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John Barrymore's last days worthy of a great performance

Posted: 01/30/2014 1:00 AM | Comments: 0

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PASADENA -- I don't know what criteria qualify a TV program to be part of PBS's Great Performances, but this should probably be one: A great actor giving a great performance while portraying another great actor.

That's what viewers of U.S. public television get this week in the form of Barrymore, a screen adaptation of William Luce's award-winning Broadway play, featuring an inspired performance by Christopher Plummer in the role of legendary actor John Barrymore.

Barrymore, which airs Jan. 31 at 8:30 p.m. on PBS, finds Plummer playing Barrymore in the twilight of his life, having long since exited the peak of his acting career after a descent into alcoholism robbed him of his talents and faculties.

In the early decades of the 20th century, Barrymore was considered by many to be the foremost actor of his generation, attaining star status on stage as well as in the fledgling motion-picture business. But by 1942, the year in which Barrymore is set (and, in real life, the year in which the actor died at age 59), he was a wasted shell of a man, looking to make one last grab at greatness.

Earlier this month, during PBS's portion of the U.S. networks' semi-annual press tour in Los Angeles, Plummer discussed the play (which earned him a Tony Award), the screen adaptation (which can also currently be found in Movie Central's lineup) and the challenge of being an actor portraying another actor.

"He was one of the great personalities of the early 20th century," Plummer says of Barrymore. "There's no question. He was the embodiment of naughtiness, glamour, talent, and he had it all -- except height; he was a very short man.

"And (he had) that great, extraordinary profile and his delicious, self-deprecating humour, of which he had loads. That made him a very attractive figure to me.

"And also, he was Icarus, wasn't he? He flew too close to the sun and came burning down, unfortunately, in his Hollywood days. It's amazing that he couldn't handle Hollywood at all... but I guess he was too nice somewhere along the line to take it, too sweet a man to take it, and he had to go."

Barrymore, which had its theatrical debut at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, shows the aged and clearly inebriated actor arriving at a theatre in New York, where he's scheduled for an afternoon of rehearsal before auditioning in front of prospective investors he's hoping will back a revival of Shakespeare's Richard III that will put his career back on track.

It does not, of course, go well, but as the actor careens from monologue to rant to botched line reading to regretful remembrance, much is revealed about vanity, humanity and the pitfalls of stardom.

During the press-tour interview session, Plummer, 84 -- who gained a reputation himself as a bit of a tippler during his long and storied acting career -- admits that Barrymore, because of, rather than in spite of, his flaws, was one of his inspirations for becoming an actor in the first place.

"There is a wonderful pathos to his story," he reflects. "Of course, I read also Gene Fowler's (biography of Barrymore) when I was 14 and Jack Barrymore, then, was so glamorous to me -- he was so handsome and such a great actor and, at the same time, a wonderful boozer.

"I thought, 'Oh, God, what a great profession this is. I want to be in it.' I mean, you can please the ladies and also get drunk every night. What a great, great profession. So he inspired me to be an actor, actually, although I'd never met him."

Unlike some Great Performances specials, Barrymore is not simply a captured-on-film performance of a stage play; rather, it's a measured and artful rendering that takes place in a theatre, but has been altered to accommodate camera angles, special-effects sequences and close-up shots.

"There's nothing worse to me than a filmed stage play, because there's a curtain between you and the audience (that) stops you from really communicating. Whereas, in the theatre, I mean, you're right there, and it's the sort of haven of the imagination and you use every part of your thinking," Plummer says.

"So normally, I don't like the idea of film stuff, but this was filmed with, I thought, great taste by ârik Canuel, a French-Canadian director who is very talented. I think it was tastefully and well done, the film.

"What was most unnerving about seeing it for the first time on the screen was I found it far more emotional than the play, which I had done for such a long time -- nine months on Broadway. And the reason is because the camera came in close and it captures my own fears and thoughts so cruelly that it's kind of wonderful. You see the pain inside.

"I found that very much more emotional than the stage play. I hope you feel the same."

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 30, 2014 C6

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