Christopher Plummer, 13 December 1929 – 5 February 2021

In a career which spanned seven decades, legendary actor Christopher Plummer, who has died at the age of 91, appeared in over 100 movies and countless stage productions. Plummer was one of a few performers to win an Oscar, Emmy, and Tony in acting categories — the top awards for film, television, and theatre, known as the Triple Crown of Acting. Yet no matter how good he was — and he was always solid, dependable, and frequently outstanding — he will always be remembered as a certain ‘singing’ Austrian navy captain named von Trapp, an “albatross” of a part which annoyed him greatly. Though he later revised his low opinion of the movie.

Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer was born in 1929 in Toronto into a wealthy well-connected family. A formidable classical actor with a colourful and diverse resume, Plummer had such dramatic depth that he was equally at ease playing Rudyard Kipling in The Man Who Would Be King as he was playing an aristocratic master criminal in The Return Of The Pink Panther caper (both 1975). Though movies were often simply a way of supporting his habit: his first love, the theatre. “I was a bit snobbish about it,” he later admitted. He added to his considerable repertoire with a Macbeth opposite Glenda Jackson in 1988, and won a second Tony for Barrymore, his one-man show in 1997, in which he played John Barrymore at the end of his life. 

Suavely menacing as any actor alive, he possessed the handsome chiselled looks of a typical Hollywood leading man — with his patrician Shakespearean bearing he reminded me of a cross between Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Brannagh — yet unlike those cross-generational Brits, Plummer is rarely remembered for his leading roles, never quite hitting the A-list inhabited by contemporaries and sometime drinking companions such as Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton. 

This was partly due to his own ambivalent relationship to the trappings of stardom. He wrote in his autobiography: “I have never recovered from my shyness toward the glaring lights of a film premiere. I am a complete hypocrite, of course, torn between the thrill of mob recognition on the one hand and my aversion to the sheer vulgarity of it on the other.”

CBS anchor Mike Wallace once put him on the spot during a television interview by bluntly enquiring: “How come you are not a household name?” Plummer deftly fielded the question, replying in a curiously Bowie-esque fashion: “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 suspects the issue rankled a little. 

Coincidentally, Plummer would go on to play Wallace in 1999’s The Insider, opposite Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, who he reunited with two years later in A Beautiful Mind (2001). The pair were arguably the films that ushered in a late-career upswing for the veteran Canadian. There followed a turn in Oliver Stone’s flawed epic Alexander (2004), an effectively slippery turn as a law-firm boss in Syriana (2005) and a key supporting role in Spike Lee’s crime thriller Inside Man (2006).

Plummer’s box office renaissance culminated in 2011 with Mike Hill’s Beginners, for which he won numerous plaudits, and deservedly so. As Hal, a retired museum director who, after the death of his wife of many years, starts to embrace his homosexuality, ‘Plummer the bummer’ had scenes in close-up that were so exposed and so vulnerable that he seemed to be opening up his soul for the camera. What lingered in my mind is his physical authority, the way he commanded the screen with his body and also with his voice; but also moments of silence where he got across the character’s stoic repression, and how he threw it all away in favour of hedonistic liberated living, even with cancer knocking at the door.

Looking like every inch Max Von Sydow’s not quite identical twin (displaying a similar gravitas, the actors were born a few months apart), Hal finds a younger boyfriend (the impossibly handsome Goran Visnjic), throws parties, and visits dance clubs, sharing his adventures with his confused thirty-something son, Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, whose generous, self-effacing acting keeps serving up moments for his co-star to spike over the top.

He had always known he was gay, and his revelation to his adult offspring conveys pride, relief and a kind of joy. Perhaps he has arrived at an age when only his son could be expected to care about this unexpected information.

Plummer told All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel that he was drawn to the character right away. 

“I adored the part and I thought it was so well written and so unsentimental and brave and witty and free. Totally free,” Plummer says. “Of course he was so relieved to be able to come out of the closet in such a happy way because he was so fond of his latest boyfriend. I just adored the way it was tackled. It was tackled with such humanity and sweetness and fun.”

The reward was an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. At age 82, Plummer became the oldest winner of an acting Oscar. A decade on, to complain that the role was played by a heterosexual man is a moot point, frankly. The star was quizzed at the time on how a roll call of actors (Tom Hanks, Sean Penn et al) have triumphed at the prestigious ceremony after portraying gay characters. “The sexual differences cancel each other out,” Plummer insisted to E! Online. “We all do a great job, gay and straight. All actors do our best.”

Talking of closets, at 88 he became the oldest ever nominee when he replaced the disgraced Kevin Spacey as the super rich industrialist J. Paul Getty in All The Money In The World (2017).

Of course, his most famous role came as the buttoned up widower Captain von Trapp in 1965’s perennial family classic, The Sound Of Music, with Julie Andrews. Plummer was an integral part of one of the most phenomenal box-office successes of all time, but he chafed against the stuffy dullness of the character and the “awful and sentimental and gooey” nature of the film, famously rechristening it The Sound Of Mucus. 

Old age did little to mellow him, or his desire to poke at the reverence that continues to surround the film.

“It just follows you around a little bit and people get slightly annoying when they go on and on about it,” he said a few years back. “Mothers come up to me in the street and say ‘Oh my children just, oh gosh they just never stop watching The Sound Of Music, it’s just so wonderful.’ And I say ‘When the hell are they going to grow up, for Christ’s sake?’”

Heaven forbid these overgrown kids would trace the movie location’s footsteps or anything. That would never do.

Steve Pafford

Sources: rogerebert.com, thetimes.co.uk, npr.org

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