Judge Bill Gibron loves the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd.
A great one takes on another great one.
All actors should have Christopher Plummer's career arc. After excelling at his future craft while a high school student in Canada, he was invited to join the prestigious Montreal Repertory Theatre, eventually moving on to the Canadian Repertory Theater and Canadian Repertory Company. His eventual landing on Broadway was a bit inauspicious, his first few shows closing within days of opening. He would eventually land parts in the hits The Lark and J.B. In 1958, Hollywood came calling and, after turns in Stage Struck and The Fall of the Roman Empire, he landed the role of Captain Georg Ludwig von Trapp in 1965's monster smash The Sound of Music. While he would later bristle at being only "remembered" for the musical turn, it skyrocketed him to the top of many a studio list. Throughout the next five decades, he would star in dozens of films, many more stage plays (winning two Tonys), TV shows and mini-series (earning two Emmys), and in 2012 he became the oldest actor ever (83) to win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.
So it's been a good ride for the actor, an intriguing combination of commercial credentials and artistic expression, one that the subject of the one man (or make that, two man) play Barrymore would be horribly jealous of. For those who see that name and automatically think "Drew," you're partly right. John Barrymore, the aforementioned actress's paternal grandfather, was a well regarded performer during the silent era. After making his stage debut in 1903, he was quickly off to London, onto the pages of the yellow journalistic newspaper tabloids of the day, and into a bottle. Yes, John Barrymore was a drunk. Not a Oliver Reed / Richard Burton kind of drunk. More like a guy living under a highway embankment kind of drunk. While his career was hitting incredible highs, so were his blood alcohol levels. When Prohibition hit, his consumption of illegal and often tainted liquor brought on major health problems. By the time he was 60 (surprised he lived that long, aren't you?) he had been married four times and was awash in scandal.
What an unusual juxtaposition it is then to see Plummer play Barrymore. A recreation of the famed staging that won him his second Tony, this collection of anecdotes, reminiscences, and confessions acts like both an overview and an insight. The slight storyline has Barrymore attempting a late career revival, hoping to recapture the triumph of his acclaimed turn as Richard III in 1920. Constantly referencing a stagehand (who we never see in full light) and digressing whenever he sees fit, the more-or-less monologue becomes a kind of personal pantomime, imitations of his famous family meshed with one liners and devastating personal admissions. When Plummer played the role originally, he was in his '60s. Now, entering the octogenarian stages of his life, the role becomes all the more resonant. The actor clearly sees the end of the line in his professional life as well, using Barrymore's downfall as a means of commenting on his own.
The overall experience is mesmerizing…at least, for a while. We've seen this kind of show before, be it Robert Morse as Truman Capote in Tru or Hal Holbrook's universally adored tours as Mark Twain, so you know what to expect. The revelations are a tad redundant ("I doubted myself…" "I had some support…") but for the most part, we enjoy this kind of experience because it allows us to watch greatness celebrate same. Sure, the constant referencing to an off-stage figure can be frustrating, but getting a chance to see Plummer play this part, a role for which he won the theater art's highest honor, helps overcome the obstacles in the script. Even better, director Erik Canuel opens things up, taking reference to film roles and other "outside the floorboards" stories and illustrating them with an effective minimalism. In addition, it's been years since Plummer first played the part, and playwright William Luce consulted with the star, revising the script so that it becomes as much about the player as the play.
The result is an enjoyable experience, though not the kind of breakthrough masterpiece that will have you move to Manhattan to become a Broadway baby. Plummer is perfection, even when the material announces its flaws. On the other hand, the Blu-ray release here is near flawless. The 1.85:1 image is amazing-colorful, detailed, with deep blacks and excellent contrasts. You can see the wrinkles circling Plummer's eyes, the welling up and wonder in his aged face. It was clearly filmed in high definition…and it shows. Similarly, Canuel's cinematic splashes come across with artistry and authority. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio mix almost makes brilliant use of the stage (and stage hand) to offer spatial perspective and direction. The dialogue is always clear and crisp and the ambient noise minimized. Perhaps the best feature here, however, is the 58 minute documentary feature which explains the production, it's path to success, and Plummer's part in same. It's very thorough and incredibly engaging.
As he grows older, one imagines few young writers wanting to take up Christopher Plummer's career mantle as material for a one man show. After all, how do you dramatize an already dramatic life. Better yet, without skeletons in the closet (at least, that we know of), our natural voyeurism grows bored. Thankfully, the actor can showcase a fellow thespian, a broken man who still managed to make a mighty name for himself. Plummer is perfect in Barrymore. The show itself is slightly less flawless.
Not guilty. Incredibly good and awfully entertaining.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: RLJ Entertainment
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