Christopher Plummer reflects on ‘Barrymore’ and the acting life

“It’s extraordinary what was going on in those close-ups. They’re very revealing,’’ says Christopher Plummer of the film version of “Barrymore.”
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“It’s extraordinary what was going on in those close-ups. They’re very revealing,’’ says Christopher Plummer of the film version of “Barrymore.”

As he prepares to celebrate his 83d birthday next week, Christopher Plummer can look back on an uncommonly satisfying year.

In February, Plummer made history, becoming the oldest winner of an Academy Award for acting when his performance in “Beginners’’ (as an elderly father who acknowledges his homosexuality after his wife dies) earned him an Oscar for best supporting actor.

Plummer proceeded to get off some of the best lines of the Oscar-cast, hoisting the gold statuette and addressing it with: “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?’’ Then he told the audience: “I have a confession to make. When I first emerged from my mother’s womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy thank-you speech. But it was so long ago, mercifully for you I’ve forgotten it.’’


In June, as a presenter at the Tony Awards, Plummer found himself on the receiving end of gushing admiration from the talented young Nina Arianda, star of “Venus in Fur,’’ to whom he had just handed the Tony for best actress in a play. “Oh my,’’ an awestruck Arianda said, looking at Plummer. “Sir, you were my first crush. When that whistle was blown in ‘[The] Sound of Music,’ you made my day.’’ He laughed.

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Now Plummer can be seen in the film version of William Luce’s stage drama “Barrymore,’’ in which he portrays the gifted but immensely troubled and alcoholic John Barrymore. (Plummer won a Tony Award in 1997 for his performance in the role on Broadway.) In the film, adapted for the screen and directed by Érik Canuel, it is 1942, shortly before Barrymore died at age 60, and he is rehearsing for what he hopes will be his big comeback in the title role of Shakespeare’s “Richard III.’’

“Barrymore’’ will screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline on Monday at 7 p.m., followed by “Backstage With Barrymore,’’ a 45-minute documentary about the making of both the film and the stage productions.

In a recent interview with the Globe, Plummer talked about “Barrymore’’ and the craft to which he has devoted his life.

Q. Were there aspects of John Barrymore that you were able to more fully explore onscreen than onstage?


A. Yes. It’s extraordinary what was going on in those close-ups. They’re very revealing. It’s a much more emotional evening than it was in the theater. The close-up picks up so much other stuff that’s behind your eyes. It was very valuable, because you saw the kind of pain that drove him to do what he did, to drink and live dangerously, wildly. I found the film version more interesting than the stage version.

Q. Does part of you identify with Barrymore? If so, what part of you, what part of him?

A. The booze, first of all. That’s a real identification. I started drinking heavily when I was about 16. I wasn’t a suffering drunk, and I don’t think he was, particularly. He was a very gregarious fellow. He was enjoying himself. Also, he was a great classical actor and I’ve played the classical roles. In fact, I ended up playing so many more great roles than Barrymore had a chance to play, which was a shame. He went to Hollywood and he fell into that lifestyle of booze and laziness. He wasted that talent away. Hollywood depressed him but he couldn’t escape from it. He became its victim, though there were some marvelous [film] performances. I learned from that. When I make movies, I immediately go back to the theater. It not only keeps you alive, but it keeps your craft in order.

Q. Can you elaborate on that, what you see as the value for you as a performer in moving between film and stage as much as you have?

A. There is a different kind of acting. I think the Method acting which became prevalent in the '40s and '50s started a whole new wave of ways of playing characters. It somehow comes out more suitable for the screen than it does for the stage. You can use the Method to great effect on the screen because of course you can mumble and still be heard, whereas in the theater you have to project that same reality to the last row. The theater is the highest point of art for us, the actor, because it encompasses our whole bodies, our feet, our voice, everything we have as equipment is necessary on the stage, whereas sometimes you can get away with performances on the screen which are very powerful, but not necessarily using your whole body. . . . [In “Barrymore’’] I had to be as big as I could be in front of a camera, because it was a stage performance, to give variety and color to the piece, and then I used screen technique when the camera moved in. It surprised me because it captured these moments where you see, my God, there’s something else he’s not telling us. It’s nothing to do with me; it’s just that extraordinary accident that happens on the screen. I think I got — I hope I got — the essence of Jack Barrymore.

Associated Press/File
John Barrymore in 1938.

Q. Lionel Barrymore once said of his brother: “He was a man who was in flight and in pursuit at the same time.’’ Does that sound right to you? Did you try to capture that quality in your performance, and if so, how?

A. Absolutely right. When we first took it on the road, that’s what we were looking for in the play, some moments where you could see that. The drama critic Brooks Atkinson said of him that he was like Icarus: He flew too close to the sun. Now the screen version picks that up, the pain behind the eyes that drives him to fly.

Q. You’ve performed almost all the major Shakespeare roles. What draws you to Shakespeare, and what do you think explains his continued cultural potency? There seem to be more Shakespeare productions than ever.

A. I know. It is amazing, isn’t it? Even though modern audiences get so antsy if they have to sit for any length of time, and their attention spans are so small now that they’re spoiled by YouTube and all the other technologies, and yet there’s something about that language. When it’s played correctly and well, it’s quite seductive. Shakespeare was never boring. If he thought he was going on too long he’d throw in a couple of wars. It wasn’t someone just standing there saying soliloquy after soliloquy. There’s a lot of action. In “Hamlet,’’ of all plays, there’s a lot of action. It still has an attraction, even to the young who are not terribly interested in words. There’s a spell when it’s spoken. Like music, it haunts you. It’s funny to notice that Shakespeare is so simple. Take the last few moments in “King Lear’’ and the last few moments in “Hamlet.’’ The great ones are simple, and that’s what’s so glorious. He’ll hit you in the stomach with one simple line: “The rest is silence.’’

Q. Nina Arianda appeared pretty star-struck at the Tony Awards when she told you that you were her first crush. Do you get that kind of reaction a lot from the generations that have grown up with “The Sound of Music’’?

A. I’m hoping it’s not just “The Sound of Music.’’ (Laughs). I’m hoping it’s a mixture of other things. I don’t get it a lot, but when I do, I’m absolutely thrilled.

Interview was condensed and edited. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin