Christopher Plummer at the 84th Academy Awards (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The remarkable career of Christopher Plummer

Cinema, theatre and the world will be poorer for no longer having Christopher Plummer as a part of them

In the early Eighties, the actor Christopher Plummer, who has died aged 91, was interviewed on the radio by the journalist Mike Wallace. Plummer, then in his early fifties, was appearing in Othello on Broadway as Iago, in an interpretation that was described as “quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time” by the critic Walter Kerr. He might have been forgiven for feeling that his career was going splendidly, but he was all too aware that his expected status as a leading man in cinema had never quite materialised in the way that it had been prophesised. Therefore, Wallace’s blunt question “How come you are not a household name?” had a resonance that might have sparked anger in a lesser actor, and man.

It wasn’t for lack of talent, looks, or exposure that he had not quite had the success expected of him

Plummer replied with his usual sangfroid – “As long as I am famous enough to get the best table in any restaurant, which I can, that’s as famous as I want to be” – but one wonders if, over the course of what were a comparatively lean two decades in his career in the Eighties and Nineties, the actor often wondered what the best answer to Wallace might have been. It wasn’t for lack of talent, looks, or exposure that he had not quite had the success and fame of the likes of Richard Burton or Michael Caine, and he had deftly avoided falling into the early middle-aged trap of boozy mediocrity that had claimed Peter O’Toole and Richard Harris. But the roles were drying up for former leading men, especially when one was still best known for a role in a film that he detested. And then, coincidentally, he was offered the best part that he had had in decades, as none other than Wallace himself.

When watching Michael Mann’s excellent thriller, The Insider, the viewer is initially struck by Russell Crowe’s chameleonic brilliance as Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower in the tobacco industry, and by the assured support from Al Pacino as the journalist Lowell Bergman. And then on subsequent viewings, when one has become accustomed to Pacino and Crowe’s pyrotechnics, it’s Plummer’s measured, intelligent work in support that really grows on the viewer, in his portrayal of a man who is faced with two options, chooses the wrong one, and is decent enough to realise that he has taken a ruinous path, both professionally and spiritually.

It gave his career a new sense of direction and purpose, and, contradicting Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that there are no second acts in American life, saw Plummer finally getting the roles that he deserved for the next two decades. Perhaps there was also an element of a score being settled for Wallace’s ungracious question. I may not be a household name, Plummer could have thought, but I can settle for better than the best table in the restaurant.

It proved to be an extraordinarily rich and rewarding period. He had always been a hard-working and versatile actor, but now, with better scripts and the opportunity to work with leading directors coming in, he took as many roles as he could. Some were, admittedly, well-paid dross. It is unlikely that even Plummer himself would have urged admirers of his to watch the undistinguished likes of Cliffs of Freedom, Already Dead or Dracula 2000, in which he provided gravitas in the least auspicious of circumstances. But these pay check roles existed alongside work with the likes of David Fincher, Terry Gilliam, Spike Lee and Oliver Stone.

On the set of The Sound of Music, Plummer charged round Salzburg in search of new adventures when he wasn’t rowing with his director

Sometimes, his work with auteurs made for an unhappy experience. He appeared in Terrence Malick’s film about Pocahontas, The New World, and said later: “The problem with Terry is he needs a writer, desperately. He insists on overwriting until it sounds terribly pretentious… and he edits his films in such a way that he cuts everyone out of them.” He was disappointed enough in the way that his performance was presented to write Malick a firm letter of condemnation in which he told him of his boredom with his methodology – “I gave him shit” – and commented that, “I’ll never work with him again.” Given the way in which Malick’s beautiful but opaque films have largely lost both critics and audiences, Plummer cannot be blamed for deciding that his best roles lay elsewhere. Which, thankfully, they did.

He was born into a wealthy Canadian family and began his career in theatre and television in the Fifties. The excellence of his classical roles on stage (which included playing Hamlet, Henry V and Cyrano de Bergerac) was not initially matched by cinematic success, until a ripe supporting performance as the insane emperor Commodus in 1964’s The Fall of the Roman Empire saw him offered the leading role of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. The part had been turned down by everyone from Sean Connery to Yul Brynner, with most of the actors believing, correctly, that the central focus would be on the singing nun Maria and the children that she tutors in the ways of warbling righteousness. Plummer accepted the role with reluctance, believing that the exposure he would achieve would make up for the dissatisfying experience of making the film. He would be correct on both counts.

