By Alan Hurst
Christopher Plummer was perhaps the pre-eminent Canadian actor of his generation, one of the great Shakespearean actors in North America and England and a bona fide movie star for more than 55 years, thanks to a little film called The Sound of Music (1965). He passed away on Friday, ending one of the longest, most honoured and sustained careers in entertainment.
Although film is where Plummer established himself as a household name, he began his career on stage and television in Canada, quickly moving to New York and England. He played Hamlet, Macbeth, Richard II, Mark Antony, Iago, and King Lear. He was a seven-time Tony nominee on Broadway and he won twice – in 1974 for a musical version of Cyrano and in 1996 for his portrayal of John Barrymore in Barrymore.
He was also an early participant in the live television dramas of the 1950’s and his IMDB list of credits includes multiple television appearances over the last 65 years, including seven Emmy nominations and two wins – for The Moneychangers (1977) and voice over work for The New Adventures of Madeline (1995). One of his more memorable television projects was Hamlet at Elsinore, an acclaimed 1964 special that was filmed at Kronborg Castle in Denmark, where the play is set.
But today’s audiences know him from his movies. His first was Sidney Lumet’s Stage Struck (1958) with Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg. His most recent film to hit theatres was the Knives Out (2019), a comical whodunit that was a major hit, with Plummer expertly playing a devious (and murdered) mystery writer, seen only in flashback.
Plummer, who had one of the great speaking voices of all time, played the gamut throughout the course of his film career – he could be romantic, funny, intimidating, evil, sly, obnoxious. You could never pigeonhole him, which is probably why he never entered the ranks of super stardom. He definitely had the looks, charisma and talent. But Plummer always shied away from truly embracing the stardom that was his after the juggernaut success of The Sound of Music. But that meant that he got to exercise and share his talent through a wide array of characters in roles both large and small.
Before we look at Plummer’s essential performances on film, a little more on The Sound of Music. Despite the film’s success, it’s Oscar for Best Picture and the fact that it’s a movie that gave – and still gives – a lot of people a lot of joy, Plummer hated it. He called it The Sound of Mucus in interviews and generally disparaged it for years afterward. But in recent years he did seem to soften, acknowledging that director Robert Wise did some wonderful things with the saccharine source material and sharing some heartfelt comments about his leading lady and friend, Julie Andrews.
I saw Plummer and Andrews interviewed before a 50th anniversary screening of The Sound of Music at the TCM Film Festival in 2015. They were a delight together – Plummer sharing stories of his bad boy behaviour on set (fueled by a lot of late night drinking) and Andrews talking about the logistical challenges of the film shoot. She prodded him to be a little more positive about the impact of the film, which he was. They were like an old married couple – he was the kind curmudgeon, she the gracious host. The two worked together a few times in their later careers. They did a live TV production of On Golden Pond (2001) and they were the hosts of a touring Christmas extravaganza – A Royal Christmas – in 2002-03.
After The Sound of Music, audiences saw him again that year in an effective performance in Inside Daisy Clover (1965), but it was 10 years before we saw Plummer in a role worthy of his talents. He played Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s wonderful The Man Who Would Be King (1975) – one of the great adventure films of all time – and it seemed to allow Plummer to transition to an effective hybrid of leading man and character actor that served him well over the next 45 years.
Interestingly, Plummer saw his greatest acclaim as a film actor in the last 20 or so years of his life. He got terrific reviews for his work as reporter Mike Wallace in The Insider (1999). Although he figured prominently in year-end awards, he didn’t get the Oscar nomination (and win) he deserved. His first nomination came for The Last Station (2009) and he finally won his Oscar in 2012 for Beginners (2011), both superb performances. His final nomination was for playing J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World (2017).
These are Christopher Plummer’s essential film performances:
- The Sound of Music (1965): Plummer as the dour, stern, widowed father of seven children whose life is given meaning again when he falls in love with their governess, Julie Andrews. Although this is Andrews’ movie all the way, she and Plummer have definite chemistry and his cool detached performance helps ground the film.
- Inside Daisy Cover (1965): A Hollywood based movie that tells the story of a talented young girl (Natalie Wood) and the hazards of stardom. Plummer plays a studio head controlling Wood’s career and he’s effectively unlikable and sleazy. The movie isn’t very good, but Plummer makes it interesting.
- The Man Who Would Be King (1975): A rollicking adventure that focuses more on Michael Caine and Sean Connery, but Plummer is excellent as the young Rudyard Kipling, who helps frame the story as a reporter.
- The Silent Partner (1978): One of the best Canadian films of the decade, this heist drama features Plummer as a psychotic bank robber, and it is probably his most malevolently evil performance. Plummer’s quiet approach to the character makes him all the more terrifying.
- Murder by Decree (1979): Aside from Basil Rathbone, Plummer may just be screen’s most effective Sherlock Holmes in another acclaimed Canadian film. Plummer is joined by James Mason as Watson in a search for Jack the Ripper. Hugely entertaining.
- The Insider (1999): Russell Crowe plays a tobacco executive who appears on 60 Minutes and says tobacco companies knew their product was deadly. Plummer plays real life reporter Mike Wallace, nailing his arrogance, his mannerisms and his unique approach to interviewing. An excellent performance and film.
- The Last Station (2009): Plummer plays writer Leo Tolstoy in the final years of this life. It’s a grand, larger than life performance in a film that focuses more on this wife (Helen Mirren) and her attempts to secure her husband’s legacy. This was Plummer’s first Oscar nomination.
- Beginners (2011): A beautiful performance from Plummer as an older man who comes out as gay after the death of his wife and forges a closer relationship with his son (Ewan McGregor). A feel-good movie, this is also one of Plummer’s most joyous performances. Plummer became the oldest actor to win an Oscar with this movie. The award was well-deserved.
- Barrymore (2011): Basically a filmed version of Plummer’s Tony winning performance as actor John Barrymore, we get to see what Plummer was like on stage in all his commanding glory.
- All the Money in the World (2017): This one had a troubled history, with Plummer being cast as a replacement for disgraced Kevin Spacey in the part of J. Paul Getty. Again, Plummer comes through with a terrific performance as the aged millionaire, who refused to cooperate with the kidnappers of his grandson. His final Oscar nomination.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.