July 18, 2013

Lionel Barrymore, A Free Soul

Won: Academy Award - Best Actor
On paper, it'd be no surprise that Lionel Barrymore won the Best Actor Oscar in his respective year. Playing an alcoholic lawyer who, after successfully defending a gangster, must defend the gangster's killer (who is also his daughter's boyfriend), this is a role that is ripe with Oscar potential, but at the same time this is a role that can be done poorly if put in the hands of the wrong actor (like, say...Richard Dix).

I believe this is the first performance I've seen from the legendary Barrymore trio, and Lionel doesn't disappoint. For some reason, people decided to bill him third (behind Leslie Howard of all people!!) and he's never really given the "star treatment"--unlike Howard and Clark Gable, I could not seem to find a single close-up of Barrymore anywhere in the film. Regardless, he steals the show from any of the other leading men, and plays Stephen's recovering alcoholic wonderfully--I was pretty impressed at times by how natural his approach was. When his daughter convinces him to quit drinking, and the two take off to the woods for a physical and mental detox, the pain that Lionel conveys feels very real and accurately portrayed. In my opinion, this was probably his shining moment in the film, as every movement and wince of his convinced me he was a struggling alcoholic, which made it all the more heartbreaking when we see him fall off the wagon and hit the bottle again days later.

Much has been said about Barrymore's climactic courtroom scene. Based on the strength of his scenes as a recovering alcoholic, I was kind of expecting to have my mind blown. Unfortunately, it fell a little short for me, and for some reason Barrymore wasn't able to obtain the same kind of understated realism that was present during Stephen's recovery phase. His drunk Stephen (which was most of the film) was often times great and sometimes a little animated and overdone. While I'm not familiar with Barrymore's work, one thing that bugged me was the strange, bug-eyed face he gives throughout most of the film (which seems to say "I'm surprised" as well as "Someone farted"). It's not fair to blame an actor for particular physical features, but that damn face he makes felt like a bizarre facial tic, and by film's end I had grown tired of it. Still, where he falters in his expressions he more than makes up for with his passionate monologue, which I felt was riveting. All in all, it's a solid performance that I enjoyed, even if it had a few issues here and there.

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