What happened with Plummer on the set of The Sound of Music would make for an entertainingly riotous film in its own right. Bored to tears by the saccharine script and undemanding part that he had, he took to heavy drinking and lavish eating, finding out, to his surprise and pique, that one particular binge had seen him become so portly that he no longer fitted into any of his costumes. He charged round Salzburg in search of new adventures when he wasn’t rowing with his director, the Hollywood veteran Robert Wise, and found a willing drinking partner in the actress Charmian Carr, who played his eldest daughter Liesl: somewhat ironically, given his onscreen dismay at Liesl’s expressed desire to taste her first glass of champagne. Both consistently denied any rumours of an alcohol-fuelled affair, but it was relatively soon afterwards that Plummer made the decision to give up drinking spirits, sticking only to wine.

After the film was released, it was, somewhat to his horror, an enormous hit that would be an albatross around his neck for the rest of his career, frustrating his desire to be taken seriously as a proper classical actor. He referred to it scathingly as “The Sound of Mucus” and “S & M”, and as late as 2011, called it “awful and sentimental and gooey … you had to work terribly hard to try and infuse some minuscule bit of humour in it”. Although late in life he seemed at least partially reconciled to its success and his role within it, he remained uncomfortable with the unusually two-dimensional character that he played.

All of his best moments in the film come from the more dramatic opportunities that he is offered, as Von Trapp becomes aware of the rise of the Third Reich and the increasing need to remove his family from Austria. Plummer seems far more at home with scenes of his confronting Nazis than the scenes of domestic comedy and singing. Little wonder that there is a certain relish in the moment where, after his screen children have introduced themselves in appropriately cutesy style and Julie Andrews’ Maria asks him how he should be addressed, Plummer’s Von Trapp pauses, and deliciously underplays the line: “You may call me ‘Captain’.”

Plummer had achieved that rare thing: enormous public affection for many of the roles that he played

The Captain had other, richer chances to prove his worth over the course of his sixty-odd year career. He was an exceptional Ralph Nickleby in the underrated film of Nicholas Nickleby, consumed with fiery anger and hatred under a cold, controlled exterior, and an excellent Rudyard Kipling in the John Huston classic The Man Who Would Be King. He was particularly fine at playing authority figures who were either twinkly, Machiavellian or both, and did so in a range of films including 12 Monkeys, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and A Beautiful Mind. His rich baritone voice and charismatic presence saw him called upon to play real-life and iconic characters who included Tolstoy, Sherlock Holmes and Aristotle, and he took especial delight in playing a villainous Klingon in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which gave him endless opportunities to declaim Shakespeare, with added ham and self-deprecation.

He finally won an Oscar in 2012 for his excellent performance in Beginners, in which he plays an aged man who comes out as gay after his wife’s death, much to his son’s confusion and surprise. Plummer invested what could have been an absurd or camp character with enormous depth and charm, making his decisions seem both entirely understandable and life-affirming, even as the film does not excuse his previous deceptions. His win was an enormously popular one, helped by his memorable speech, in which the oldest actor ever to win an Oscar said, “You’re only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?”

He secured his third and final Oscar nomination in 2018 in suitably dramatic circumstances. Kevin Spacey was erased from the film All The Money in the World, in which he played the billionaire J Paul Getty, after allegations of sexual misconduct, and the director Ridley Scott recast Plummer in the part, shooting his entire role in nine days. The picture was not wildly popular at the box office, but Plummer received deserved acclaim for a variant on his signature late-period role, that of the apparently avuncular old man whose superficial charm conceals a dark and sinister vacancy beneath his smile. He was typically modest in interviews, noting that his last-minute casting had caused him to postpone his annual holiday to Florida.

At the end of a long, successful and hugely varied career, Plummer had achieved that rare thing: enormous public affection for many of the roles that he played. He had played parts of the utmost seriousness and of the most frivolous silliness, and had done both with commitment, intelligence and wit. It is not overstating the case to describe his death as representing the end of one of the last great movie stars, as well as a consummate actor, and if he was not a household name, then it is hard to imagine what that overused and meaningless phrase actually means. Cinema, theatre and the world will be poorer for no longer having Christopher Plummer as a part of them.

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