Great Performances - Barrymore

Updated Fri, Jan 17, 2014 10:22 am

Friday, January 31 • 9 p.m.

After Christopher Plummer’s multiple awards wins for Beginners in 2010 (Oscar, Golden Globe, BAFTA and more), the distinguished star of stage and screen went on to deliver another highly affecting performance, when he re-created his Tony Award-winning role of legendary actor John Barrymore in the film adaptation of William Luce’s Broadway play of the same name. 

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. With equal parts lacerating wit and piercing despair, the faded icon revisits the highs and lows of his theatrical triumphs and remarkable life.

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, and he was also its most acclaimed star.

Throughout the 1920s, he played two roles that 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 one comedy with his fourth wife, Elaine Jacobs.

Theatre historians generally agree that had he possessed the necessary dedication and determination, John Barrymore would have been the greatest stage actor of his generation. After 1925, however, the hedonistic actor dissipated his talents. He died in 1942, at the age of 59, mourned as much for the loss of his life as for the loss of grace wit, and brilliance that had characterized his career at its height.