CANADA’S GREATEST IMPORT: CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER
December 13, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
The illustrious Christopher Plummer was born eighty-eight years ago today in Toronto, Canada. And on Monday, he received an early birthday present by way of a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture for the yet unreleased All the Money in the World. He only committed to playing J. Paul Getty a few short weeks ago, when director Ridley Scott made the decision to film emergency reshoots to replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey. There’s little doubt Plummer will be superb in it, as there are few actors who have been at it longer, or been as consistently good. Having given over two hundred performances on the big and small screen, beginning with a small role in a 1953 version of Othello for Canadian television, Plummer’s first love has always been the theatre — and for those who’ve had the pleasure of seeing him on stage over the years (as I have), are the richer for it.
It started in 1946 when, at age seventeen and while still in high school, he played Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice. In 2014, in what has been his last theatrical engagement (to date), he performed at age eighty-five, in his one-person play A Word Or Two. I saw it when it stopped in Los Angeles while on tour at the cavernous Ahmanson Theatre, where I made sure I was in the front row. No cheap seats for me when it’s Christopher Plummer alone on stage. I wanted to be up close in order to take in every gesture, every tiny flick of an eyelash … and did I get my money’s worth! I reveled in the exhilaration it brought him while sharing his favorite poetry and monologues from classical theatre with an enthusiastic audience.
“My parents were marvelous,” he told an interviewer for Playbill in 2012. “I was very lucky — I grew up in a very well-read home — and we were taught the value of books. Our family used to read aloud to each other sometimes after dinner. It was kind of an old Victorian custom, and it was great to be a part of that. They taught me reading could be fun as well as enriching.” In his early years as an actor, Plummer was lucky to work for the Canadian Broadcast Company. “I grew up in radio, at the same time when Orson Welles was being such a radio star,” he recalled. “God! we had some wonderful people to emulate and to learn from. In Toronto in the mid-to-late ’40s, the radio had an extraordinary high standard. It was perhaps some of the best radio dramas being done in the world … I joined that company, which was thrilling when I was about 19, and Orson Welles would come up every now and then and be a guest-star … It was wonderful. I miss that medium so much.”
With all the theatrics of a radio play, I saw Plummer in 1998, again up close and personal at the Ahmanson, where he gave a brilliant performance as John Barrymore in William Luce’s Barrymore. This was the part for which he won the second of his two Tonys (his first was in 1973 for portraying Cyrano in a musical of Rostand’s classic play). As Barrymore, Plummer was perfectly cast as the suave matinee idol, once an actor of international renown, nearing the end and down on his luck, due to his decent into alcoholism. At one time close to as fabled a drinker as Barrymore himself, Plummer used every aspect of his life as an actor (and tippler) to evoke pathos without ever turning maudlin. It was a master class in technique married to intense honesty, with just the right amount of panache (a Plummer specialty).
My other great experience seeing Plummer on stage was as Iago opposite James Earl Jones’s Othello in a 1982 Broadway production that garnered Plummer some of the best reviews of his career. Rather than offer words of my own, these are those of Frank Rich in his opening night review in the New York Times:
“Mr. Plummer, a sensational actor in peak form, has made something crushing out of Shakespeare’s arch-villain. He gives us evil so pure — and so bottomless — that it can induce tears. Our tears are not for the dastardly Iago, of course — that would be wrong. No, what Mr. Plummer does is make us weep for a civilization that can produce such a man and allow him to flower. We weep because the distant civilization that nurtured Iago is all too similar to the one that has given us a Hitler or two of our own.”
[Can’t help but think of our current political situation while reading that paragraph, can you?]
A review like Rich’s is one you live your whole life for as an actor. And what is so great about Plummer, is that he got notices like that time and again, although it didn’t start so auspiciously. His Broadway debut in January 1953 in The Starcross Story, opened and closed the same night. His first successes were in the classical vein, from where his roots began; an arena he always returned to, performing the world over. His Shakespearean characterizations, beginning in 1956 at Stratford, Ontario as Henry V, would eventually cement his standing. From then on, he never turned away an opportunity to take on some of the finest roles in the canon: Hamlet, Leontes, Benedick, Mercrutio, Bardolph, Macbeth, Marc Anthony (in both Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra), Richard III, Prospero and King Lear, which he portrayed at both Stratford and on Broadway at Lincoln Center in 2004.
It will depress me no end (as I’m sure it would Plummer) should his obituaries lead with his Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film of The Sound of Music. He took the job for the money, not out of any great desire to play the part, and there was no way he could have imagined it would become one of the most popular films ever made. Thankfully, he’s come round after many years of tossing it under the bus, and embraced how much the movie means to its legions of fans.
But if for some reason, his Captain Von Trapp is all you may know him from, start seeking out some of Plummer’s major performances and treat yourself to a binge-festival. With an IMDB list of 211 film and TV credits (currently), let me narrow it down a bit: For starters, watch Barrymore (2011); his Academy Award winning performance in 2010’s Beginners; as Mike Wallace in 1999’s The Insider; Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station (also Oscar nominated); and going back a ways, his Kipling in The Man Who Would be King (1975), mainly because it’s the best movie out of the bunch. And if you feel like seeing him on the big screen this very moment, The Man Who Invented Christmas, a somewhat fictionalized version of how Charles Dickens came to write A Christmas Carol, is currently in theatres and features Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge.
There is also the autobiography Plummer published in 2008, In Spite of Myself: A Memoir, filled with so many funny anecdotes that you feel as if he couldn’t possibly keep topping himself. Yet he does, because (after all), that’s Christopher Plummer.
If you enjoy these columns, check out Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now at Amazon.com in both hard cover and e-book. Email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.