Christopher Plummer, “a monument of what an actor could be.” 1929-2021

Maybe it’s a sign of how stressful and infuriating the last few years have been. But a lot of 90something legends of the screen, the last of their generation, are passing away in a torrent in the last of January and first of February.

It was as if Cicely and Hal and Cloris and now Christopher Plummer were waiting, holding on a little longer.

Plummer lived through a life-changing blockbuster, a movie he ridiculed for decades as “S & M” (“The Sound of Music”), endured fallow years because of that type-casting.

And then, damned if he didn’t stage one of the great Third Act comebacks in screen history. He was the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar, collected Tonys and Emmys, too.

He was, as Helen Mitten put it today, “a monument to what an actor could be.”

“Beginners” wasn’t the beginning of it (2010), but “National Treasure,” “Inside Man,” “Syriana,” “The Last Station,” “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus” — he replaced Kevin Spacey, literally in “All the Money in the World,” played Mike Wallace and his idol, “Barrymore,” and his last on screen appearance was a genuine show stopper — “Knives Out!”

Read his credits and mutter “DAMN.” I know I did. He played the chaplain in “Malcolm X!”

Loved him in almost everything he appeared in, even “S&M,” but especially in “The Battle of Britain,” “Aces High,” “Nicholas Nickleby” and “The Man Who Would Be King.”

Hell, if you ever channel surf and spy “Desperate Voyage,” a TV movie from the late 70s, STOP. He plays the hell out of a modern day Gulf pirate.

I interviewed him about a one-man show he brought to one city where I lived. Intimidated, because I knew his rep. And he was all fun and anecdotes. Chatted with him when his memoirs came out.

And he was more than happy to chat about His Time Has Come, as the Oscar favorite for “Beginners” back in 2010. Yes, he won. Here’s the story I wrote from that chat.

One of a kind…

OSCAR NIGHT is FINGERS CROSSED NIGHT for Christopher Plummer

It’s all coming late for Christopher Plummer — the acclaim, the glowing reviews, though he has earned a few of those over the years. But rarely like the ones the 80-year-old actor is winning for his performance as Count Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station.

“Delightful” and “ribald,” raved The Boston Globe. “Big and generous” added The San Francisco Chronicle. “If enough Academy viewers” see the performance, opined Carrie Rickey of The Philadelphia Inquirer, “surely” he’d win the Oscar.

Yes, he has an Oscar nomination, his first, correcting what Plummer’s Internet Movie Database biographer calls the injustice of “arguably the finest actor of the post- World War II period never to be nominated for an Academy Award.”

“I am so thrilled to be so honored at this stage in life,” Plummer says. But he’s also read the tea leaves, which have him as the underdog and point to Christoph Waltz taking the best supporting actor Oscar.

“Plainly, the prize is being nominated,” he says. “Somebody always has to win, of course. But that’s not the point. You can’t compare five performances in any of these categories. They’re all so different. So being honored as one of the five is to me the prize.”

Plummer is a starring voice in Pixar’s Oscar nominated Up. He had the title role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But the once-and-always Capt. Von Trapp from the movie he still playfully calls “S & M” ( The Sound of Music) says he’s most at home portraying real people — be they TV interviewer Mike Wallace (The Insider), lawyer F. Lee Bailey (American Tragedy) or another captain, Capt. Christopher Newport (The New World). And he predicted back in 2008 when we spoke about his memoir, In Spite of Myself, that The Last Station would be special.

“There has never been anything done on Tolstoy, theatrically or in the movies,” Plummer says. “It’s new ground, a new character from history for the movies to consider. I was sure it would create a stir.”

Like a lot of people, Plummer knew the literary Tolstoy. “I knew the history, the Russia he wrote about. But not much at all about Tolstoy the man. There isn’t but so much you can research on the man, though there is film of him, amazingly, from that last year of his life. Wonderful home-movies of the author of War and Peace! Imagine! There’s no sound, but the man is there, I think, even if I can’t tell what he really sounded like.

“I found my best resource was his letters. They really showed how he pioneered this idea of a more humane Russia, a humanitarian nation, a purer form of Christian communism that he had in mind. That’s the Tolstoy I had to play.”

Plummer says that he and the cast of the film — Oscar nominee Helen Mirren plays an overwrought Countess Tolstoy, with Paul Giamatti and James McAvoy in support — “all had enough Chekhov [plays] in our backgrounds to be right at home in that milieu.

“The big difference between being a character in a Chekhov play and Leo Tolstoy is that Tolstoy was every inch the rock star. He was followed, hunted by his fans, the press, hundreds of people everywhere he went. It was just insane. Paparazzi in Czarist Russia!”

Plummer took into account how “the marvelous, unforgettable Helen Mirren” played the Countess — loud and shrill — and pitched his own performance accordingly. “I think the only way to play a genius of any kind is to make him as unassuming as possible. I’m sure Tolstoy never felt the need to push his genius. If he knew he had it, he chose to wear it under a modest persona and was as unassuming as a man of his stature can be.”

Plummer will follow his latest screen triumph the way he has always followed his film performances — with a return to the stage.

“I’m doing Prospero, next, up at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, back in Canada,” the Canadian Plummer says. “We’ll take our production of The Tempest from there to China and then London.

“I hope it works, but we start rehearsing in April. So I’ll soon find out. Never played Prospero before. But you’re always learning in our profession. Learning about Tolstoy or about Shakespeare’s great wizard. The irony is that Helen Mirren has just played Prospero herself, for God’s sake, in a new film of The Tempest. I teased her about it terribly. I told her, ‘If yours works, then I’m wearing a dress!’ “”

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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