Is there anything better than watching a once-great man slowly come undone before our very eyes in bombastic and melodramatic fashion? There is . . . if he’s played by Hollywood icon and screen legend Christopher Plummer. The last time I saw him in a movie he was giving a wistfully warmhearted turn as an elderly gay man on his deathbed in Beginners where he played opposite Ewan McGregor and also won an Oscar. For a man who was clearly born to make emphatic declarations on stage, it seems that he can do no wrong on screen.
In Barrymore, the new movie from writer-director Erik Canuel opening tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles, he plays another legendary Hollywood icon, John Barrymore. Most of us of a certain age know him only as the grandfather to Drew “Romantic Comedy Queen” Barrymore, but he was a major talent and Hollywood force back in his day, often at the center of scandals that make the weekly tabloid headlines of today sound like mere child’s play. His affairs were legendary, his temper white hot, and his persona larger-than-life. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.
Most of the movie is set on a stage where Barrymore is trying (and often failing) to play Richard III. He is driven to madness by his own inability to feel organic in his performance whilst he tries to navigate the many wives, mistresses, and attorneys that crave his emotional and financial attention. To be sure, there are dozens of great lines in the movie, many of which are worth quoting and which you’ll be searching your memory in the aftermath of the movie. But Plummer is the real miracle here, playing the part with gusto and an ironic sense of doom that makes him all the more human. He builds his own pedestal, is foisted up by those around him, and then beats back the mob that would topple him. This is great stuff, not only in the cinematic sense, but in the psychological one as well.