Christopher Plummer: star of stage and screen
The following is a personal appreciation of the Canadian actor Christopher Plummer, who died on February 5 2021.
There was a snort and a whinny and he was swiftest off the starting line. The other horses watched him streak ahead. He didn’t even look behind. He was self-absorbed, swift, manic and messianic. He was fastest in sight and first to the finish.
Christopher Plummer was quite a stage prodigy. I saw him play King Henry II in Jean Anouilh’s Becket in 1961 for the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was 14. He was 31. He was spellbinding. He was the only actor I had seen, and still have, who could swagger while standing still. He didn’t stand still a lot. Mostly he was dash, fire, cockiness, panache and perpetual motion. There were laser beams of teasing and irony. He mercilessly mocked Eric Porter’s dour, obdurate Becket. (That was good for the play.) Some of the other actors, upstaged, must have thought: “Will no one rid me of this turbulent king?”
Ten years later I saw Plummer at London’s National Theatre in Danton’s Death, directed by Jonathan Miller. Great skill. But some fire and ego had gone. And Miller’s fondness for ensemble playing didn’t help. By that year, of course, Plummer had also been Captain Von Trapp in the The Sound of Music. He had had half a decade of planetary fame for a role he despised or later affected to, referring to it as The Sound of Mucus.
I saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago. No, really. I was too young to review it in 1965 and hadn’t watched it all through in the intervening 55 years. I liked it. It’s covered from head to foot in sweetness, like a bear fallen into a honey barrel, but I had been warned of that. And Plummer was crackingly good. Who else could have been so handsome yet so hardheaded, so unbending yet suavely sarcastic, so soft-spoken yet imperious? Who else could have been believable, never mind likeable, picking up that ridiculous guitar and singing that ridiculous song?
I have another live memory of Christopher Plummer. ’Twas was a rainy night near London’s Pall Mall. Costumed folk stood about waiting for a shot in which a carriage would enter the drive of a stately mansion. A journalist friend was doing a “production report” for this very newspaper. The film was 1979’s Murder by Decree, starring Plummer as Sherlock Holmes and James Mason as Dr Watson. (Titbit for collectors: Plummer’s second cousin was Nigel Bruce, famed for playing Dr Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.)
While my friend, between camera set-ups, dragged Mason off to the Reform Club for an interview, I watched Plummer hold court with a nincompoop Australian TV interviewer. He was asked questions on The Sound of Music and The Sound of Music alone. He parried them courteously, patted them politely (like a nuisance dog) or parlayed them into bon mots. He was loyal to the movie but kept just the right sardonic distance between a that-was-then crowd-pleaser and a this-is-now actor in search of fresh and honourable challenges.
It’s cinema’s special paradox that stardom is a property of the young. The better, more versatile and more nuanced an actor gets as they age, the less magnetic and charismatic — sexy, if you want — they are on screen. And the more unavoidable is the slippery slope towards supporting parts. I admired Plummer as he aged into spry, sly devil-ex-machina roles — Remember (2015), All the Money in the World (2017) — or into the statutory Scrooges and the art-movie Leo Tolstoys. He even won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing a cuddly gay geriatric in Beginners (2010).
But once upon a time he had true stardom. Certainly on stage; and in cinema in two films that remain must-sees for Plummerholics. One is the Von Claptrapp. The other is The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964). As a prancing, insolent, baying, magisterially delinquent Emperor Commodus, the thirtyish Plummer holds in his palms not just the audience but a cast of screen-epic veterans including Alec Guinness, James Mason and Sophia Loren.
He became a star again at the end too, by virtue of the media lights beamed on him when he replaced Kevin Spacey to play John Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. Should he have agreed to take the role? Should you catch the golden apples meant for another actor, however suddenly fallen on disfavour?
Plummer had an excuse: he was director Ridley Scott’s first choice for Getty before Spacey was considered. And he didn’t need a truckful of make-up to play a mean old miser. Those narrow eyes, lizardy features, grizzled-aquiline bone structure: he had aged, mercilessly, into acting’s imperial purple. He was Emperor Commodus as a senior-citizen megalomaniac. He was Captain Von Trapp the handsome killjoy now grown old, less matinee idol, certainly less Rodgers and Hammerstein; yet richly endowed, in the enlarged acoustic of that “now”, with all the shades and shimmers of age’s invocations. And with all the Lears and Macbeths, the Cyranos and Arturo Uis, that Plummer had also played, in a long life as both stage star and screen star.