If some women can be said to have grown into their beauty, Christopher Plummer, as he was celebrated on film and in interview tribute last Saturday night at the Arlington Theatre, seems truly to have grown into his stately elegance. Or maybe it was a return to his roots.
From the beginning, this child of Canadian first families was, as he reminded us in somewhat awkward class-conscious reverse bragging, reaching down his whole life to the theater. His mother took him to everything cultural that came to Montreal, from Ballet Russes to crepes suzette, but he discovered the prolific world of the urban Canadien nightclub on his own, nursing beers (as a child if I understood him properly) reveling to the sight and sounds of “a young Judy Garland, a young Frank Sinatra; Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf, too. I stood there and watched these people singing to drunks in the dark and entertained them and I wondered how do they do that?” It’s not hard to imagine mummy displeased at the career choice calling him back then.
Host and interviewer Pete Hammond, a freelance critic who writes most frequently now for Deadline.com and has graced the pages of many Los Angeles-based publications, waltzed Plummer down memory lane; a place where he seems crazy-comfortable now telling stories from the Golden Age of live television like the time Lee Marvin’s horse crashed through a papier mache mountain. “And then he was so frightened he crapped,” reveled Plummer, who told an equally profanity-tipped tale about his own misadventure crashing through a fake fireplace making an entry on an improperly lit TV set. After the director yelled at him for coming through the set decoration, Plummer replied, “You’re fucking lucky I came through anything.”
If the talk was slightly ribald, the clips on the big screen were more grounded in either melodrama or somewhat goofy outrageousness. It was embarrassing to him, as is widely known, to be most memorably remembered as Sound of Music’s Captain Von Trapp. (“That movie has lived on,” said Hammond. “Oh yes it has,” replied Plummer in sarcastic, regretful chagrin.)
But he didn’t seem at all troubled in the wacky-mawkish scene screened of him sweeping a comatose Natalie Wood into his arms in Inside Daisy Clover, or, more spectacularly weird as a Mayan befeathered hunk as the preposterous-looking Atahualpa in The Royal Hunt of the Sun. (By the way, in the same year of 1969, he also played Lord Foppington in Lock Up Your Daughters!) But his sense of personal propriety did seem to be violated at times. “Isn’t this enough for the audience?” he begged plaintively at one point. “No!” was the loud reply “Well it is for me,” he quipped though it didn’t seem false modesty. During the course of the evening, Plummer proved himself an excellent mime of other actors, and, quite justly, his most remarkable clip, besides the truly soulful turn in Mike Mills’s Beginners, was his acid-tinged delivery as Mike Wallace in The Insider.
What really emerged in an evening of witty anecdotes — though some like a story of a cat in the mat seemed bizarre — was the sense that Plummer may not be overdue for an Oscar, as many seem to believe. Given the range of dorky roles, from Caesar to Klingon general, he seems overdue for the parts he is getting right now, and, therefore, maybe ripe for rewards now. In the end it was director Mike Mills who made the case for him best and obvious. Wondering aloud how Plummer had played Mills’ father so completely without having met him, “I realized he had spent his whole life wandering through the complex and contradictory human soul. So of course he could play my father.”