On February 5, Christopher Plummer died at age 91. We are republishing our January 6, 2011 cover profile by Susan G. Cole in his memory.
BARRYMORE by William Luce, directed by Gene Saks, with CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER and JOHN PLUMPIS at the Elgin Theatre (189 Yonge). Opens January 27 and runs to March 9, Monday-Wednesday and Friday-Saturday 8 pm, January 30 at 6:30 pm. $55-$150. ticketmaster.ca, 416-975-8555.
Forget all that talk about a truculent and demanding Christopher Plummer. The iconic actor has definitely mellowed.
You can tell when he performs a scene from Barrymore for the benefit of media cameras. He ploughs through the section several times without complaint. He forgets a line and doesn’t seem a bit worried about what the media hordes might do with that piece of information.
When a cellphone rings – his publicist’s – he just looks up, stops the action and says with a smile, “I’ll get that.” It’s done with a raise of the eyebrow, not the voice.
The only time he gets even remotely aggravated is when he has to cut the line “You nasty little faggot” for the sake of the media scrum, since certain language is considered inappropriate for radio and TV.
“It’s such a shame that you can’t be free on the air,” he says to me later. “It’s so puritanical. That they’re still bleeping people is extraordinary to me since half our language is made up of curse words. I rather like them.”
His voice, even when he’s speaking gently, has a powerful resonance – he says he’s never miked onstage – and he’s so relaxed, sitting in his dressing room clad in a snappy, fashion-forward blazer, that it’s hard to believe he ever had a reputation as a bad-boy rabble-rouser.
At 81, he’s working harder than he has in his entire life. Not that Plummer has ever been a slacker. He’s appeared in over 100 movies and played every classical role he wanted to onstage except for Othello.
Last year, Oscar called for the first time, thanks to his performance as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. He’s just come off a spectacular run at Stratford as Prospero in The Tempest, after blowing audiences away in Caesar And Cleopatra the year before. These aren’t exactly quickie character parts they’re huge and demanding lead roles. He played them all with a teasing playfulness, an attitude he says he discovered only over time.
He’s interspersing rehearsals for the remount of the near solo show Barrymore (a second actor appears offstage only) with treks to Sweden, where he’s shooting the American remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
In the midst of all that, he recently appeared on Oprah’s show alongside Julie Andrews and the actors who played the Von Trapp family children – a little shocking for a guy who famously referred to his most revered movie as The Sound Of Mucus.
But although the edges may have softened, Plummer’s ego is still as mighty as ever. He has no problem comparing himself favourably to the great John Barrymore.
“I’ve played more classical roles than he,” but not, he says without pause, because he’s a better actor, but because Barrymore drank himself to death. “He was the actor of his time. The classical actors who emerged – Olivier, Richardson – came much later.
“He beat the English at their own game, and I tried to do the same when I took Richard III to England. We were both North Americans who invaded England, performing in their most famous author’s works.”
They have other things in common. Like Barrymore, who tormented photographers with his demands, Plummer much prefers his left profile. But more important, both were prodigious drinkers. Plummer found a way to stop decades ago, but Barrymore never could.
The experience of having been in love with the bottle informs elements of Plummer’s performance, something you can detect even in the short scene he plays during his marathon press day. As he crosses the stage, he stumbles, not in a big pratfall-like way, but just ever so slightly. He plays it as if those inebriated trip-ups are still in his bones.
It’s no wonder, he says, that actors drink.
“You give a great deal of yourself,” he says. “Take an evening in the theatre. You’ve shown the audience things you wouldn’t have shown them, but you have to because you’re an artist. You have to dig deep into yourself and then let it go and show it barefaced. And because you’ve given so much, you feel you have to anaesthetize the rest of the night.
“It happens in painters and actors. But I’d much rather be a creative person and get drunk afterwards in order to calm myself down than be some horrible businessman or sleazy politician who drinks because he’s guilty of stealing or womanizing. The artist has a better excuse.”
As serious as he is about these subjects, I have to remind myself that he could start shitting me at any moment. He recently punked two seasoned journalists, telling Kate Fillion of Maclean’s that he’d love to play the nurse in Romeo And Juliet in drag. “I was joking,” he harrumphs.
And when I ask about Richard Ouzounian’s Toronto Star report that his Prospero at Stratford was the last Shakespeare he’d do onstage, Plummer waves me away. “Oh no, I just meant not for a while. I’ve done Shakespeare an awful lot.”
But I can tell he’s serious about his fondness for his Last Station co-star, Helen Mirren.
“I had such a wonderful time with Helen. I’d seen her when she was quite young when she did Cressida, which is a very sexual part, and she contributed to that sensuality.
“She’s such fun and she’s so confident. It’s great to work with someone who knows what she’s doing.”
He hasn’t seen her gender-bent performance as Prospera in the current film version of The Tempest, though he will.
“I’m not sure about Prospera, but God bless her for doing it. The relationship between the father and the daughter is so playful and warm because of the difference in sex. I’m not sure how you could achieve that between a mother and daughter. There’s a lot of humour in Prospero.” He takes a dramatic pause. “I’m not sure Julie Taymor has an awful lot of humour.”
When I mention that last year’s Oscar nod came late in his life, he bristles,
“I’ve won plenty of awards,” he says, referring to, among others, his two Tonys, one for his performance in the original Barrymore production in 1997, and his two Emmys. And he argues that losing the Oscar wasn’t that important, since it’s almost impossible to compare the five nominated roles. “It’s not as if the Academy was judging five Hamlets,” he notes.
Plummer himself will not be slowing down any time soon. He still wants to play Othello, “But they’d lynch me if I did,” he grumbles, not at all appreciating the irony of his metaphor. And he says he’d do a new contemporary play if someone would just write a decent part for him.
“I would adore a contemporary piece, but they don’t write star parts any more,” he despairs, the ego once again creeping to the surface. “And by that I don’t mean that I should be the only star in it but that they don’t construct plays the way they used to for a theatrical figure to accept.
“It’s mostly ensemble, and as Nathan Lane says most amusingly,” and here the pause is almost melodramatic, “‘I don’t do ensemble.'”
Listen to interview clips:
On the insensitive film editor:
On why Andrew Garfield is a young actor to watch out for:
On his connection to Edith Piaf and why Marion Cotillard deserved her Oscar:
In memoriam: Christopher Plummer was a consummate performer