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The Oscars

How a reformed rogue became an Oscar fave Add to ...

“I don’t talk about it,” says Christopher Plummer. His eyes narrow, in mock menace, and the seasoned voice delivers a sharp, crisply modulated interrogative. “Do you want to get on the next plane?”

He has settled comfortably into a plush booth at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Palm Beach, Fla. It’s a week before the Academy Award ceremonies.

If you believe the pundits, he’s about to win his first Oscar – for best supporting actor. Oddsmakers give him a 95-per-cent chance of winning (a $19 bet will earn $1).

These odds are no accident. The same role – as Hal Fields, a 70-year-old dying widower and father who comes joyfully out of the closet in Beginners – has already won Plummer the baubles attached to the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild, Critics’ Choice, National Board of Review and Britain’s BAFTA.

If he does win, Arthur Christopher Orme Plummer will become, at 82, the oldest actor in history to earn an Oscar.

Talk about happy endings.

He won’t discuss it. “Look, I’m an old man. How can I get excited?”

Tanned, fit, and nattily turned out in a blue blazer, striped polo shirt, pressed blue jeans, loafers and designer shades, he looks the antithesis of old. If Ralph Lauren used octogenarians on billboards, Plummer would be his poster senior citizen.

It could easily have ended differently. It could easily have ended badly. No one knows better than Plummer himself how close his own life came to paralleling that of John Barrymore – the American acting legend who self-destructed on the shoals of egomania, neuroses, alcoholism and a thirst for mayhem.

Plummer's raucous days are long behind him, of course. For decades, he's been a paradigm of sobriety and decorum. He seldom imbibes more than a few glasses of French Burgundy (“three, if I’m bad”) at dinner, trains regularly in the gym, takes a variety of daily pills, and closely monitors his diet. Reluctantly, but only recently, he’s even given up tennis, a game he’s played since youth – to preserve his knees for future roles.

Still, if he does get to hoist the blingiest bling in show business tomorrow night, his deepest thanks, publicly or privately, will surely be reserved for Elaine Taylor, his wife of 41 years. In his 2008 memoir, In Spite of Myself, he calls her simply “my partner and my life … my light in the wilderness.”

It is she who saved Christopher Plummer from his greatest adversary – himself.

Aristotle, Caesar, Gielgud, Olivier

To be sure, he has already known The Grand Moment. He’s been the toast of Broadway a half-dozen times, won two Tonys (one in a musical, no less), two Emmys, garnered one previous Oscar nomination (as Tolstoy, in The Last Station) and an Order of Canada citation. His bookshelves fairly groan with trophies that other actors would kill for. When he takes the boards at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, he earns an ovation before he even opens his mouth. Flip through the door-stopping catalogue of his 100-plus films, scores of TV and gazillion stage appearances. There’s scarcely a major actor or director he hasn’t worked with (or partied with), a style of acting he hasn’t mastered.

A fixture in New York during the halcyon days of stage and television in the fifties, he singed candles at both ends in London during the swinging sixties, anchored several early seasons at Stratford that helped put it firmly on the theatrical map, lent his stature to Canada’s nascent feature-film industry, and, for the last three decades, has been about as busy as he’s wanted to be.

“No other actor has had his trajectory,” says Atom Egoyan, who directed Plummer in Ararat. “He’s been in all of these places at exactly the peak of their mythology.”

His cinematic range is startling. Mike Wallace, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Caesar, Dracula, Aristotle, F. Lee Bailey, Alfred Stieglitz, Tolstoy – he’s played them all. Onstage, he’s won raves for his Oedipus, his Iago, his Hamlet, his Lear, his Prospero. Richard Burton, Alec Guinness, Laurence Olivier, Peter O’Toole, John Gielgud – that was the acting company he kept. Were Plummer British, he’d surely have been knighted with them, long ago.

And the man’s forgotten nothing. His memoir, full of saucy, amusing tales, reads like an encyclopedia of show business. Inevitably, it includes an anecdote-rich chapter on The Sound of Music, the film for which, until now, he was probably best known. Although he despised it at first, dubbing it The Sound of Mucus, he says he has since learned to appreciate its charms.

“He’s Canada’s greatest actor,” maintains Stratford Festival veteran and Plummer friend Bruce Dow, “but that’s far too limiting a phrase.” New York Times theatre critic Ben Brantley agrees. Reviewing Plummer’s Tony-winning performance in Barrymore, he called him “the finest classical actor in North America.”

