Film Review: Barrymore

Christopher Plummer works hard to give us his idea of John Barrymore in this record of a theatrical tour-de-force, which is more dramatically florid than biographically enlightening.

In some circles, John Barrymore is still spoken of as the greatest American actor of them all, his very surname a synonym for histrionic value. Christopher Plummer is definitely a member of that circle, and he attempts to portray him in this screen adaptation of his 1996 stage success. Plummer plays Barrymore as playwright William Luce perceived him in the last year of his life, 1942, on his uppers, severely alcoholic and desperately on the comeback trail as he rehearses a backer’s audition of his former triumph, Richard III. The idea is to run lines, but such is the man’s attention deficit and drunken condition that the audition dissolves into a rambling reminiscence of his life and how it brought him here.

Director and screenplay adapter Erik Canuel strains to make cinematic this essentially one-man show, set largely on an empty stage, with scene changes, busy editing, “haunting” music and intercut flashbacks. The busy results are often distracting and disruptive to the flow of Plummer’s exhaustingly virtuosic performance, with its quicksilver emotional turns. Things might have been better served with a simpler camera set-up, recording the whole thing in long takes, if not one continuous shot.

As energetic, smart and committed as Plummer’s acting is, if you’ve ever seen the real John Barrymore on film, you may experience a certain sense of displacement. For starters, even at his most ravaged, Barrymore was one of the handsomest men of his time, dubbed “the Great Profile” for the classic, chiseled perfection of his Byronic features. Plummer in his youth was serviceably handsome, but at the age he is now, he cannot approximate that magisterial aging matinee-idol mien. Always best in malevolent roles, as in Nicholas Nickleby (Pauline Kael once described him in The Sound of Music as the “spider on the valentine”), Plummer is an actor more effective on stage than screen, his formidable technique somewhat masking his emotional thinness. Big-hearted Barrymore, even at his most florid and wrong, invested all of his roles with a flamboyant passion which is diametrically opposed to Plummer’s basic reserve. At one point, Plummer impersonates John’s ever-crusty, ever-hammy and often bogus brother Lionel, and is far more convincing doing that.

For all the information spilled forth here, we really don’t find out all that much about Barrymore’s actual life, apart from his addlepated love of booze. His many wives are summarily dismissed and it is explained that, after the success of his Hamlet, everything shone golden for a moment before self-destruction set in. The slick, often overreaching screenplay foolishly attempts to best and overelaborate famous Barrymore one-liners that were perfectly good and funny in their original form, like his answer to the question, “Did Hamlet sleep with Ophelia?”: “Only in the Chicago company.” (The writers also miss out on one of his best. While relieving himself on the set of Midnight, a woman entered the bathroom and said, “But Mr. Barrymore, this is for ladies!” Turning around, he said, “So is this.”) Barrymore recalls the playwright Ned Sheldon as a major influence at one point, but fails to mention the crucial fact that this forgotten but important man of the American theatre was completely blind. Lionel’s drug addiction is mentioned, but sister Ethel, that ultimate theatrical grande dame, gets the usual over-dignified, saintly-prude treatment, with no touching on her own alcoholism or financial woes.

Worst of all, Barrymore’s film work is treated as completely worthless and a total sellout. Surely, the actor must have taken some pride in the magnificent, totally on-target work he did in such as Counsellor-at-Law, Topaze, Twentieth Century, Romeo and Juliet and Midnight? These movies constitute a precious record of his genius and will be studied for years to come. His brief Richard III appearance in the 1929 Warner Brothers revue The Show of Shows is painstakingly recreated, and, for a moment, Plummer really comes alive as this human tarantula. But for too long a time in this film, we must put up with the monotony of his screaming “Line!” for the largely unseen prompter (John Plumpis, who has a jarringly wrong, too-pushy voice for the part) to remind him of his dialogue, endless swigging from a bottle, and singing snatches of World War II hits like “I Got a Gal in Kalamazoo” like the seediest song-and-dance man, which just seems totally out of character.

In some ways, Barrymore makes the same exploitative mistakes as the recent, loathsome Broadway show about Judy Garland, End of the Rainbow, feeding on our so-called need to see legendary stars at their worst. The great Barrymore finally, sadly emerges here as nothing more than the most boring of drunks.