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Christopher Plummer: A comeback that knows no limits

Christopher Plummer

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

He's been acting since he was in high school – and professionally for nearly six decades – and now acclaimed Canadian treasure Christopher Plummer has consolidated a major comeback.

As a leading contender for this year's best supporting actor Academy Award, he may have reached the pinnacle of his career at the age of 82. Despite a long list of titles under his belt, Mr. Plummer really only seemed to shine in the past decade. With the exception of the role that helped him mark his place in Hollywood history as The Sound of Music's Baron Von Trapp, his filmography consists of voiceovers, made-for-TV movies and a few forgotten flicks. (Lord Foppington in Lock Up Your Daughters, anyone?)

But in recent years, eyes have refocused on the actor as he tore through a string of successful performances, in the Toronto stage production of Barrymore, the animated film Up!, David Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and most recently as a dying gay man in Mike Mills's Beginners, which landed him the latest Oscar nomination.

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"It was an enchantingly moving and funny story about a family thrown into a kind of paradox of disorganization because this old man suddenly comes out at the age of 70 and admits that he's been gay all his life," Mr. Plummer says.

He's been nominated in the past, for his portrayal of Leo Tolstoy in 2011's The Last Station, and starred in Oscar-winning films including A Beautiful Mind and the infamous Sound of Music, but never won the title himself. Still, with a career arc that seems to have taken a distinctly vertical turn as of late, this could be his year.

In the afterglow of his Golden Globe win last week, the Toronto-born Mr. Plummer is widely considered to be the front-runner in the hotly contested category that also includes Kenneth Branagh ( My Week with Marilyn), Jonah Hill ( Moneyball), Nick Nolte ( Warrior), and Max von Sydow (Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close). Reached on Tuesday at his home in Connecticut, Mr. Plummer admitted he hasn't seen all the films, but adds he knows most of his fellow nominees personally (with the exception of Mr. Hill, "who I hear is absolutely marvellous in Moneyball").

"I respect each and every one of them, and I'm just proud to be in their company," he added.

The great-grandson of Canadian prime minister Sir John Abbott – part of his Canadian clout – Mr. Plummer said he learned of his Oscar nomination from a friend who had the "audacity" to call him at the ungodly hour of 6:30 a.m. He refused to divulge the name of the well-meaning early bird caller, saying that "clearly they got their times wrong, but I won't disgrace them in public."

With a bit of a bad-boy past, Mr. Plummer credits marriage to his third wife, Elaine Taylor, with saving him from the bottle and reinvigorating his career – which includes his marathon performance in 2010, at the age of 80, in Stratford's The Tempest, one of the most challenging roles for any actor, let alone one whom some might have expected to be going gracefully into his twilight years.

Not Mr. Plummer. Not then. Not now, says the man who plans to work until he's no longer able to memorize the most complicated roles – like his slurred King Lear, which he made his own at Stratford 10 years ago, before it went on to critical acclaim at the Lincoln Centre in New York.

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Mr. Plummer almost didn't get chosen as part of the Stratford Shakespeare festival company during its first season in the early 1950s. His reputation was up and down, at best, due primarily to his propensity to party, as he has admitted in previous interviews. But he landed the part in Henry V, a role that kick-started his rocky journey as a beloved, if sometimes overlooked, classical actor.

Mr. Plummer has forged a career out of mixing things up, and he plans to return to Stratford this summer. It's a chance, he said, to go back to his roots as a stage performer. Not to mention, he said, the memorizing keeps his brain stimulated and ticking with the speed of a man half his age.

But rather than kick up his heels over his second Oscar nomination, the octogenarian said he planned to buckle down and do the prep work for the new one-man play, A Word or Two, he'll perform at Stratford this summer.

Mr. Plummer also refused to speculate on the likelihood of an Oscar win, adding, as he did in 2010, that "winning doesn't matter. To me, the honour is just being nominated."

His chances, however, of finally scooping an Oscar for his performance opposite Ewan McGregor (who plays his son, trying to come to grips with his father's death and homosexuality) seem strong, given the fact he's already taken home the top prize for best supporting actor from last week's Golden Globes, the Critics' Choice Awards, the Gotham Awards, the Hollywood Film Festival and the Toronto Film Critics Association. He's also been nominated by BAFTA, the Independent Spirit Awards and the Screen Actors Guild.

Mr. Plummer, who is the father of actress Amanda Plummer, calls his role as the ailing gay widower one of his favourite parts to date.

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"I love the character. He is generous, warm, and human. And there is no self pity in Mike's script at all. It was just so unsentimental, and really so honest. I've never had such a good time," he says.

And win or lose, Mr. Plummer said he's going into the Kodak Theatre on Feb. 26 with one goal in mind: to simply enjoy the moment. After all, he adds, he's too old to get nervous.

"Somebody's got to win, and whoever does, God bless him."

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