Rating: 3.25/5It’s January 1942, and John Barrymore is at the end of his career and his life. Once one of the greatest English-speaking stage actors in the world, his mind and abilities have been diminished by illness and drink. Desperate for one final chance to be taken seriously, he rents a theater out for a night of rehearsal with his prompter Frank. He’s chosen Shakespeare’s Richard III, the first substantial success he had on stage, in hopes it will give him the same luck he enjoyed decades before.
With plenty of lowbrow humor and practically Vaudevillian gags, Barrymore begins with the eponymous acting legend (Christopher Plummer) stumbling onto the rehearsal stage, immediately reminiscing while basking in the love of the audience. But the audience is there for Plummer, or so it seems after a confusing and unnecessary intro to the film. Explicatory text tells us where we are and why, but we don’t need to know; the play explains it plainly enough just a few minutes in. Some stock footage of the era is used in combination with faked old footage that never, ever matches the real thing, not in higher budget films and certainly not in this rather Spartan affair. And though the film takes place in 1942, the 1931 Ben Selvin Orchestra version of “Dancing in the Dark” is heard, which is properly sentimental and spooky after a few echo effects have been added, but the choice is an odd one, given the 1941 Artie Shaw version would have been contemporaneous to the fictionalized events in Barrymore.
Soon the faux old footage disappears, as does the music and the audience, replaced with Frank (John Plumpis). The eager young prompter is there simply to feed a few lines from offstage, smoothing the transition from one anecdote to the next. Frank plays as a cranky Jimmy Olsen, possessing of a peculiar monotone that very quickly goes from humorous to surreal to grating. He is almost entirely unseen, rendering Barrymore essentially a one-man play.
The rehearsal begins and Frank must prompt Barrymore for nearly every word, as the maestro has lost his ability to remember lines. The prompter then dutifully disappears into silence as the once great actor drifts off into reminiscence and scandalous stories. It’s questionable what these anecdotes coupled with Shakespearean stanzas are truly supposed to mean. The real Barrymore suffered heavily from years of alcoholism and likely from mental illness, perhaps even Alzheimer’s disease. The play, it appears, is trying to give pattern and meaning to what in real life would have had none, and as an artistic conceit it’s common enough, though not particularly weighty, especially when rendered in naughty limericks and mother-in-law jokes.
Christopher Plummer originated the role of Barrymore in this almost-one-man show in 1996, when he was already a decade older than Barrymore would have been in 1942. Plummer won a Tony for “Barrymore” in 1997, and has returned nearly 15 years later for this film of the successful play. Yet even in today’s version, Plummer does not in the least appear too old. Barrymore himself was aged beyond his years from illness; on the actor’s theatrical comeback in 1940, critic Brooks Atkinson famously wrote, “Although he looked ravaged and old, he owned the stage.”
Plummer, too, owns the stage, though he hardly looks ravaged except by deliberate design. He bears little physical or vocal resemblance to Barrymore, but Plummer’s carriage and demeanor is striking. His impressions of Barrymore sibs and fellow actors are amusing, though he occasionally falters with the impersonations, such as a too-broad Spanish stereotype and a Louella Parsons who sounds more like Cliff Gorman than the oft-despised gossip maven. But that is picking at the proverbial nits, as Plummer’s performance is fluid and confident, no mean feat with a play that often becomes a series of one-liners and deliberately paced anecdotes, broken up by the occasional history lesson. It takes significant talent for an actor to sit down and list, in chronological order, each of his four wives by full name; it’s about as close to reading the phone book as an audience will ever see, but Plummer’s commitment to the role pulls it off.
It’s that talent and commitment that provide the primary reason to see Barrymore. Plummer is terrific; the material, less so. Because John Barrymore was well known for distracting from his obvious problems with humor, it is nothing new to see this reenacted on stage. His greatest acting triumphs were unrecorded except by observation and reputation during his fabled theater career that hit its peak in the early 1920s. He was past his prime by the time he starred in a series of late-era silent films, in trouble from drink and a rather barbarous social life. As the early talkie era began, the middle-aged Barrymore was already under the care of multiple doctors, his film roles melancholy, unsteady parodies of himself.
That is why Barrymore feels so thin. The self deprecation, the insecurity and realization that the great actor knows, so very tragically and clearly, that he has lost his gift was writ large upon his face in his later life. Campy film performances and embarrassing interviews abound. John Barrymore collapsed while in the midst of lampooning himself yet again on Rudy Vallée’s radio show in 1942, dying later that night. And because of the fickle nature of technology, it’s the latter, broken Barrymore we’re already fully familiar with. There is nothing Barrymore can show us about the man’s latter days that we haven’t already seen. If we watch Barrymore, we watch it for Plummer. It is a flourish for the Canadian thespian, but perhaps a bit unfair to the man he portrays.