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Christopher Plummer: An Appreciation

by John Aquino on 02/07/21

It was gratifying to read obituaries of Christopher Plummer in the New York Times and Washington Post heralding both his theatrical work in classical and modern plays and his film performances. Most of the newspaper obits and those online, however, fulfilled Plummer's worst nightmare, leading with the statement that he is best remembered for his role in The Sound of Music, a film he hated.

His complaints about the film primarily had to do with his contention that his role was one-dimensional and that his singing was, to his surprise, dubbed. (He finally got to sing in the 1973 Broadway musical Cyrano and won the Tony award.) He ultimately warmed to The Sound of Music when he realized that it was bringing joy to audiences even after 50 years. But he, rightly, would have preferred to be remembered for his performances in the theatre and in other films. It is an impressive and varied collection of performances, even though he took on some of the films just for the money.

I only saw him perform on stage twice, in Barrymore and Macbeth, In the former, he presented an amazing portrayal of an actor he admired, John Barrymore. The script for the virtual one-man show was, I thought, pedestrian, but Plummer caught the agony of a brilliant actor who is able to find the essence of the characters he is playing easily to the point of absorbing them, which only makes the rest of the world seem secondary and trivial. In Macbeth, he and Glenda Jackson were in a production whose sole reason for being was them. Plummer later observed that he and Jackson were directed to just stand and deliver the verse as eloquently as they could. It was a disappointing production that my wife, sister and her husband saw in Baltimore. I remember when Jackson and Plummer came out for their curtain call, and most of the audience routinely stood in a standing ovation. Jackson glared at us as if to say, "You idiots! Why are you applauding this!" (She retired from acting soon after for 30 years.)

My wife and I also almost saw him in what has been acclaimed as one of the greatest performances of a Shakespearean character, Iago in Othello. He starred with James Earl Jones who played the title role. My wife was going into surgery the next day, and, to buoy up her spirits, I had bought tickets. To our dismay, someone came out to announce that Plummer was ill and that his understudy would take over the role. The actor came on stage reading from a script. Not having Plummer to play off of, Jones' performance seemed listless, and we left after the first act.

Plummer first attracted attention in the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival in the 1950s and then as the devil in Archibald MacLeish's 1958 J.B., a verse adaptation of the Book of Job. He made two films: Stage Struck (1957), a remake of Morning Glory (1933) in which Susan Strasburg struggled to take over the role Katherine Hepburn had nailed in the original, and a quirky movie named Wind Across the Everglade, which was directed by the brilliant but quirky Nicholas Ray. Plummer went back to the theatre and in a short period of time essayed an amazing series of performances in Shakespeare's Hamlet and  Much Ado about Nothing, Rostand's  Cyrano de Bergerac, Anouilh's Becket, Brecht's Arturo Ui, and Sophocles' Oedipus Rex.  His performances were uniformly brilliant. 

His sense of superiority and his alcoholism did irk his fellow actors. In 1971, his behavior prompted the cast and crew of the (London) National Theatre's production of Shakespeare's Coriolanus to convince the company to replace Plummer with his Anthony Hopkins. Plummer's third wife kept him on keel. When he won his Oscar, he told the audience Elaine should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for rescuing him every day of his life.

A number of his stage performances have been preserved on film. He repeated his Hamlet in a 1964 tv-movie Hamlet in Elsinore, which was filmed for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's birth and was shot in a castle in Elsinore, Denmark; his Cyrano in a television performance on a 1962 Hallmark Hall of Fame; and his Oedipus in a 1968 movie filmed in the ancient Greek theatre at Dodoni. He returned to films in 1964's The Fall of the Roman Empire, a well budgeted but  failed attempt to recapture the success of Ben Hur in which Plummer's performance as the mad Roman emperor Commodus is the only redeeming aspect of the film. (His repeated comment, even at his death: "Can you hear the gods laughing?")

On film and on television, Plummer appeared in some good but flawed films--Inside Daisy Clover, the Battle of Britain, the Night of the Generals, Triple Cross, Waterloo, the Pyx, Eyewitness, and Beginners, (for which he finally won an Academy Award in 2011), and All That Money Can Buy and some excellent films--The Man Who Would Be King, The Moneychangers (for which he won an Emmy), Jesus of Nazareth, The Silent Partner,  Murder by Decree (as Sherlock Holmes), The Scarlet and the Black, The Last Station, The Last Full Measure, and Knives Out. He only took on a few comedies, such as The Return of the Pink Panther in which he replaced David Niven as Sir Charles and seemed comfortable letting Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau clown around him, and, don't ask me why, as the villain in Dan Aykroyd's spoof of the tv series Dragnet. Even in his lesser films he was never uninteresting. And there are moments in his best films that I can't forget, such as his final and totally silent last scene in The Moneychangers when his banking rival (Kirk Douglas) rushes to the roof to talk Plummer off the ledge where he is contemplating suicide.

In the movie he loathed, The Sound of Music, there is a wonderful scene in which he as Captain von Trapp dances with his children's governess when the one-dimensional quality to the character of which he complained seems to expand. The music of the gavotte, a mountaineer's song, strengthens the nationalistic theme of the music that culminates in song "Edelweiss." The dance brings them close to each other and their movements evince a sexual chemistry.

For someone who never really became a movie superstar, it was a remarkable career.

Copyright 2021 by John T. Aquino

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