummer delights in the task of bringing the great scene-chewer to life. Plummer is no stranger to showy acting himself, so he's a natural for this character with whom he shares an affinity. Looking over his filmography, television, and stage credits, Plummer is one of the most, perhaps the most, tireless actor working for the sixty years his career has spanned, and he doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Despite his spiritual
affinity with Barrymore, which includes an addiction to alcohol, Plummer has preserved himself well, kicking his habit. His interpretation of Barrymore is not an assumption of his physical mannerisms or his vocal mannerisms, but rather of his persona, a far smarter choice than simple impersonation, as Plummer points out in a documentary on the making of the movie, which accompanied the screening I saw. And he doesn't hold anything back in his performance, either. The affinity he feels for the audience is reciprocated, and it's understandable; he's feeding off of the energy that a live audience gives, and he seems to give every ounce of energy at every moment, which burns through the screen. Despite possessing one of the most recognizable voices and faces of any actor, Plummer is totally believable as Barrymore, and he doesn't really alter his voice to play him (he does, however, alter his voice to impersonate John's brother Lionel, a moment which alone makes the movie worth seeing, at least for those of us who've seen Lionel's performances.) I don't know that I learned much about what made Jack Barrymore tick, or why he destroyed himself, but with a performance like Plummer's, I didn't need to. A performance like this reminds us that the passion that produces great acting can be thrilling all by itself.
Photos: Courtesy of Northwester University's Theatre and Interpretation Center
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