“Elaine said to me, ‘If you’d just look at yourself in the mirror. You think you’re so attractive when you drink. You’re not. You are not a charming drunk.’ The lecture went on and on. All my vanity went out the window. And it worked.”
Mere traces of the old, dissipative party animal still remained, channelled respectably. Canadian actress Leslie Hope ( 24, The River), recalls a liquid night at Toronto’s Sutton Place Hotel in 1987. Tom Cruise was there, in town to shoot Cocktail. At one point, Plummer took the piano in the bar.
“He played and sang beautifully,” says Hope, “made us all forget that Cruise was even in the room. I remember thinking that [he] was not only brave and talented and charming, but a consummate entertainer, who seemed so damn glad to be starring in his own life.”
Fellow actors at Stratford stand in unabashed awe of him – his reserves of energy, preparedness, his Zen-like fusion of focus and relaxation onstage. “When Chris is there, he raises the level of everyone’s game,” says Geraint Wyn Davies. “The younger actors watch him carefully,” says Antoni Cimolino, the Festival’s general director. “There’s a lot to study there.” Older actors, too. When Plummer showed up for the first day of rehearsal with all his lines already committed to memory, Brian Dennehy facetiously complained that Plummer was trying to show them up.
“Chris is the consummate actor,” says Stratford artistic director Des McAnuff. “He combines every skill set – sensitivity to text, appetite for language, the ability to bring emotion to abstract words, psychological realism. He can inhabit a three-dimensional character with his voice alone. He’s a brilliant mimic, and it's not superficial. He can transform himself utterly into another human being.”
But McAnuff, too, has come to recognize the signal importance of Elaine in Plummer's life. “He relies on her and on her opinion.” Once, when McAnuff and the actor disagreed about how to make the entrance for his first appearance in Caesar and Cleopatra, McAnuff “did what any courageous director would do – I called his wife.” With her support, the director won the day.
‘I like going to the Oscars’
Back at the Ritz, Plummer tosses off note-perfect impressions of Laurence Olivier and John Huston, and recounts a stream of juicy theatre-world stories. He and Elaine – nicknamed Fuff – are busy renovating a two-storey condo across the street. They summer at their 100-year-old home in Connecticut.
“So, no victory speech written?” I venture again. “No James Cameron, King of the World proclamation?”
The baleful stare. “I like going to the Oscars,” he says, evenly. “It gives me a chance to see old friends.”
Among them is fellow nominee Max von Sydow ( Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Rival actors in the category include Jonah Hill ( Moneyball), Nick Nolte ( Warrior) and Kenneth Branagh ( My Week With Marilyn).
After the Oscars, Plummer will take a few weeks off, then begin shooting an HBO movie with Frank Langella in New York. And he’ll be back at Stratford this summer, for a limited run, in his one-man show, A Word or Two, Before You Go. Other film roles are pending, including one in a McAnuff-directed adaptation of Mordecai Richler’s novel, Cocksure, a show-biz satire.
Chris Plummer will go out with his boots on. He’ll keep playing until he can’t, continuing to sup at the banquet that has been his bountiful and largely charmed life.
“It is not so much the fear of dying that disturbs me,” he writes in his memoir, “but the sudden awareness that I have just begun to live.”
How fitting, then, that his latest honour might be for Beginners.
Plummer’s Highs and Lows
Low: 1954: The Starcross Story on Broadway. It opened and closed the same night.
Low: 1965: As Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. He hated the role – too two-dimensional – and for years hated the film.
Low: 1969: As Lord Foppington, in Lock Up Your Daughters! Saving grace: On the set, he met his third wife, Elaine Taylor.
High: 1973: As Cyrano on Broadway – in the opinion of most critics, the finest rendering of the long-nosed hero ever.
High: 1999: As Mike Wallace in The Insider with Russell Crowe, whom he considers among the finest actors of the younger generation.
High: 2004 As Lear at Lincoln Center in New York, directed by Jonathan Miller, who Plummer says is the second true genius (after Orson Welles) he’s encountered. – M.P.