Christopher Plummer

Pencil Portrait by Antonio Bosano.

Christopher Plummer Pencil Portrait
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An ‘Indian summer’ is a heat wave that occurs in the autumn. It refers to a period of considerably above-normal temperatures, accompanied by dry and hazy conditions, usually after there has been a killing frost. The term is also widely used in a human context, to signify a period of great happiness or success that occurs late in a person’s life or career.

Never more could this definition apply, than to the career of Christopher Plummer. Having bagged a clutch of awards – two Emmys, a brace of Tonys, a Golden Globe Award, a SAG Award, and a BAFTA Award, the man known to millions for his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music would become, at the age of 82, the oldest actor ever to win an Academy Award in 2012, for his supporting role in Beginners.’ It’s been one hell of a career, and richly deserved.

Plummer is a Canadian and bilingual, fluent in both French and english. When I read his autobiography ‘In spite of myself,’ published in 2008, I was surprised to learn that his childhood was one of privilege. A family ancestor was a Governor General, and his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was Canada’s third prime minister and a railroad owner. There were steam yachts, mansions, and a life of Victorian gentility and somewhat cluttered splendor.

Plummer tells how “this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down,” and writes of his early acting days as an eighteen-year-old playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by the legendary Komisarjevsky of Moscow’s Imperial Theatre.

Working in 50’s New York, Plummer embraced the night life, professionally acquainting himself with the likes of Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and Paddy Chayefsky. Unaware at the time, hat he was embracing the last Golden Age the of the American Theatre he would make an auspicious Broadway debut at twenty-five in ‘The Starcross Story’ .

He writes about Miss Katherine Cornell (the last stage star to travel by private train), who, with her husband, Guthrie McClintic, added to what experience Plummer had, the necessary gloss, spit, and polish to take him to the next level. Guthrie bundled Plummer off to Paris for a production of ‘Medea’, opposite Dame Judith Anderson (“a little Tasmanian devil…who with one look could turn an audience to stone”). Anyone who has seen Anderson’s performance as the definitive Mrs Danvers in Hitchcock’s “Rebecca” will know what Plummer means.

An understanding of this almost relentless professional drive is perhaps characterised by his love of the theatre and a ‘dash of daring’. On page 646 of his autobiography, Plummer writes:

Someone once said – it had to have been Noel Coward in one of his withering putdowns – that “man consistently labours under the delusion that he really matters!” But it becomes necessary to have certain delusions if one is to compete in our overcrowded profession and more than overcrowded life. Orson Welles, the Marquis de Sade, Augustus John, Dylan Thomas and John Barrymore, each in his own way took life by the throat and forced it to its knees. I wish like hell I could have done that. I don’t pretend to own a speck of their recklessness or daring – but, damn it, I think i gave it the old college try. The desire was always there, still is, so is the ambition.

In the 60’s, I saw him on the big screen in all his leading man pomp – The Sound of Music (1965), Triple Cross (1967) and The Battle of Britain (1969). I caught up with him again in the mid 70’s in Return of the Pink Panther where he played the part of the jewel thief, Sir Charles Litton. He contributed an excellent supporting performance as Rudyard Kipling in The Man who would be King, and then deservedly won an Emmy for his leading role in the Tv series The Moneychangers.’ The four-part adaptation of Arthur (‘Airport’) Hailey’s tale of power and greed in the banking business, has two ambitious vice presidents (Plummer and Kirk Douglas), who become rivals when an imminent board room vacancy arises. Into the 80’s, I caught him in The Janitor.’ an early showcase for Sigorney Weaver, fresh from her inaugural battle with the ‘alien’. He co-starred as Weaver’s Israel-lobbying fiancé in this slow burn thriller. in the more than thirty years since this appearance, he has continually reappeared like a unexpectedly welcome turn at a nondescript seaside theatre. Reward for his dedication to the theatre and perseverance with lesser movie material would come twenty years later.

The upswing in Plummer’s career began with his role as the CBS anchor Mike Wallace in the 1999 film The Insider.’ Whilst admitting that many of the films on his resume have not scaled comparable heights, Plummer would also be the first to admit that they weren’t always his priority either. “The Insider was a hot and important movie and it was upgraded from the movies I had been doing,” Plummer says. “You see, I loved the theatre and I stayed in the theatre most of my life and I was a bit snobbish about it. I made a lot of movies through the ’60s and ’70s which were pretty awful, but then most of the movies in the ’60s and early ’70s were pretty awful. The quality wasn’t always there, unfortunately, but the money was. And I was grateful for that because I could afford to then do what I wanted to do in the theatre.”

Films were often simply a way of supporting the habit, and for a while, he was offered big roles.

“I happened to be sort of leading man-looking. And then finally I was dissipated enough in my 40s to look like a character actor and that’s when everything began to change. And I enjoyed being a character actor because of course the roles were so much more interesting. It started with John Huston’s film ‘The Man Who Would Be King’, which is a very good film, and certainly after ‘The Insider’. And now I’m getting nice lovely scripts like ‘Beginners’.”

Plummer has been married three times. His first marriage, to Tony Award-winning actress Tammy Grimes, was in 1956 and lasted four years. The couple’s daughter, Amanda Plummer (born 1957), is an acclaimed actress in her own right, but (as he mentions in his autobiography) he had no contact with her during her early and teenage years. Having a child out of wedlock was greatly frowned upon in the 50’s and Plummer recalls a fraught telephone call from Tammy’s mother about her daughter’s condition. The wedding was attended by five people including the bride and bridegroom and the couple were soon drifting apart; Plummer recalling few times alone with her but one funny lady, a madcap full of eccentricities that were delightfully catching. Nature had clearly precipitated an incompatible union.

