Actor Christopher Plummer portraying John Barrymore in the movie "Barrymore." (Image Entertainment )
Two things to keep in mind when considering "Barrymore," starring Christopher Plummer as the great John B: It was brilliant as a one-man stage show; it was never a good candidate for film.
Indeed, the struggle to transform itself for the big screen is there in every frame. Adapted and directed by Erik Canuel, "Barrymore" sticks very close to its source, William Luce's deliciously gossipy play. The filmmaker is reluctant to even let his leading man step off stage.
The setting is 1942, the final year in Barrymore's life. A rehearsal is about to get underway in an empty theater as the actor makes one last bid to get a backer for a Broadway comeback. A car drops Barrymore at a stage door in an alleyway stripped bare, like an undressed set, a style that will carry through the film. There are a few moments in the dressing room, some reflective shots in a mirror, but soon the actor is on stage, leaving only to make a trip to "the can," or when a fleeting childhood memory intrudes.
The thin line that separates stage from screen here is a camera — Plummer performing for a lens rather than live theatergoers. It leaves the production devoid of the electricity between actor and audience. With nothing to replace it, the film can feel as out of sorts with itself as Barrymore was in those final days.
But we are, happily, left with Plummer eating up the scenery — and that is no small gift. In "Barrymore," he has a man broken but unbowed. Despite a film career that is kaput and a stage career long gone, Barrymore clings to the hope that he can orchestrate a triumphant return with a reprise of Shakespeare's "Richard III." All that grasping makes for great fodder and the rehearsal becomes an occasion for the dedicated alcoholic to drink, reminisce and, when he can't avoid it, practice his lines.
The only witness is Barrymore's longtime prompter, Frank (John Plumpis), whose main task is to try to keep the actor on point as "line, line" rings across the darkened house. Frank, however, exists off-stage and cloaked in shadows. With the film's minimalist approach, Barrymore, the one-time superstar now latter-day sinner, is really all you see.
In truth, "Richard III" is a minor diversion. Barrymore is continually detouring to reflect on the things he loves most. The beauties (including his four wives) and the booze overtake the discourse early on, his relationships with both tossed off in randy limericks. Plummer is a mischievous delight as he runs through the women's various "attributes" and his various indiscretions. His eyes literally twinkle at the exploits he was once capable of pulling off.
Though the actor remains tied to a single stage, Plummer paces every inch of it to work his way through Barrymore's many laments (Toronto's grand old Edwardian theater, the Elgin, serves as location). His decaying looks trouble him; his odoriferous wardrobe, particularly Richard's tights, are a scandal; his envy for brother Lionel haunts him, while his affection for grandmother Louisa Drew sustains him. Barrymore's constant companion, outside of Frank, is the drink that is either within easy reach or held oh so elegantly in a very wobbly hand.
As the night deepens, the mood gets more somber. Barrymore leans increasingly on Shakespeare, forcing himself to dig into the play. And Plummer rises to the heights. In a passage that falls nearer the end of great tragedy, there is such sadness in every word Plummer speaks that between the performance and the eloquence of Shakespearean verse, you want to weep for the man. Actually both of them, Richard and Barrymore. You can see why the portrayal won Plummer a Tony in 1997, though unlike Barrymore he is in no need of a renaissance, having picked up a supporting actor Oscar earlier this year for "Beginners."
Whatever form "Barrymore" takes, it is a showcase for Plummer's uncommon range. Director Canuel, with Bernard Couture handling the cinematography, has no hesitation about going in close on the actor's face, taking time to mine its valleys and shoals for emotion. And Plummer fills them up, creating in "Barrymore" an exceptional performance piece. It just isn't much of a movie.