The Many Lives of Christopher Plummer

Six landmark performances from a legendary actor

The Many Lives of Christopher Plummer

Written by Peter Bowen

In Bharat Nalluri’s The Man Who Invented Christmas, Christopher Plummer plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the legendary miser that Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) conjured up in his imagination while writing A Christmas Carol. In this magical exploration of how the great novelist came to write his holiday classic, Scrooge is less the hero of his own story and more a character in Dickens’ creative life. Plummer’s Scrooge taunts and teases the writer, pushing him to become the man he dreams of becoming by showing him a vision of all that he deplores. “It’s a quiet and tense Scrooge with very funny moments,” notes executive producer Paula Mazur. “Chris found a way to make him Dickens’ alter ego, the part of Dickens that he disliked about himself.” Plummer, who over his more than six decades of acting has played everyone from Santa Claus to Sherlock Holmes, cherished the opportunity. “When I was asked if I would be in it, I said damn right I will,” exclaims Plummer. “I’ve played so many of the great parts, but never Scrooge. It seems like an obvious follow up to King Lear.” We look at some of the other great characters Plummer has brought to the screen.

Giving The Sound of Music a darker tone

In Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, Christopher Plummer plays Captain Von Trapp, the widower father of seven singing siblings who falls for Julie Andrews' ebullient nun-turned-nanny Maria in the days before the Anschluss. While the film became a box office hit—shortly reigning as the highest grossing film of all time––and made Plummer a bonafide movie star, the Canadian-born actor made no secret of his contempt for the saccharine story line and syrupy songs. On set, he often jokingly referred to it as the Sound of Mucus. Yet despite––or perhaps because of––his less-than-sunny take on the material, Plummer brought a depth to the character and story that in many ways helped make the musical the classic it is today. In The Sound of Music Story, Tom Santopietro recounts how Plummer, who accepted the role out of his deep respect for the director, gave Wise a sort of acting ultimatum. “As long as Von Trapp remains extremely severe, clipped in speech, and relentless throughout the major part of the film,” he explained, “then, and only then, can the sentimental scenes, when they come, be played to their fullest without embarrassment.” Years later, the screenwriter Ernest Lehman thanked Plummer for his interference, noting, “One of the reasons he’s so good in the picture and the picture itself is so good is that he forced me to write his scenes well.”

Anchoring The Man Who Would Be King

Michael Caine, Plummer and Sean Connery in [em]The Man Who Would Be King[/em]

For John Huston’s 1975 adaptation Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, Christopher Plummer was cast as Kipling himself, a pivotal character who bookends the perilous fable of two scoundrels (Sean Connery and Michael Caine) who travel to a remote region of Afghanistan to con the native population into accepting them as gods and rulers. Plummer, who’d become a movie star with The Sound of Music, yearned for more complex roles. “That was my first change into a character actor,” Plummer tells Entertainment Weekly. “Some of the best written parts in every project are the character roles, so suddenly I shed my bloody boring leading-man type roles and enjoyed myself thoroughly in a new career.” For The New York Times, Plummer “gives the film weight in the role of the young Rudyard Kipling.” His pitch-perfect performance stirred generations of actors and filmmakers to come. The Man Who Invented Christmas director Bharat Nalluri acknowledges that he’d wanted to work with Plummer since he saw The Man Who Would Be King at age 12––“it was very special.”

Finding the truth of a famous journalist in The Insider

In 1999, Christopher Plummer accepted the delicate job of playing a still living legend, journalist Mike Wallace, in Michael Mann’s The Insider. The film recounts the thwarted attempt of 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) to get the story of Big Tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) on the air. As Wallace, Plummer explores the many facets of the famous newsman whose ego may have stood in the way of getting the truth out. Plummer knew this character even before he was cast. “I didn’t have to do a lot of research because I’d watched Mike Wallace on television when I was a kid,” Plummer told the AV Club, “when he was the angry young man of television.” Wallace, who’d once interviewed the actor for radio, was thrilled at the casting choice. “I can’t think of anybody better than Chris Plummer,” he told The New York Post. Critics and audience members were in complete agreement. Rolling Stone called his performance “a stunningly accomplished portrayal that takes measure of the talent and ego driving this veteran newsman.”

Illuminating the dark side of Nicholas Nickleby

In Douglas McGrath’s 2002 adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickleby, Christopher Plummer shines as the dark Uncle Ralph, the sinister relative who returns kindness with cruelty in his dealings with his nephew and family. In bringing the sprawling novel to the screen, McGrath structures his tale around the conflict between the generosity of young Nicholas (Charlie Hunnam) and the hard-heartedness of his Uncle Ralph. As in much of Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby is populated by a world of fascinating characters, brought to life by such talented actors as Nathan Lane, Jim Broadbent, Jamie Bell, Anne Hathaway and more. For Variety, however, “the standout performance arguably is Plummer’s, his cold aloofness and absolute indifference to the needs or feelings of others masterfully peeled away to expose a potent sense of the man’s tragic emotional hollowness.”

Making a giant of literature human in The Last Station

In 2010, Christopher Plummer received his first Academy Award nomination for playing Leo Tolstoy in Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station, a historical drama that chronicles the last years of the literary lion’s career as his disciples do battle with his wife Sofya (Helen Mirren) over the writer’s estate. Over the years, Plummer has demonstrated a singular talent for bringing to life great historical and artistic figures––playing Aristotle in Alexander (2004), Vladimir Nabokov in Nabokov on Kafka (1989), Alfred Stieglitz in A Marriage: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz (1991), and Franklin D. Roosevelt in Winchell (1998). In casting the film, producer Jens Meurer immediately identified how Plummer makes such legends human. “He doesn’t declare, ‘this is a great thespian playing a great writer.’ He simply makes it very real.” For the Boston Globe, “Plummer is so serene an actor by now that he can intertwine the saintliness and goatishness of Lev Nikolayevich without strain.”

Forever Young in Beginners

In 2012, an 82-year-old Christopher Plummer made history by becoming the oldest actor to win an Academy Award for his performance in Mike Mills’ pseudo-autobiographical Beginners. In putting the film together, Mills cast Ewan McGregor to play the graphic designer who moves back and forth between falling in love with a French actress (Mélanie Laurent) and dealing with his aging dad, Hal, who’d just come out as gay. Needing an actor who could not only pass as McGregor’s father but expertly navigate the range of emotions required of the part, from falling in love to accepting death, the filmmaker reached out to Plummer. “Christopher just liked the character,” Mills remembers. “He didn’t care that it was personal. He didn’t care if he was gay or straight. He liked the struggle; he liked the humor; he liked that there was no self-pity.” Sticking closely to Hal’s personal, sometimes prickly, perspective on the world, Plummer created one of the most vibrant characters of recent time. For Rolling Stone, “a never-better Plummer is simply stupendous, refusing any call to sentiment as he shows us Hal's resonant lunge at life.”

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