Friday, July 12, 2013

A Legend Plays a Legend: Christopher Plummer as John Barrymore

Christopher Plummer toured in the title role of Barrymore in 1996 and 1997 (I saw him play it in Boston), and it won him a Tony Award when he brought it, briefly, to Broadway. He never really put it on the shelf; he always planned to return to it, and his association with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada enabled him to do so a few years ago. The screen version, adapted from William Luce’s play and directed by Erik Canuel, is a filmed performance – like his Prospero in The Tempest, also shot at Stratford – tricked up with a some bonus footage to make it look a little more like a movie. Canuel’s visual addenda aren’t convincing but they don’t matter in the least, because a film of a tour de force by one of the theatre’s greatest living actors needs no excuse. If Barrymore had been released in the sixties, it would have made the rounds of major cities in special mid-week two-day engagements, like Olivier’s Othello and Richard Burton’s Hamlet. Given the economics of today’s film distribution, it barely got released at all, though you could see it on HBO for a while and now it’s available on DVD.

If Barrymore isn’t much of a movie, well, it wasn’t much of a play either. The setting is the empty stage of the Majestic Theatre in New York in 1942, which John Barrymore, at the end of his life – he died of pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver after collapsing on Rudy Vallee’s radio show later that year – has rented for a private rehearsal of scenes from Richard III, in the hopes of resurrecting the stage career he abandoned for the movies. The text, such as it is, is a collage of bits from Shakespeare, memories presented as anecdotes, and musings on his wrecked, alcoholic but highly colorful life as a classical actor and a matinee idol; you might call it autobiographical stand-up with an undercurrent of tragedy. The only other character is Frank (John Plumpis), his prompter, who is alternately an admirer and a nag, and whose own story, briefly touched upon (he was refused for military service because of his admitted homosexuality), injects some irrelevant sentimentality when Barrymore, anachronistically, commends him for his honesty and courage. Frank is a somewhat annoying distraction, but who wouldn’t be when you’ve got Christopher Plummer as Barrymore? Like Canuel’s faux cinematic “touches,” he doesn’t really get in the way.

Jack Barrymore was hardly the only great actor of the twentieth century to drink away a dazzling career, but he was the touchstone: when Richard Burton did the same thing, it was Barrymore you thought of. He was a legend, adored and excoriated (most famously by Shaw, who despised his Hamlet), imitated and parodied and, of course, self-parodied. The grandson of distinguished actors on his mother’s side, the son of another distinguished (alcoholic) actor, Maurice Barrymore, Jack followed his brother Lionel and his sister Ethel into the theatre after throwing aside a career as a political cartoonist. (In the movie, Jack says that he was so in love with his own devastatingly handsome profile – he was nicknamed the Great Profile when he became an actor – that he drew all his subjects to look like him.) He became a star in The Fortune Hunter on Broadway in 1909, but he was such a marvelous camera subject that the movies discovered him in short order, and until the talkies came in he divided his time between the stage and the screen. The peak of his stage career was Hamlet in 1922, but less than a decade later he deserted the live theatre for good for the movies, and he made all kinds, shifting from leading roles to supporting character parts in the mid-thirties. But when you look at him on screen, even when he’s playing material that debases his gifts – say, opposite Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald in Maytime or as the newspaper editor in Henry Hathaway’s lively adventure Spawn of the North – you’re always conscious that you’re watching a great actor. And some of his performances, in Svengali and William Wyler’s Counsellor at Law, opposite Garbo in Grand Hotel and Carole Lombard in Twentieth Century (one of the best comedies of the Depression era) – are mesmerizing.

