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Cinema

Christopher Plummer Got a Third Act Worth Singing about

February 6, 2021

It's one of the great Hollywood ironies that Christopher Plummer didn't like the film that made him a legend. He was an actor's actor and had cut his teeth doing Shakespeare. "The Sound of Music," he thought, was sentimental shlock. And he wasn't alone — reviews at the time were famously terrible. Then, like a personal curse, it would go on to become a universally beloved classic. He'd played Henry V and Hamlet and yet Captain von Trapp, he said in 1982, followed him around "like an albatross."

But even Plummer, who died Friday at the age of 91, lived long enough to soften a bit. And why wouldn't he? He also got to enjoy something that so few actors do: A genuine third act with terrific roles as "60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace in Michael Mann's "The Insider," a widower who comes out later in life in Mike Mills' "Beginners" and, most recently, a slain mystery writer in Rian Johnson's whodunnit "Knives Out." He got three Academy Award nominations in one decade and, at age 82, would become the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar (for "Beginners"). He still holds that title.

"You're only two years older than me, darling. Where have you been all my life?" he said to his Oscar in 2012. "When I first emerged from my mother's womb, I was already rehearsing my Academy thank you speech. But it was so long ago, mercifully for you I've forgotten it."

Dapper and dashing with an aristocratic air, Plummer could have been a leading man without the talent. With it he was a star with a character actor's spirit, which he later would attribute his longevity to.

"I'm thrilled that I turned into a character actor quite early on. I hated being a poncey leading man," he told Vanity Fair in 2015. "You really start to worry about your jawline. Please."

Born in Toronto in 1929, Plummer was the great grandson of Canadian Prime Minister John Abbott and fell for the theater at a young age. Classically trained, he was a self-proclaimed snob about the stage and resisted the allure of the big screen for a time. As if to prove his own point, his first few films are not well-remembered. Then came "The Sound of Music." It didn't help that he got the added blow that his singing voice was going to be dubbed in the final film.

"The only reason I did this bloody thing was so I could do a musical on stage on film!" he said. But he did get a lifelong friendship with Julie Andrews out of the deal.

He retreated to the theater for a time, which would be a refrain through his life. He won Tony Awards for Cyrano and Barrymore and would even get to go back to Shakespeare, as King Lear, later in life.

Over his six-decade career, his screen credits would prove wildly diverse. He was in "Malcolm X" and "Must Love Dogs." He was a Klingon in a "Star Trek" and Tolstoy in "The Last Station," Rudyard Kipling in "The Man Who Would Be King" and Captain Newport in "The New World."

"For a long time, I accepted parts that took me to attractive places in the world. Rather than shooting in the Bronx, I would rather go to the south of France, crazed creature than I am," he told The Associated Press in 2007. "I sacrificed a lot of my career for nicer hotels and more attractive beaches."

Plummer was also a legendary "hard-fisted" drinker, alongside similarly inclined friends like Jason Robards, Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole.

"Our intention was that we should be if were to be called men. We must drink as much as we can. And if we can still get through Hamlet the next day without a hitch, that made you a man, my son," he told Terry Gross in 2008. "You weren't worth anything unless you could."

A little Fernet-Branca laced with creme de menthe was his preferred "pick me up" before going on stage after an especially heavy night. But, he warned, stick to one. Two or three and "you're drunk again."

He slowed down in later years and would write about his own antics in his acclaimed memoir "In Spite of Myself." Plummer had decided that he was going to "keep crackin'" since "retirement in any profession is death." And he did, marking his turn in "The Insider," from 1999, as a turning point.

"Then the scripts improved. I was upgraded! Since then, they've been first-class scripts," he told the AP at the time. "Not all successful, but worth doing."

In 2017 in the thick of the first #MeToo revelations, he made headlines when he replaced a disgraced Kevin Spacey as J. Paul Getty in Ridley Scott's "All the Money in the World" just six weeks before the film was set to hit theaters. Not only did the rush recall the energy of the theater for him, it also proved professionally fruitful: The role got him his third Oscar nomination.

And although he retained some of that charming arrogance to the end, Plummer was also a man capable of evolving, even about "The Sound of Music."

"As cynical as I always was about 'The Sound of Music,'" Plummer told Vanity Fair, "I do respect that it is a bit of relief from all the gunfire and car chases you see these days. It's sort of wonderfully, old-fashionedly universal."

Plummer entered his 80s worried about what he'd be able to accomplish, but a few years in he had put those worries aside.

"I'm enjoying myself very much. And in my 80s, I had another career. I'm very happy about that. It's gone better than most other decades have," he said in 2018. "I played everything in the theater. I still would like to do something else in the theater, of course. But I've played all the great parts. And not too shabbily. Now I want the same great parts, if I can, on the screen. And so far, yes. I've played marvelous characters."

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