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John Barrymore

Caricature of the “Great Profile”

As the years were passing and John’s indulgences were becoming more pronounced, his acting was fraying at the ends. He was having difficulty remembering his lines and his appearance was showing the effects of alcoholism. The once commanding image on the stage, where his lean and angular features had held sway was now replaced by a swollen figure that displayed the ravages of his decadent lifestyle. He still maintained his charm and wit, like a twentieth century Oscar Wilde, yet his physical being was just a shadow of his former self. He seemed to realize that he no longer had the ability to make women swoon as he once had and that the Adonis that had commanded the stage and screen was no longer a facet of his life. He resorted at this stage of his life to have fun with his past persona, emoting to the extreme and proudly displaying, in a comic turn, his once famous profile. The effect was one of humorous deprecation, but also one of extreme sadness and wrenching realization that he had come so far and now had lost his depth of spirit. He seemed to convey the understanding that he was a hollow figure from the one of his youth and that now that his best days were over, tried to cash in on what was left in a comical way. There were the brief moments when he seemed to pull his resource of integrity into being and performed like his old self. These were moments when his audience could reminisce about the old days:

“There came a moment at the rise of the third-act curtain of My Dear Children when laughter died and a stillness fell over the spectators, some with tears springing to their eyes. It happened at every performance when John, standing beneath his portrait as Hamlet (painted in 1923 by James Montgomery Flagg), began “To be or not to be….” He spoke only the first few lines, but in that brief span the years melted away, the marks of age on John seemed to fade. The deep-toned, vibrant voice, the majesty, the fire all resurged, then dimmed as John reverted to clowning.” (Kobler, p. 335)

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