Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar from his only acting nomination for portraying lawyer Stephen Ashe in A Free Soul.
Lionel Barrymore's performance here is sometimes treated negatively as an overly hammy performance, and I very much disagree with that view. Barrymore style of acting does indeed always have a degree of theatricality to his performance, but that is not automatically a bad thing, if he uses it in the right manner. Also I would disagree with it because this is one of his more restrained performances.
Barrymore's portrayal of Ashe is functionally good in the early scenes. He required to do a few scenes of being a smooth lawyer which he does well enough, but also a man who requires to get drunk to get along with life. Barrymore actually does these early drunk scenes in a just fine manner, not overly realistic but still in a manner that works, since he does not go over the top.
His relationship with Norma Shearer is key to the film though. They are both actually pretty good in showing the relationship between the father and daughter. They both have the right naturalism together, and create their painful relationship together well. It is interesting how Barrymore portrays him as a loving father, but one who is unable to really help in her problematic relationship.
An interesting part of his performance though is his portrayal of Stephen Ashe's alcoholism. It is true he has the usual drunk scenes, which are fine, but most interesting about his portrayal are his scenes in the country where both Ashe and his daughter try to shed his daughter. Lionel Barrymore is truly effective in that he shows a deep pain from his alcoholism, and effectively portrays the brutal effect withdrawal has on him.
Barrymore's final scene though perhaps is his best where Ashe in court tries to defend Jan's old boyfriend (Leslie Howard) who killed the gangster. It is a very dramatic speech that Ashe makes to the jury, and Barrymore handles quite well. He puts the right passion and power into his speech, that I do not deny that it probably did give him the Oscar. Overall his performance is certianly from 1931 since it is dated in its own way, but it is also certainly an effective heartfelt performance.