Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Christopher Plummer: Good Night, Sweet Prince

I was a devoted fan of Christopher Plummer before I ever saw his work. It seems that while growing up I was one of those artsy kids who holed up in the local library and read plays I never expected to see on stage. One that enthralled me was J.B., a 1958 verse drama by Archibald MacLeish that spins out a modern-day version of the Book of Job inside a very allegorical circus tent. A character named Nickles (read: Old Nick) plays the Satanic role, and of course he has all the best lines. I figured any actor who could do justice to this magnificent part would hold me in thrall forever. What was that name again? Ah yes, Christopher Plummer.

 I never actually saw J.B. (which I suspect today might bore me to tears). I first laid eyes on Plummer in 1962 via my television set, playing the bravura role of Cyrano de Bergerac opposite Hope Lange’s Roxanne in a prestige production sponsored by the always reliable Hallmark Hall of Fame. Two years later, he was nominated for an Emmy after taking on the leading role in a televised BBC production of Hamlet, shot on location at Denmark’s actual Elsinore Castle. (The nearly three-hour event was called Hamlet at Elsinore.) By that point in his career, there was clearly no stopping Plummer, who moved with ease between stage, film, and television, starring in both classical and contemporary roles. I’m most intrigued by his work in Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1965). On Broadway, Plummer played Francisco Pizarro, the Spanish conqueror (and destroyer) of the Inca empire, opposite David Carradine as the mystical Peruvian lord Atahualpa. When this fascinating play about clashing cultures was transferred to the screen in 1969, Robert Shaw took the Pizarro role, while Plummer donned Atahualpa’s loincloth, beads, and feathers. (It clearly never occurred to anyone to find a genuine Latin American for the role.)

 Of course every obit I’ve seen since Plummer left us February 5 at the age of 91 has mentioned his portrayal of Captain Von Trapp in the 1965 film version of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, The Sound of Music. Plummer wasn’t much of a fan of this treacly material, and neither am I. (I wouldn’t, though, go as far as he apparently did in referring to this legendary smash hit as The Sound of Mucus.) I’d rather mention the lively character roles of his later years. He received his first Oscar nomination in 2009 for portraying the great novelist Tolstoy at the end of his life in The Last Station. He didn’t win then, but took home the golden statuette in 2012 for his supporting role as an elderly widower who boggles his grown children by taking a male lover. He was then 82, and the oldest Oscar winner of all time. (He was to be nominated again in 2017 for playing J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World.) I won’t soon forget how he anchored the delicious 2019 crime drama, Knives Out. Nor the entrancing one-man stage production in which he toured, celebrating the joys of the written word.

 Plummer’s role in Beginners has an ironic parallel to an Emmy-nominated performance by another great actor who died this past week. Hal Holbrook was most famous for his vivid lifelong impersonations of Mark Twain. But back in 1972 he starred in a then-daring made-for-television drama called That Certain Summer, about a divorced father who must reveal to his young son that he’s gay. Suddenly we’ve lost both men. Ironic, no? 





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