The legendary name still commands respect and sounds as elegant and distinguished today as it surely did during its heyday in the first half of the 20th century. Barrymore. Though contemporary film fans may only know of Drew, her lineage ranks among the most impressive in the history of acting. Relatives Maurice, Lionel, and Ethel all enjoyed successful, lengthy careers, but it was her dashing grandfather, John Barrymore, who garnered the lion's share of attention...and notoriety. Devastatingly handsome (he was famously known as "The Great Profile"), blessed with superior talent (his robust interpretation of Hamlet revolutionized the role), and dogged by demons galore (severe alcoholism chief among them), Barrymore rose to the apex of his profession in the 1920s, then began a slow but inexorable decline. Unable to remember lines, he eventually relied on cue cards on movie sets, and by the time he died at the age of 60 in 1942, he was almost a caricature of his former self.
Fifty-five years after Barrymore's death, Christopher Plummer portrayed the faltering star in a virtual one-man show on Broadway, and won a Tony Award for his bravura performance. And 14 years after that, a modified film version of the play gave Plummer, at age 82, the chance to reprise the part and immortalize it. The simply titled 'Barrymore' takes the audience inside John's tattered psyche during his last months. He muses about life, shares anecdotes, recalls triumphs, rues mistakes, and valiantly struggles to revive his all-but-dead career. "A man isn't old until regrets take the place of dreams," he says, and over the course of the 83-minute drama, we get equal helpings of both. Set on a sparsely dressed stage, the premise is a mock audition, and with only the disembodied voice of a stage manager to work off of, Barrymore, the self-anointed "clown prince" of theater's royal family, reminisces about his drunk, abusive father, makes fun of his own faulty memory, and pontificates on the so-called art of acting.
It's all very good, but is it really Barrymore? Though I'm far from an expert on the star, I do know a lot about him, and I found this treatment to be a more generalized portrait of a washed up actor rather than a specific profile of Barrymore himself. More details about the Barrymore family and stories about his personal life and career would have made this a more intimate, informative, and satisfying study. There's no doubt Barrymore was foggy and unfocused at the end of his life, but this play mirrors that scattered train of thought too closely, and often feels disjointed.
Plummer is superb, but again, is he really playing Barrymore? While I understand he didn't seek to do an impersonation of the actor, I don't feel he quite captured his essence either. Everyone can't be Meryl Streep, of course, but her portrayals of Julia Child and Margaret Thatcher made us believe she was those characters. Plummer's work requires much more blind faith. He beautifully performs Hamlet's famous soliloquy, but is it Barrymore's interpretation or Plummer's? As I watched 'Barrymore,' I continually admired Plummer's acting, but felt detached from the play because I didn't fully believe he was anyone else but himself.
Age is also an issue. At 82, Plummer is far too old to portray a man who died at 60. When he first tackled the role in 1997, Plummer was 68, putting him well within the boundaries of believability, but the intervening 14 years further removed him from his subject. On stage, an actor has a better shot at blurring such age discrepancies, but the unforgiving eye of the camera, especially in close-up, doesn't lie. Yes, alcoholics like Barrymore age badly, but I found Plummer, despite his vigor, couldn't successfully sell himself as the man he is playing. And as the drama wears on, this became, at least for me, a nagging preoccupation.
So if you're looking for a great performance by a great actor, don't hesitate to pick up 'Barrymore.' Plummer will not disappoint, and the play itself possesses a lovely lyricism and delicate poignance that often transcends its artificial dramatic devices. Director Erik Canuel inventively brings the piece to the screen, maintaining its theatrical feel, but adding welcome cinematic touches to broaden its scope and enliven its presentation.
On the other hand, if you're seeking an incisive profile of one of America's most famous actors, I don't think you'll find it here. Plummer provides fleeting glimpses of Barrymore and projects his inner turmoil, but the performance - and the play - aren't specific enough to fully capture and fittingly salute this towering thespian who, like so many, had it all and threw it away.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Barrymore' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu with music immediately pops up; no previews or promo precede it.
Theatrical productions shot in high-def usually look glorious, and 'Barrymore' is no exception. The 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC transfer features stunning clarity, well-pitched contrast, and plenty of fine detail. The spotless source material is free of any specks, marks, or scratches, and no noise disrupts the crisply rendered image. The black-and-white sequences sport a lovely antiquated texture, and though 'Barrymore' isn't a particularly colorful production, the hues on display look vibrant and true. Background elements are easy to discern and shadow delineation is quite good, thanks to the expert lighting design. Black levels are solid and rich, and Plummer's tan fleshtone appears natural despite the use of stage makeup. Though all aspects of this transfer earn high marks, close-ups take the prize, exhibiting fantastic levels of detail. Every crease and wrinkle on Plummer's weathered face and every fiber of his mustache and eyebrows are strikingly defined, lending further immediacy and impact to the portrayal.
No digital enhancements, such as noise reduction or edge sharpening, seem to have been applied, and no defects mar the smooth presentation. Like the best theatrical transfers, this strong effort from Image provides viewers with a front-row seat and a superior vantage point to fully absorb every aspect of a great actor's excellent performance.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplies well-modulated, clean sound without any noticeable hiccups. Because this is largely a one-man theatrical performance, surround activity is quite limited, but some stereo separation up front allows the off-stage voice of the stage manager the proper directional feel it requires. Applause from the audience and sparingly employed scoring nicely envelop, and a bit of theatrical echo reverberates across all channels enhancing the live atmosphere of the piece.
Of course, few actors enunciate with as much precision as Plummer, so every syllable is clear and comprehendible, but the track also handles the modulation of his voice extremely well. Throwaway comments, wistful ruminations, bold orations, and angry outbursts all come across without sounding muffled or distorted. The subwoofer stays quiet, except on rare occasions when the stage lights are abruptly shut off, providing a welcome jolt, as well as a clever artistic transition.
Though the audio here can't compete with more active, dimensional tracks, its intimate nature and the nuances that distinguish it shine through. The sound may not be flashy, but the quality is evident from beginning to end.
Only one extra is included on the disc, but it's almost as substantial as the main feature.
I didn't get a lot of John Barrymore from this one-man tribute to the legendary star, but I did get a heaping helping of Christopher Plummer, which was just as good. The highly lauded and immensely gifted actor makes 'Barrymore' well worth watching, and his finely etched portrayal showcases the cantankerous nature, sizable ego, playfully devilish attitude, foolish optimism, and regretful despair of an icon on his last legs. If you know a lot about Barrymore, you might be disappointed by the lack of specifics concerning his life and career, but if you're more interested in simply seeing a great performer tackle a colorful role, then you'll certainly appreciate this meticulous production. Strong video and audio transfers make the theatrical setting come alive, and the disc's sole supplement is meaty enough to satisfy those with a craving to learn more about Plummer and this unique movie treatment. While I appreciated the artistry on display, I can't say this snapshot of a fading idol captured my fancy, but for Plummer alone, 'Barrymore' is definitely worth a look.