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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.”

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