Christopher Plummer is, without contest, one of the greatest, most versatile and most distinguished actors of our time. Unbelievably, he was 82 years old when he won an Academy Award for Beginners, in the Best Supporting Actor category. It was the wrong prize, for the wrong film. What he really deserves is a Best Actor Oscar, for recreating his Tony Award-winning stage triumph as John Barrymore in William Luce’s dazzling one-man show Barrymore. Adapted to film by Canadian director Erik Canuel, it’s the role—and the performance—of a lifetime, and Plummer plays every color, nuance, mood and variety of vocal power and body language in his enormous range. The artistry leaves you with your mouth wide open.
The year is 1942, and America is still reeling from the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Barrymore is well past his prime and showing in his dewlaps the bitter ravages of nearly three decades of alcohol abuse. Diminished but still capable of holding attention, he desperately wants to make a comeback in one of his biggest triumphs, Richard III,a role he played to great acclaim in 1920. Times have been rough, jobs are scarce, and the once-great star of screen and stage is considered unemployable. So he rents an empty New York theater for one day, drags in his props, costumes and greasepaint, and dives in to brush up on his Shakespeare.
What he assumes will be a private rehearsal with only his long-suffering prompter Frank hidden in the darkness offstage actually turns out to be an extravagant, self-indulgent monologue acted out in front of a full house of imaginary fans. Sipping “vital life-sustaining potions from my pharmacist and the Jungle Club on Seventh Avenue,” he can’t even remember the opening “winter of our discontent” line. But as soon as his loyal yet frustrated prompter arrives to help him with the line readings he’s long forgotten, he warms to his audience of sycophants with such gusto that it’s clear he’s more interested in playing the ham than the hunchback king. “I need to be taken seriously once more—before the man in the colored nightgown takes me away,” he says, but he fills up the time by sharing rude limericks and irreverent show business in-jokes about the legends he’s worked with. Shaking with the tremors of a massive hangover while mixing giant Manhattans from his portable bar, he keeps the audience entertained with ribald jokes, including self-deprecating one-liners at his own expense. (“When I get out of bed in the morning, I sound like Carmen Miranda’s castanets.”)
Once his prompter arrives, it’s clear how far gone he is. He takes a break after only four lines, confuses Richard with Othello and Hamlet, and is constantly distracted by invasive memories of childhood, incarceration in a German sanitarium for drunks run by a Wagnerian crone he calls Frau Himmler, and working with Garbo in Dinner at Eight—launching into a vaudeville turn singing “I’ve Got a Gal in Kalamazoo.” Each line from Shakespeare cues another memory, and Mr. Plummer invests a physically and vocally demanding role with so much passion, pathos and wit that Barrymore becomes a celebration of not just one legendary star, but two. Conjuring images of theatrical rooming houses, toxic affairs with, and four disastrous marriages to, glamorous women who all turned out to be near-lethal—“Each one lasted seven years, like a skin rash”—he is never less than mesmerizing. At one point, he even falls asleep and begins to snore in the middle of a sentence. Reminiscing about the horror of his own father’s death from absinthe and syphilis, his pain is palpable. And he does cruel but hilarious impersonations of Louella Parsons, siblings Lionel and Ethel, and producer Samuel Goldwyn. When Goldwyn was planning to turn Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour into a movie, Barrymore asked him, “You know it’s about two lesbians?” Goldwyn replied, “Well, we’ll make them Americans.”
When he emerges in full makeup and costume as the menacing, deformed Richard, you see vestiges of the old genius resurface—until he breaks character to sing “You Must Have Been a Beautiful Baby.” Like Tallulah Bankhead, Barrymore became a caricature of his former self, captivated more by his own mad sense of humor than his fading art. Still, Mr. Plummer shines a light on every corner of his turbulent self-destruction with heartbreaking candor. He compares his failures in both Hollywood movies and the New York theatre as “Gomorrah with palm trees, or Sodom with subways—it’s the same thing.” And the film offers the best description I’ve ever heard of the relationship between actor and audience. “Whether it’s Barnum and Bailey or Broadway, it’s still the same great hulking monster—2,000 eyes and 20,000 teeth breathing out there in the darkness—withholding, teasing, waiting to make or break men like me.” Mr. Plummer was electrifying in the play, but with the camera’s circling movements on the empty stage, swooping in for elegant close-ups, he seems looser, freer and more inspired. You see both the violent rages and the subtle tears in his eyes with an intimacy you could never get on a proscenium, yet the star understands both mediums completely. Camping up an imitation of Louella Parsons or investing some of Shakespeare’s historic speeches with fury and panache, Christopher Plummer is the one-man show at the center of this one-man vehicle. He will leave you stunned and cheering. So bring out the Oscar. He deserves another one.
Running Time 83 minutes
Directed by Erik Canuel