Barrymore and Plummer – both cut from choice but flawed thespian cloth. As In Spite of Myself recounts, Plummer’s early years were marked by the same volatile admixture of restless ambition, gnawing insecurity, obnoxious hubris, and an unrestrained appetite for alcohol, women and more alcohol.

He drank, he insists, not to exorcise the demons of a miserable childhood. Indeed, though raised by a single mother on the family estate at Senneville on Montreal’s West Island – his parents divorced when he was an infant; he barely knew his father – the young Plummer (great-grandson of a Canadian prime minister, John Abbott) was lavished with love, attention and, not incidentally, a library of classics (in French and English), which he devoured.

Exposed to opera, symphony, theatre and books, Plummer hardly needed the university education he rejected, walking out of his McGill entrance exam. Besides, by then he was already in love with acting and determined to give it a try.

Strip joints, dalliances and trysts

No, the very incarnation of Shakespeare’s Puck, “merry wanderer of the night,” he caroused (a) because he thoroughly enjoyed it, and (b) because it helped disguise his painful shyness and lack of confidence. “It was pretty self-destructive, that era,” says Plummer. “Everyone drank. It was the fashion.” In the theatre, he had learned the power to command. But offstage, “I was in serious trouble.”

Although performances seldom suffered, his life became a moveable feast of late-night strip joints and watering holes, dalliances and trysts, sometimes reckless. Seated, and almost fully clothed, he once made love to a married woman with her unsuspecting husband in the same room. Another time, he and a female companion decided to take a bath together – at someone else’s party. And there were legendary revels with Jason Robards Jr. and Rex Harrison, two other world-class drunks.

He managed to avoid harder drugs. “They were just coming in,” he recalls. “I never did anything stronger than marijuana, and it bored me to tears. But “booze picked me up,” he says. “I loved booze.”

As an actor, Plummer was always the alpha dog. When Stratford opened in 1953 – without him – he cried into a bottle in Manhattan, devastated not to be a part of it. When a kidney stone briefly hospitalized him during a run of Henry V at Stratford in 1956, Plummer wasn’t sure which felt worse – the crushing pain in his abdomen (he was initially convinced it was syphilis) or the thought that his understudy, fellow Montrealer William Shatner, would replace him and reap the accolades.

Though he appeared frequently on TV and in film, he preferred the stage. That same summer, studio mogul David O. Selznick turned up, offering leading roles in The Sun Also Rises and Tender is the Night. Plummer was 26. “I was among the anointed, my future guaranteed.” Plummer agonized over the dilemma – he needed to get laid, he said, and promptly did – but ultimately said no to the most important man in Hollywood. He’d been promised a shot at Hamlet the next summer and couldn’t pass it up.

When he next returned to the Festival in the mid-sixties, he was a certified star – and behaved like one. One year, scheduled to appear in Antony and Cleopatra opposite Zoe Caldwell, Plummer was missing in action when rehearsals began. A rebellious murmur arose from the cast, suggesting that a local actor could serve just as well; Plummer wasn’t needed. Word of the gathering insurrection must have reached him. He finally arrived. Flinging open the theatre doors, he strode imperiously down the aisle, saluted director Michael Langham and, bending Caldwell backward, planted a full-on, deep-mouth kiss – as if to say, ‘I’m here now. We may begin.’

You are not a charming drunk’

By then, two marriages had sundered – the first, to actress Tammy Grimes, produced daughter Amanda, now a theatrical force in her own right. He was, he concedes, a terrible husband and a worse father: “I was simply never there.” For years, he and Amanda were estranged and never spoke. But they have since reconciled and the relationship now, he says, is “perhaps better than ever.”

In the early sixties, he fell in love with beautiful Fleet Street journalist Patricia Lewis. One early morning, returning home from a night on the town, she drove her Triumph convertible into a pillar near Buckingham Palace. Plummer, miraculously, escaped with scratches, but Lewis sustained serious injuries and was left partly disfigured. Plummer did the honourable thing – he married her – but Lewis started to drink more heavily and the relationship was never the same.

He met Taylor, an actress and dancer, in 1969, on the set of a forgettable Restoration comedy, Lock Up Your Daughters! – not an inapt title for a film with Plummer. They married the following year, in the same Montreal church that Richard Burton and another Taylor, Elizabeth, had been wed. Only then did he start to reform, literally pouring bottles of scotch and gin down the drain.

“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.

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