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Barrymore Blu-ray Review

Barrymore Blu-ray cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Barrymore

Theatrical Release: November 16, 2012 / Running Time: 84 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Erik Canuel / Writers: Erik Canuel (screen adaptation), William Luce (play)

Cast: Christopher Plummer (John Barrymore), John Plumpis (Frank, the Prompter)

1.78:1 Widescreen; 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired; Not Closed Captioned; Extra Not Subtitled
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Blu-ray Release Date: May 7, 2013 / Suggested Retail Price: $39.98
Also available on DVD ($29.98 SRP)

Buy Barrymore from Amazon: Blu-ray • DVD

To modern moviegoers, the name "Barrymore" conjures thoughts of Drew Barrymore, the 38-year-old actress known from E.T., romantic comedies including Never Been Kissed and two of Adam Sandler's most esteemed efforts, Scream, and the Charlie's Angels films.
She's had leading roles in prominent films for over thirty years, even directing one film and producing several others. She's impressively graduated from child actress to wild, troubled teenager in rehab at age 13 to likable leading lady of harmless PG-13 fare, but few consider her one of our acting treasures.

Drew's surname, however, carries a legacy. Hence, the prestigious-looking cover art of Barrymore, a 2011 filming of a largely one-man stage show written and first performed in the 1990s. In the role he originated on Broadway to the Tony for Best Actor in a Play, Christopher Plummer portrays John Barrymore, the youngest of the legendary acting family's accomplished first generation. Drew's grandfather, John gained fame for Shakespearean drama on Broadway and London stages, before graduating to silent films and early talkies. Opening titles establish 1925 as the peak of this Barrymore's stage success, then followed by a slow descent into alcoholism, which would ultimately claim his life at age 60 in May of 1942.

This show, conceived by William Luce and adapted and directed by Erik Canuel, is set two months before the actor's death. He is dropped off at Broadway's old Majestic Theatre, which he has rented for the night to go over his lines for an audition and potential comeback. The play is Shakespeare's Richard III, the title role of which Barrymore once held to some acclaim. But that seems ages ago to this cynical, old alcoholic.

Reprising the role that won him a Tony Award, Christopher Plummer portrays actor John Barrymore, hoping for a comeback in his alcoholic twilight.

Our first impression establishes Barrymore as a playful, musical, and lovable drunk, who quickly produces a doctor's bag stocked with liquor he immediately begins sloshing. There is an audience and they respond to his bawdy jokes. They soon grow inaudible and seemingly disappear, as Barrymore is joined from a distance by Frank (John Plumpis), his offstage prompter, always drenched in shadows and never clearly seen. Barrymore can hardly remember a line, and many of those he is fed spark rambling detours about his life.

Barrymore shares some family anecdotes about his actor siblings and "madman" father. He reads George Bernard Shaw's biting personal review of his play. He performs impressions. He bitterly airs grievances over his four ex-wives, all of them aspiring actresses. He fondly recalls his muse, playwright and dear friend Ned (Edward Sheldon). He shares some of his tricks of the trade. The thankless Frank tries to steer Barrymore back to Richard III, often in futility.

After something resembling an intermission, Barrymore returns in ghastly Shakespearean garb and make-up, but the play's not the thing here. There is no redemption in store for this desperate, nostalgic soul battling his demons on stage.

Richard III make-up does not seem to suit John Barrymore (Christopher Plummer) very well in 1942. Things get black and white in a sequence in which Barrymore (Christopher Plummer) reflects on the movies.

Director Canuel, who shot this in Canada where he, Plummer, and the play all originated, injects some cinematic flourishes unachievable on stage, having the film assume the look of an old black & white movie and editing together self-conversations.
Such touches enliven and expand the presentation, which at 80 minutes plus credits is brief for a feature film but a serviceable length for the material. Despite the extreme artifice of its design, the play feels authentic due to Luce's writing and Plummer's natural yet weighty delivery.

Ultimately, Barrymore impresses much more as a showcase for a bravado performance than as a piece of storytelling or as a film improving upon a play. There's definite value in preserving Plummer's exuberant display with the clarity and permanence of a feature film. But, as is typically the case for such stage-to-film adaptations, watching this is no substitute for actually sharing an evening and theatre with Plummer, who in his eighties has somehow become busier and more valued than ever before, his recent Academy Award win for Beginners (which made him the eldest victor in Oscar history) just one of many notable modern-day credits.

Though probably of little interest to anyone young enough to be affected by ratings, Barrymore features enough profanity to have earned an "R" from the MPAA. It was not submitted, however, and thus hits Blu-ray and DVD today unrated from RLJ Entertainment, the newly-rebranded parent company of Image Entertainment.


Barrymore boasts pristine picture quality on Blu-ray. The 1.78:1 transfer is sharp, vibrant, and void of any perceivable imperfections. The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio similarly satisfies, recreating a theatrical experience with crisp recordings and a slight bit of directionality. English SDH subtitles are kindly supplied, though you likely won't need to consult them if you aren't hard of hearing.

Julie Andrews reflects on her "Sound of Music" co-star in the documentary "Backstage with Barrymore." Jack Barrymore proudly displays an apple sent by his sister Ethel on the "Barrymore" Blu-ray menu.


The Blu-ray includes just one bonus feature, but it's a big one. "Backstage with Barrymore" (58:54, HD) documents the play's revival at the Elgin Theatre in Toronto for this film. Producers Peter LeDonne and Steve Kalafer,
Christopher Plummer, playwright William Luce, film director Erik Canuel, actor John Plumpis, stage director Gene Saks, and assorted reassembled crew members shed light on the play and this film adaptation. In addition, Plummer's career is celebrated with reflective new remarks from some of Plummer's most revered co-stars: Julie Andrews, Helen Mirren, and Zoe Caldwell.

The menu plays clips from the show above listings and a static crowd shot. The Region A disc does not support bookmarks, but does resume unfinished playback. Unjoined by slipcover or insert, the side-snapped blue keepcase may not be remarkable save for the increasingly rare full-color label artwork of its disc.

Christopher Plummer is John Barrymore in the sorta one-man show "Barrymore."


Barrymore is worth seeing both as a portrait of John Barrymore at the depressive end of his life and as yet another fine outlet for Christopher Plummer's exquisite talent. If you're not already interested in either of those angles, this somewhat straightforward filming of a Tony-winning play might not do a whole lot for you. Even if you are intrigued by the subject or star, I can't promise you'll declare this more than a single-viewing curiosity. Still, this Blu-ray provides that viewing with sterling picture and sound plus a terrific companion documentary.

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Reviewed May 7, 2013.

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