In 1969 the actor worked with the british actress Elaine Taylor in Kilkenny, Ireland. Plummer was almost fourteen years older, twice divorced, and had recently been partnering Richard Harris’ ex-wife Elizabeth Rees-Williams. Taylor’s usually “mousy” hair, which was tinted red on location, is said to have appealed to Plummer. For her part, Taylor, who initially thought Plummer “a most conceited prig,” agreed to meet him again in London provided that he reduced his consumption of alcohol.

Taylor and Plummer were married in Montreal, Quebec on 2 October 1970. The best man was Plummer’s childhood friend Toby Johnson and the only other guest was Johnson’s wife Alice, who was bridesmaid. The officiant, the Reverend Philip Moreton, had married Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in 1964. Taylor and Plummer reached their ruby wedding (40th) anniversary in 2010.

Since the 1970s Plummer and Taylor have lived on a rambling English style estate at Weston, Connecticut. Over the years she appears to have moderated aspects of Plummer’s behaviour. A few months after their marriage, Alan Bennett remarked wryly to Kenneth Tynan that Plummer was “his own worst enemy—but only just,” while Plummer’s own autobiography almost forty years later was entitled In Spite of Myself.

In 2012 Plummer identified “the key to lasting marriage” as “stay[ing] out of each other’s hair” and reflected that while he and Taylor quarreled a lot, they “always end up in laughter which saves the day.” More generally, he has described Taylor’s positive influence on his life as follows:

‘A combination of Edith Cavell and Julia Child…a nurse and a cook. I feel guilty sometimes that I denied her a wonderful life, that she’s wasted it on some terrible old ham. She could have married a duke or a prince! And she knows it. But being British, you see, she never complains. She’s very well trained.’

Recommended viewing

The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964)

The Triple Cross (1967)

Adapted from his autobiography ‘The Eddie Chapman Story’, this is the barely believable, yet true tale of a British safecracker imprisoned in the Channel Islands when WWII breaks out. When the Germans occupy the area, he offers his services in exchange for freedom, training as a spy before being sent overseas to England. Once there, however, he switches allegiance to the British and becomes a double agent.

Chapman would become the only Englishman to win an Iron Cross from Hitler for his services to German espionage whilst working for MI5 the whole time.

He died in 1997 – the following obituary recalling his daring exploits.
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/obituary-eddie-chapman-1137095.html

Reinventing Eddie’s story for the big screen, director Terence Young would overcome financing problems with his usual panache, commandeering his leading stars for a goodwill stopover in Paris with a Beirut banker. With sufficient cash in place to finish the project, Plummer, Bryner, Howard and Sneider were treated to a night at the ballet watching Nureyev and Fonteyn in ‘Gisele’.

Plummer negotiates World War two on his terms, dallying with Claudine Auger and Romy Sneider, whilst hoodwinking Yul Bryner along the way. Gert Froebe is having none of it, mistrusting our man’s true motive whist applauding his outrageous bluff.

The action set pieces move briskly if a little unconvincingly – the Vickers factory bombing somewhat amateurish by today’s CGI standards. There’s a couple of 007 stalwarts – Gert Froebe (‘Goldfinger’), and Claudine Auger (‘Thunderball’), whilst Yul Brynner supplies strong support as Von Brunnen.

A perennial in the BBC’s early 70’s scheduling, I would not encounter the movie for another thirty five years. Nevertheless, it’s still a rollicking yarn and a diverting two hours viewing.

Recommended reading

Christopher Plummer: In spite of myself (2008)

A rollicking, rich portrait of a life. And what a life! By one of today’s greatest living actors.

Plummer writes about the great producers with whom he worked—Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Whitehead, and Roger Stevens—about Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan (“If you weren’t careful, this chameleon of chameleons might change into you, wear your skin, steal your soul”), and the miracle that was the new Stratford Festival in Canada, where Plummer blossomed in the classics under the extraordinary Tyrone Guthrie. He writes about his (too brief) encounters with his favorite geniuses, Orson Welles and Jonathan Miller. He writes about his lifelong friendships with Raymond Massey and the wild Kate Reid, and with that fugitive from the Navy, “that reprobate and staunch drinking buddy, the true reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill, whose blood was mixed with firewater,” Jason Robards, Jr.

Plummer writes about his affairs and his marriages, and about his daughter, Amanda, who “despite her slim looks and tiny bones could raise tempests, guaranteed to loosen the foundation of any theatre in which she chose to rage.”

We see him becoming a leading actor for Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with a company of young talented players, each destined for stardom—Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, et al., collectively the future of the English stage. The old guard was brilliantly represented by Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Gielgud. Plummer, the only fugitive from the New World, played Richard III, Benedick, and Henry II in Becket.

He writes about his film career: ‘The Sound of Music’ (affectionately dubbed “S&M”)…‘Inside Daisy Clover’, which brought him together with the beautiful Natalie Wood…John Huston’s ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ (Plummer was Rudyard Kipling). He tells the story of accepting Sir Laurence Olivier’s invitation to join the National Theatre Company, playing in Amphytron directed by Olivier himself (“a great actor but lousy director”), and writes about falling deeply in love with and eventually marrying a young actress and dancer, Elaine Taylor—to this day, his “one true strength.”

Seamlessly written, with stories that make us laugh out loud and that make real the fascinating, complex, exuberant adventure that is the actor’s (at least this actor’s) life.