"A man is not old," said John Barrymore, "until regrets take the place of dreams." By that standard the Barrymore played brilliantly by Christopher Plummer in William Luce's new play, Barrymore, in New York, is both old and forever young, a sick, burned-out and alcoholic matinee idol nursing a futile dream of one last triumph, observes author Donald Dale Jackson.
Barrymore, who came from a family of actors, followed siblings Lionel and Ethel into the family business grudgingly. "There is hope---or at least money--for the bad actor," he said.
His stage breakthrough came in 1916 when he ventured beyond comedy. One critic wrote of his first serious role, "Barrymore cut through the darkness of the theater like a sharp, glittering penknife." This launched a string of triumphs, culminating in a portrayal of Hamlet in 1922 in New York, hailed as one of the best ever, and in England in 1925, which also won rave reviews. Tiring of stage work, Barrymore moved to Hollywood, where he lived lavishly and starred in such films as A Bill of Divorcement with Katharine Hepburn and Grand Hotel with Greta Garbo, and displayed his "great profile" in 57 films in all. But he soon became infamous for his drunken off-screen antics, and the quality of both his acting and the films he was offered began to slip.
By the 1940s, Jackson tells us, Barrymore was scrambling to pay his debts to four ex-wives and other creditors, and performing in roles that relied heavily on self-mockery. But he maintained his sense of humor until the end. When a doctor suggested that he abandon "wine, women and song," he asked if he had to quit everything at once. "No, you can taper off," the doctor said. "Then I shall quit singing," said Barrymore.