From ‘Sound of Music’ to ‘All the Money …,’ Christopher Plummer was irreplaceable
Every great actor should be fortunate enough to become an internet meme in their 80s. Christopher Plummer, who died Friday at 91, experienced his own late-in-life social-media anointing at least twice over.
There was the oft-recurring GIF of Capt. von Trapp in “The Sound of Music,” Plummer’s best-known and most inescapable role, tearing a Third Reich flag in two — an image that has become handy Twitter shorthand for anti-neo-Nazi resistance over the past few years. That quick single shot is a marvelous bit of acting in itself: You can’t help but notice Plummer’s ramrod-straight military-man posture or the tight-lipped expression playing on his handsome face, a grimace teetering on the edge of a smile. And then, of course, there are those two swift, satisfying rips right down the middle of the swastika. (He really puts his arms into it.)
Another Plummer meme caught fire in 2017, not long after news broke that in the wake of sexual-abuse allegations against Kevin Spacey, his scenes as billionaire J. Paul Getty in “All the Money in the World” would be completely reshot, with Plummer replacing him. It was an extraordinary down-to-the-wire decision, a major recasting made unprecedentedly close to the film’s release, and it turned this fact-based kidnapping drama into a kind of behind-the-scenes Hollywood escape thriller. Arguably more exciting than anything in the movie’s suspense-soaked narrative was the spectacle of two reliable old pros, Plummer and director Ridley Scott, working with an energy, speed and high-wire daring that artists half their age would be hard-pressed to muster.
From that point on, of course, that audacious and entirely successful stunt became a reliable online running gag. Suddenly, almost every plum role was in danger of becoming a Plummer role: Whoever needed replacing, for reasons scandalous or benign, Christopher Plummer, acting genius and octogenarian workhorse, was your man. Some at the time puzzled over the ethics of the “All the Money in the World” solution, the dubious ease with which a toxic figure could be erased from the frame, leaving behind no visible residue of scandal or guilt. The aesthetics, though, were beyond reproach: Plummer was, of course, magnificent in the movie. Magnificence by then had become his trademark. To watch him as Getty — a figure of reptilian malevolence and cunning, the hollowness of greed made flesh — was to wonder how anyone else could have been considered in the first place.
The Canadian-born Plummer began his career in theater and television, but his talent for scene-stealing villainy was clear in one of his earliest pictures, “The Fall of the Roman Empire” (1964), in which he made a madly eccentric Commodus, consumed by the blaze of his own political destruction. He was Jane Seymour’s domineering manager in “Somewhere in Time” (1981) and the Klingon General Chang (“Cry havoc!”) in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991). His high voice and schoolmaster’s diction made him a uniquely mellifluous antagonist, especially in animated productions; not for nothing was he cast as the voice of the sinister Barnaby Crookedman in 1997’s direct-to-video “Babes in Toyland” and scheming explorer Charles Muntz in “Up” (2009).
But if Plummer possessed one of cinema’s most memorable smirks, he could also vanish into cooler, more complicated figures — men who, like Getty, were defined by a deep inner chill, a power to mesmerize the viewer without making any demands of their affection. He gave one of his finest performances in Michael Mann’s “The Insider” (1999), eerily reproducing the famed mannerisms of veteran CBS News journalist Mike Wallace while also granting more private, explosive glimpses of a large and easily wounded ego. And although he was markedly warmer as Leo Tolstoy in “The Last Station,” maddening fits of self-absorption were also central to that grandly boisterous turn, which earned him the first of three Oscar nominations (all for best supporting actor).
That Plummer didn’t receive the motion picture academy’s formal recognition until he was 80 — well after winning two Tonys and two Emmys and more than 50 years after his big-screen debut in Sidney Lumet’s “Stage Struck” (1958) — is a testament to the Oscars’ history of screwy, often-arbitrary judgment. But it’s also a heartening sign of the resurgence Plummer experienced during what is often euphemistically described as a performer’s twilight years. (He remains the academy’s oldest acting winner, at 82, for “Beginners,” and its oldest acting nominee, at 88, for “All the Money in the World.”) You could say he finally hit his stride, though I suspect it was really the other way around; it was the industry, perhaps even the audience, that at last found its footing, that properly appreciated him for the treasure he’d been all along.
Plummer won the Oscar and a raft of other valedictory prizes for his deeply felt performance in Mike Mills’ memory piece “Beginners” (2011), a movie about the potential vibrancy and vitality of old age. Playing a lonely father and widower who comes out as gay at the age of 75, fully embracing a life of new loves, friendships and heartaches, Plummer did some of the loveliest, most nakedly emotional work of his career. It was a beautiful change of pace, though the signature rascally wit was still very much in evidence, the impishness and irascibility that made him such an ideal fit for “Knives Out” (2019), one of his last major films. Who better suited to play a wily multimillionaire with a steel-trap mind, a twinkle in his eyes and an unexpectedly tender heart — a scoundrel and a softie rolled into one?
That wasn’t the first time that Plummer played a wealthy paterfamilias who regards his many offspring with frosty contempt. Capt. von Trapp comes around in the end, of course, and apparently, Plummer did eventually, though it took him awhile. Much has been reported over the years about how “The Sound of Music” was very far from one of his favorite things, to the point where Plummer may well have wished that he could have been erased and replaced (though not by himself). Stories of his grumpiness on the set are legion: his dislike of “Edelweiss,” his initial dislike of Julie Andrews (they eventually became close friends) and his complaints about having to carry Kym Karath, the actress who played the young Gretl von Trapp, during the movie’s Alps-crossing finale. (A lighter double was used instead.)
Not to suggest that Plummer had no pride in the project, or at least in his own work: The director, Robert Wise, spoke later in interviews about how delicately Plummer had to be persuaded to have his singing dubbed in the movie because his voice — though one of his great gifts as an actor — wasn’t up to snuff musically. In later years, Plummer responded to questions about “The Sound of Music” with amused resignation, grudgingly accepting that his legacy was forever tied to one of the biggest and most beloved cash cows in Hollywood history, doubtless realizing it would be the first title mentioned in obituaries and appreciations like this one.
In any case, as Andrews and others pointed out years later, Plummer’s utter contempt for the material could only have improved his performance. “The Sound of Music” — or “The Sound of Mucus,” as he legendarily called it — is total treacle, as many of us who love it unabashedly and watch it semi-religiously have long acknowledged. And Plummer’s aloofness, his disdain for the movie’s sugary sentimentality, doesn’t just match his character’s own initial hardness of heart. It dovetails with the audience’s own initial skepticism, at least up to a point: Roll your eyes at it if you must, but you, like Capt. von Trapp, will ultimately be worn down, steamrolled by the movie’s uplift offensive.
“The Sound of Music” overshadowed Plummer’s screen work for years , despite bright spots like “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975), in which he played a memorably mustachioed Rudyard Kipling. It also ensured his big-screen immortality. Capt. von Trapp’s defiance of Hitler made him an instantly iconic hero (no wonder Plummer preferred his villains), while his immaculate tailoring and disciplinarian temperament made him the most wholesome of sex symbols. To watch the movie again — and you know you will, sooner than you think — is to glimpse a quality evident in so many of Plummer’s great performances: a disarming sense of mischief, an ability to fully inhabit the material and stand, with a wink, outside it. He was an actor to whom you never wanted to sing, “So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehn, goodbye” — any more than he wanted to hear it.
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