John Barrymore in Dinner at Eight (1933)
George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber wrote not one but two characters patterned on him: Tony Cavendish in The Royal Family and Larry Renault in Dinner at Eight. The first is a raucous high comedy about a lunatic theatrical family obviously based on the Barrymores, and Fredric March did a hilarious impersonation of Jack when George Cukor filmed it (as The Royal Family of Broadway) in 1930: he got – as Plummer does – the wild-eyed silent-movie emotionalism and the driving emphasis on certain words so that they acquire an eccentric musicality. The second is a combination of high comedy and melodrama, and the two Renault scenes fit squarely in the second genre. Barrymore himself played Renault in the 1933 Cukor movie. You can’t take your eyes off him, even in the scenes with the terrific Lee Tracy as his disgusted agent, and when, inevitably, he turns on the gas in the hotel room he’s just been ordered to vacate for lack of funds and turns his face so that the tabloid photographers can shoot his beloved profile after they find his body, even eighty years later the moment still contains an unsettling mixture of pathos, horror and dark humor. Pauline Kael suggests that Lowell Sherman’s terrifying portrait of the alcoholic actor in What Price Hollywood? (also directed by Cukor) in 1932 – the first and best of the four versions of A Star Is Born (and the only one not to bear that title) – was inspired by Barrymore, who was Sherman’s brother-in-law. He was certainly one of the two models for Peter O’Toole’s character in My Favorite Year. (The other was Barrymore’s friend and drinking buddy Errol Flynn, who played him in the 1958 movie Too Much, Too Soon, a biography of the tragic life of his daughter Diana.)

Barrymore isn’t the first play explicitly about Jack; I saw one at Stratford in 1979 called Ned and Jack by Sheldon Rosen, about his friendship with the playwright Edward Shelton, his most enthusiastic supporter, whom he always credited with persuading him to take up Shakespeare. (The play is set on the opening night of Hamlet.) As Plummer plays it, his failure to make good on the promise of that performance links up with James Tyrone’s staggering speech in Long Day’s Journey into Night about “the play I bought for a song” that gave him such easy access to commercial success, decades of it, that it buried his early aspirations. You’re certainly likely to make that connection if you saw Plummer recite that speech in an American Masters documentary about Eugene O’Neill in 2006. A number of actors read O’Neill scenes and speeches, but what Plummer did wasn’t a reading but a performance. I’ve seen many great actors render that speech – Ralph Richardson in the 1962 movie, Robert Ryan on Broadway, Laurence Olivier on television and (both at Stratford and in a Canadian film version), William Hutt – but Plummer’s was, to my mind, the supreme one. As Barrymore, he seems deep in O’Neill territory: at times his showmanship is reminiscent of Hickey’s in The Iceman Cometh (a role he’s never had a chance to essay). But he’s also channeling Beckett here, playing Jack as an existential clown. When, sloshed, he wobbles into the wings to relieve himself, his vaudevillian exit recalls the tramps in Waiting for Godot.

One of Barrymore’s signature qualities was a refusal to take himself seriously, and Plummer, who can be an inspired comic, swings off precisely that stance in Barrymore, from the moment he makes his entrance singing “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” And he gets Jack’s trademark brand of theatricality, drama pitched so high that it turns to melodrama without losing the real emotion at its core and it mocks itself at the same time. (You can hear it in his reading of the Queen Mab speech in Cukor’s 1936 Romeo and Juliet, where his Mercutio – implausible because like everyone else in the picture he’s decades too old for the part, and rather bizarrely stylized – is the only interesting performance.) The recurring metaphor in Luce’s script is “the man in the bright nightgown,” a bogeyman he imagined, in childhood, at the top of the stairs in his grandmother’s house and now clearly the figure of death awaiting him. It’s chintzy – strained poetry – but Plummer gives it a swirl of grandeur and a touch of heart-knocking fear. The performance is full of amazing, complicated moments, like the way he laughs at his own shaking hands, and especially his approach to the Shakespeare speeches he weaves in and out of, flirting with them and then hitting them with a precision and inventiveness that knock you sideways. He does that with the excerpts from Richard III but also with Hamlet’s farewell to Horatio, which Jack personalizes, with that awareness that dogs the entire play that he’s coming close to the end of his life.

Christopher Plummer as Barrymore

Plummer will be 84 in December, and based on his recent stage and film work I’d say he’s at the peak of his powers. I wouldn’t like to use Beginners, the movie for which he finally won an Academy Award two years ago, as a benchmark; there wasn’t much there for him to play. But he was the best Prospero I’ve ever seen and his performance as Tolstoy in The Last Station was amazing; he and Helen Mirren, as his countess, were like partners in a high-wire high-comedy act who never touched the earth. Casting him as Prospero was only reasonable, it seems to me, since of all our actors he’s the one whose work always feels to me closest to sorcery. He doesn’t even appear to work up a sweat as Jack Barrymore, yet he takes us straight to the depths of a fellow actor whose depths were indistinguishable from his heights, his trills and furbelows. No actor so great has ever played another actor so great.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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