PBS American Masters - Barrymore

by Louise Adams
Wednesday Jan 29, 2014
PBS American Masters - Barrymore

Oscar-winner Christopher Plummer plays stage and screen icon "Barrymore" in a film version of his Tony Award-winning performance, airing Friday, January 31, 9 p.m. EST on PBS's Great Performances, followed by a one-on-one interview with Paula Zahn about morphing the long-running play into a movie (www.pbs.org/wnet/gperf/episodes/barrymore-starring-christopher-plummer/about-the-film/1964/).

Scion of the legendary theatrical (and alcoholic) family, John, the younger sibling of Lionel and Ethel (and grandfather of Drew), is preparing an investor audition to remount his 1920 hit Broadway production of "Richard III." Now it's 1942, three months after Pearl Harbor, and the former leading man is on his last legs, drowning in a bottle on a sparse stage as his off-stage prompter Frank (shadowy John Plumpis, never seen in full) tosses cues and advice.

Director Erik Canuel adapted William Luce's smart and poignant script, skillfully inserting some metatheatrical off-stage flashbacks in Barrymore's dressing room, in Florence, and on the silver screen. The actor had also played Hamlet to great acclaim, so pieces of the King and Prince's monologues, as well as other Shakespearean takes on alcohol (Cassio's "I have very poor and unhappy brains for drinking," Gertrude's "the drink, the drink! I am poisoned") waft among Barrymore's bawdy limericks and recollections of fame and growing old: "Things are starting to click for me - my knees, my elbows, my neck" and "You're old when regrets replace dreams."

"Actors are like waves," Plummer quotes Barrymore quoting his grandmother. "They rise to different heights, then break, then are gone."

Full of self-aggrandizing wit and self-loathing pathos, Barrymore dissects his four marriages - "for 20 years, Katherine and I were extremely happy ... and then we met" - and his love of ladies ("my trouble didn't come from chasing women, but from catching them") and sex, or "jumbled giblets." He waxes fearful about growing up in his mum-mum's house, "the tomb of the Capulets." He dreams of being the next Edwin Booth, and using his "Plantagenet nose" for the Richard role again. He regrets his wavering between Hollywood, the "Gomorrah with palm trees," and New York City, "Sodom with subways."

Plummer is transcendent. Making a pompous over-actor believable and an addicted egomaniac loveable is an achievement. He seamlessly shifts from Barrymore's mercurial ecstasy to his mounting agony, making the dialects of each character in his canon, on-stage and off-, distinct (his Lionel is spot-on). It's a gorgeous performance of a timely and intertextual script. "Actors are like waves," Plummer quotes Barrymore quoting his grandmother. "They rise to different heights, then break, then are gone." Watch this great performance to remember them both.


Louise Adams is a Chicago freelance writer at www.treefalls.com (and a nom de guerre).


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