Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Appreciations: Christopher Plummer, Prince of Players

“No matter what I do between, the stage always beckons and gets me every time. I suppose it's because there are no tedious retakes, no endless waiting, no cutting-room floor upon which I can end up. Once on the stage, we are thrown to the lions, no barrier comes down between us and the mob; everything is exposed, dangerous and now."—Canadian Tony- and Oscar-winning actor Christopher Plummer (1929-2021), In Spite of Myself: A Memoir (2008)

The death this past weekend of Christopher Plummer at age 91 concluded a career lengthy and storied enough to land his passing on the front page of The New York Times.

Like Falstaff (the one role he scoffed at playing in his last years because it required a fat suit), Plummer had many a time “heard the chimes at midnight.” Indeed, it was nothing short of miraculous that he survived into his nineties.

Reading In Spite of Myself is likely to induce in a reader the worst case of drunkenness by osmosis since Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Plummer was such a champion hell-raiser that around 20 years ago, when I visited the place that thrust him into the spotlight in the 1950s, the Stratford Festival, one aficionado of the longtime Canadian theater institution was still shaking his head over a drinking binge by the actor from years before.

With his keen intelligence, matinee-idol looks, vigorous libido, and epic thirst, Plummer could have easily sunk into sodden self-parody as John Barrymore had. But he credited his third and last wife, Elaine, with curbing his wild ways, and he proceeded to do much of his best work well into old age.

Unlike, say, Nathan Lane, whom I blogged about last week, Plummer had a significant film career. Early on, he appeared in the most high-profile vehicle imaginable, the blockbuster musical The Sound of Music (which he insisted afterward on terming The Sound of Mucus).

Although he felt his role as Captain Von Trapp to be woefully wooden and thin, he found later parts far more suited to his talents, including in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King; a personal favorite of mine, the Sherlock Holmes thriller Murder by Decree; and three films that netted Oscar nominations, The Last Station, All the Money in the World, and Beginners (the last of which earned him the coveted trophy, at age 82, making him the oldest actor ever to win the Academy Award for supporting actor).

But it was the stage, with its audiences reacting, its rich classic texts by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Rostand and Shaw, and its never-to-be repeated moments, that clearly catalyzed Plummer. His transatlantic theater appearances were sensations.

Much to my regret, I missed Plummer on the three different times I visited Stratford in the 1990s and 2000s. But I caught him on Broadway in the winter of 1982, and it wasn’t just any play. It was Othello, a production of fire (James Earl Jones, as the Moor of Venice) and ice (Plummer, in perhaps the greatest of all villain roles, Iago).

New York Times critic Walter Kerr called Plummer’s Iago “quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time.” I was hardly prepared to argue that point. I barely noticed then an up-and-coming young actor named Kelsey Grammar as the easily gulled Cassio, and, despite the admiration of Jones and Plummer, had little use for Diane Wiest as Desdemona. Instead, I was intent on how Plummer’s Iago devised his intricate spider’s web to ensnare Jones’ Othello.

That February night, as Plummer let his resonant voice drop as Iago vowed to turn Desdemona’s “virtue into pitch,” the atmosphere in the Winter Garden Theatre turned darker and chillier than what awaited us on the street.

That production, which began at Connecticut’s American Shakespeare Theatre, was booked for a limited Broadway run but was so popular had to be extended twice. Nevertheless, all was not well backstage.

The problems began in initial rehearsals, according to Michael Riedel’s Singular Sensation: The Triumph of Broadway, when the original director, Peter Coe, was sacked, after his impolite suggestion to Jones that “Mr. Plummer is mopping the floor with you.” A new director, Zoe Caldwell, on good terms with both leads, dissipated much of the animosity, but the issue Coe identified remained: Plummer was, astonishingly enough, “mopping the floor” with Jones.

During the play's run, I heard scuttlebutt that Jones was annoyed by Plummer. In his memoir, Plummer, while praising his co-star’s “great authority” in the role, thought he had decided to “restrain and underplay the great moments of surging poetry.” Nor did it help that Jones objected to the unexpected laughs that Plummer elicited.

How much did this barely suppressed bristling reflect honest differences in interpreting the play? How much derived from the leads’ egos? In the end, it didn’t matter. Those like myself fortunate enough to witness one of those shows will remember how an old play took on new life amid this clash of theatrical titans.

Jones shouldn’t have felt badly about coming off second best to Plummer. Over 60 years in the theater, the Canadian channeled his flamboyance and astuteness into a well-earned reputation as an international prince of players. He brought to his craft an abiding love, realizing that acting had:

“…taught me music, poetry, painting and dance; it has introduced me to the big bad world outside; it has made me face rejection; it has taught me humour in its blackest and gentlest forms; it has made me think; it has even taught me about love. It has shown me the majesty of language, the written word in all its glory, and it has taught me above all that there is no such thing as perfection -- that in the arts, there are no rules, no restrictions, no limits -- only infinity."

(The photo accompanying this post shows Christopher Plummer at the 2007 Toronto International Film Festival, September 2007. Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdcgraphics/1752518829/in/set-72157602744288487/ ; author: gdcgraphics at https://www.flickr.com/photos/gdcgraphics/ )

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