In memoriam: Christopher Plummer was a consummate performer

Dead at 91, the Oscar winner seemed to enjoy being famous, though he wasn’t terribly interested in being a movie star

Revered by his peers, beloved by his fans, laden with every conceivable honour over decades of work on stage and screen, Toronto-born actor Christopher Plummer died peacefully at his home in Connecticut this morning. He was 91 years old.

Is there anything to say about Christopher Plummer that hasn’t already been said?

One could just list a handful of credits – Captain Von Trapp in Robert Wise’s The Sound Of Music; Sherlock Holmes in Murder By Decree (which earned him his only Genie, though he won two subsequent Canadian Screen Awards); Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s The Insider; the author Harlan Thrombey in Rian Johnson’s Knives Out – and instantly conjure an image of the man: sharp features that could quickly communicate resolve or cruelty but just as easily shift to a radiant warmth, and a remarkable lack of vanity for a performer with his level of fame.

Plummer was always conscious of how he would be seen in a given role – that was his stage training, I suspect – but he never seemed to worry about it. He just showed up and did his job, whether that meant keeping bad material afloat, finding unexpected depths in stock roles or ripping into good material when it came his way.

He seemed to enjoy being famous, but he wasn’t interested in being a movie star per se – his discomfort with having starred in The Sound Of Music, a global sensation that minted him as a leading man even before it won five Oscars, including best picture and best director, was legendary. And indeed he kept going back to theatre at every opportunity, almost as a way of refreshing his bona fides. On film, his performances were subject to a director’s calculations, an editor’s choice of takes, a studio’s whims. On stage, it was his show – often literally.

NOW put him on the cover in January 2011, when he remounted his long-running one-man show Barrymore; over the course of his conversation with Susan G. Cole, he made sure to walk back a Toronto Star report that his recent Stratford run of The Tempest would be his last Shakespeare work. “Oh, no,” he clarified. “I just meant not for a while.”

Aging gracefully

I only met the man once, in 2009, when Plummer accompanied Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus to TIFF. He was a little on the grumpy side, worn down by a day of junket conversation, but still interested in talking about the process of building a character who remains dramatically coherent throughout the film’s funhouse environment. And if his specific approach to performance clashed with Gilliam’s more freewheeling directorial style, he was careful not to mention it.

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Parnassus would mark one of the last times Plummer played a character radically different from himself. He aged into a certain Plummerish vibe, his patrician dignity making him perfect to play elderly authority figures, occasionally with an incongruous lusty streak.

That was when Plummer started getting the Oscar nominations that had eluded him earlier in life: as Tolstoy in The Last Station, holding court on politics and morality while groping his wife (Helen Mirren) at the breakfast table. Ewan McGregor’s aging but gleefully uncloseted father in Mike Mills’s Beginners, the performance that actually won him the prize in 2011. He remains the oldest person to win an acting Oscar.

I was sure he’d win again for his final nomination, as J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott’s All The Money In The World. (The circumstances were unique: the film was shot with Kevin Spacey playing Getty, only for Scott to reshoot all of those scenes with Plummer after Spacey was accused of being a sexual predator.) Sam Rockwell won instead, for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; Plummer remains the oldest person ever nominated for an Oscar, in any category.

An invaluable presence

While I was on deck earlier today to talk about Plummer with CTV News Channel, I got to listen to Bill Brioux and Richard Crouse as they remembered the man. Both of them cited The Man Who Would Be King as a favourite performance, which seemed odd at first: after all, Plummer only appears for about four minutes in that movie, playing Rudyard Kipling in a framing sequence.

But then I remembered how the entire film hangs on his expression in the penultimate shot – a wordless reaction to the story Michael Caine’s character has just told him, and which we’ve seen. And yeah, I guess it’s one of my favourite performances too.

But it just so happened that I rewatched The Silent Partner over Christmas, when it turned up on the Criterion Channel. It’s a sleazy tax-shelter thriller, with Plummer playing a calculating bank robber who makes life hell for Elliott Gould’s Toronto bank teller, who skims a chunk of his take during a holdup.

The movie was supposed to be forgettable pulp, but Plummer finds the curdled, vindictive heart of Curtis Hanson’s script and runs with it, making himself as loathsome as possible: the guy really enjoys hurting people, and Plummer leans into it in a really unpleasant way; he’s not trying to wink through it or let his charisma charm the audience. And he’s the reason anyone remembers that movie 45 years later.

I think he’d have been happy about that.


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