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Christopher Plummer Reflects on Legendary Actor John Barrymore on the Eve of PBS’ “Great Performances: Barrymore” Premiere
Set in 1942, Barrymore shines a dramatic spotlight on the acclaimed — and notorious — John Barrymore, capturing the famously combative star in the final months of his life as he struggles to prepare for a backer’s audition to stage a revival of his 1920 Broadway triumph in Richard III. Once among the most acclaimed stage actors of his generation, as well as a central member of Broadway and Hollywood’s most famous acting dynasty, Barrymore is now in the twilight of his career, no longer a leading box office draw and wrestling with the ravages of his life of excess. In equal parts lacerating wit and piercing despair, the faded icon revisits the highs and lows of his theatrical triumphs and remarkable life.
The tragedy of Barrymore’s life is not lost on the project’s star. “He would have been the perfect Mark Antony, “ says Plummer, “the bon viveur and all that. He would have been a great Mark Antony in ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ He would have been a great Lear, good Lord. So there is a wonderful pathos to his story. Jack Barrymore was so glamorous to me. He was so handsome and such a great actor and at the same time a wonderful boozer. I thought, ‘Oh, God, what a great profession this is. I want to be in it.’ I mean, you can please the ladies and also get drunk every night. What a great, great profession. He inspired me to be an actor.”
Christopher Plummer has enjoyed almost 60 years as one of the worlds most revered and beloved actors on screen and on stage. Since Sidney Lumet introduced him to the screen in “Stage Struck” (1958), his range of notable films include “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Battle of Britain,” “Waterloo,” “Fall of The Roman Empire,” “Star Trek VI,” “Twelve Monkeys,” and the 1965 Oscar-winning “The Sound of Music.” More recently he starred in the Oscar-nominated “The Insider” (as Mike Wallace, he won the National Film Critics Award), the Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind,” “National Treasure,” “Syriana,” “Inside Man” and “Girl with a Dragon Tattoo.” His upcoming films include “Imagined” (opposite Al Pacino) and “Elsa and Fred” (opposite Shirley MacLaine). Plummer is also in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” which is currently airing on HBO. His TV appearances, which number close to 100, have earned him two Emmys and seven Emmy nominations. Plummer’s life is recounted in his autobiographical memoir, In Spite of Myself (Random House) and in his one-man show “A Word or Two” playing at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles until February 9.
The film “Barrymore” had its world premiere at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. It was directed and adapted by writer-director Érik Canuel from the production for which Plummer won both a Tony™ Award and Drama Desk Award. Plummer was drawn to the role by the Barrymore’s on-screen legacy and behind-the-scenes legend. “His whole persona is unique,” he says. “He was one of the great personalities of the early 20th century, there's no question. He was embodiment of naughtiness, glamor, talent, and he had it all except height -- he was a very short man – including that great, extraordinary profile and his delicious self-deprecating humor of which he had loads. That made him a very attractive figure to me. Also, he was Icarus, wasn't he? He flew too close to the sun and came burning down, unfortunately, in his Hollywood days. He couldn't handle Hollywood at all…and the whole business of being a star. I guess he was too nice to take it -- too sweet a man -- and he had to go.”
John Barrymore, the American stage and screen actor whose rise to super-stardom and subsequent decline is one of the legendary tragedies of Hollywood, was a member of the most famous generation of the most famous theatrical family in America. The youngest and most gifted son of performers Maurice and Georgina Drew Barrymore, and brother of Ethel and Lionel, John Sidney Barrymore was born in Philadelphia in 1882.
The living Barrymore family members have their own personal view on Plummer’s recreation of their patriarch. “One day when we were on Broadway, they told me that Elaine Barrymore was out front,” says Plummer. “She must have been in her late 80s. She was his last wife, as you probably know, and I was absolutely terrified. So I made my first entrance, and I was determined to sound exactly like Jack. I could do it if I wanted to, but normally, I wouldn't have done a cheap imitation, but that day I had to so that she would know who I was. And then it was okay. I did the show, and afterwards she came backstage with a friend, and all she said was ‘Jack would have loved to have done the town with you.’ It was the nicest compliment I think I've ever got. I felt I was, in a sense, a sort of part of the family.”
Throughout the 1920’s, Barrymore played two roles which were widely acknowledged as the pinnacles of his stage career: Richard III (1920) and Hamlet (1923), the latter of which ran long enough to set a New York record and had a successful run in London. Following these triumphs, Barrymore devoted his time to his film career and appeared in one MGM production, Rasputin and the Empress, with his siblings, Lionel and Ethel. After many years in Hollywood — starring in more than 60 films, including such classics as “Grand Hotel,” “Dinner at Eight,” “Twentieth Century,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Maytime,” and “Marie Antoinette,” John Barrymore returned to Broadway in 1939 for a brief run in a comedy with his fourth wife, Elaine Jacobs.
Of all of Barrymore’s films, Plummer is most intrigued by a lesser-known project. “ ‘20th Century’ is my favorite. I think he's totally outrageous and totally wonderful, and so is Carole Lombard. The two of them just are divine in that,” he says, then notes his opinion of Barrymore’s weakest portrayal. “His Mercutio was a little too drunk and over the top. Basil Rathbone, whom I knew because I played with him on the stage, played Tybalt in ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ the MGM movie in which Jack was Mercutio. Basil told me that during the famous Queen Mab speech, Jack was so drunk that he and Reginald Denny, who played Benvolio, had to get on either side of the camera during his close up and hold him up. Otherwise, he would have disappeared. That was from the horse's mouth. So I believe every word of it.”
In "Barrymore" – both the play by William Luce and the PBS filmed production – we get the story of the real man in all his glory and despair. “It's one of the really sad stories of Hollywood legends long before there was an E! and before people were dissecting lives for entertainment,” says Plummer, who’s happy to be a survivor in a business that's chewed up so many people.
“I'm thrilled to be around still,” he confesses. “Actually, I don't want to blow my horn, but I've done so many more parts, great parts than Barrymore ever got a chance to do. Oh, what a terrible waste."