DAMNED IN PARADISE: The Life of John Barrymore by John Kobler
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DAMNED IN PARADISE: The Life of John Barrymore

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The Great Profile has been viewed, since Barrymore's death in 1942, from two angles: 1) Fowler's reverential, rousing Good Night, Sweet Prince and 2) the wealth of bawdy or tawdry anecdotes and gossip that never got into that 1943 biography but have surfaced in various memoirs of more liberated vintage. Intent on spotlighting John's ""epic self-destruction,"" Kobler (Capone, Luce) brings it all together--along with some never-published materials--in a journeyman chronicle of the jealous misogynist's four wives and countless mistresses (""the collecting sex . . . twittering vaginas,"" Mary Astor but not Tallulah) and the reluctant, alcoholic actor's brief, earned triumphs and extended, lazy humiliations. Although he reprises most of the endearing Sweet Prince witticisms and enthuses--somewhat naively--over Barrymore's Richard II, Hamlet, Redemption, Justice, and Twentieth Century, Kobler is most comfortable as a wry debunker: the uneven Barrymore calves and buttocks required lamb's-wool ""symmetricals"" when in tights; he had to read lines off blackboards while shooting the last, self-parodying films; he dabbled in the occult with mystics Helios and Khrishnamurti; his ""grasp of financial matters was submoronic""; his ""unloveliest practice was to urinate when and wherever he felt the need."" And the generally readable narrative is marred by disjointed, discursive lapses--letters quoted at length but left unexamined, six paragraphs of Ernest Jones' Hamlet and Oedipus with no indication that Barrymore ever read them. Apparently unwilling to probe beneath the surface--he recoils violently from the not-unreasonable suggestion that lifelong mentor Ned Sheldon suppressed erotic feelings for John--Kobler ends up with a hefty catalogue of symptoms, no real dramatic or emotional thrust, but the only biography to give both Barrymore profiles approximately equal exposure.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1977
Publisher: Atheneum