Depending on your age, you might have a particular image of Christopher Plummer perma-stuck in your brain.
He could be the commanding Third Reich-flag-ripping Captain von Trapp of The Sound of Music. He could be the adventure-seeking Rudyard Kipling of The Man Who Would Be King. He could be the sleazy Toronto psychopath of The Silent Partner. He could be the crumbling-under-corporate-pressure journalist Mike Wallace of The Insider. He could be Iago, Macbeth, King Lear. Or he could be the dastardly clever patriarch of a conniving clan of scoundrels in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – a description that also works for his role in Knives Out. And All the Money in the World, too.
For audiences, especially if you happen to be Canadian, your image of who Christopher Plummer was, of what he meant to the screen and the stage, might encompass all of the above. Which is perfectly fine, understandable and remarkable – and what makes the news of the actor’s death on Friday at the age of 91 so gutting. Here truly was a man for all seasons.
Plummer represented the kind of Hollywood legend we might not see again for some time, if ever. He was someone who appealed across the board. He was an artist whose appeal was unlimited. He could play the hero, the villain, the shady man who flits in-between such black-and-white roles. And we tended to root for him no matter what – anything that would enable us to keep enjoying, for just a few more minutes, the smooth confidence of a performer and storyteller who knew just what an effect he had on audiences.
Without the benefit of a college education or classical theatre training, the Toronto-born, Montreal-raised Plummer took to the boards early, making a name for himself on the strength of that intangible thing that transfixed us all: natural talent, and a killer look that whisper-screamed “just watch me.”
Anyone who has watched the films listed above – plus 12 Monkeys, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Inside Man, and Beginners, the movie that finally delivered him an Academy Award at the record-breaking age of 82 – knows just how well Plummer could dominate the frame. Just how naturally everyone’s attention pivoted to however he might deliver a line of dialogue (I guess the best adverb here might simply be “deliciously”) or contort his body just so to convey the gravity, or sometimes levity, of the situation.
Plummer’s gift for inherent captivation even helped the actor elevate a number of genre flicks that might, generously, be called curiosities. Which, for a stretch of the late eighties and nineties, made up much of his filmography: Mindfield, Red Blooded American Girl, Firehead, The Clown at Midnight, Hidden Agenda, Dracula 2000. You get the idea.
But those ventures can be easily swept under the rug when contrasted with his work on the stage during roughly the same period. Whether it was on Broadway in Othello opposite James Earl Jones, sparring with Jason Robards in Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, or the Tony Award-winning, Stratford Festival-originating phenomenon that was Barrymore, Plummer delivered on theatre’s inherent artistic promise: He built an entire imaginary world from the ground up every night, before tearing it down and starting anew the next show.
I still remember the time I was lucky enough to catch Plummer in the 2011 Toronto production of Barrymore, in which the actor played the self-destructive “clown prince” of the royal American acting family. While the cleverness of William Luce’s play might have worn off for me over the years, I cannot imagine ever forgetting how easily Plummer kept the audience in the palm of his hand the entire evening.
I suppose it was just the natural state of being for Plummer. Whatever he wanted from an audience, he got. And we were more than happy to offer ourselves, for however long he might have been available.
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