Lifetime Achiever

By Kay Kipling Photography by Matt Carr/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images April 1, 2011

Plummer stars in the festival’s closing night film, Beginners. It’s about “a wonderful character,” he says, a man who comes out of the closet at 75.

Christopher Plummer, the Cinema Master Award honoree at this month’s Sarasota Film Festival, has had a long and distinguished career in acting. But it’s a career that almost didn’t happen.The Canadian-born Plummer actually began his life in the arts as a pianist. “I love music above all in life,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “But being a rather lazy young man to whom things came too easily, I opted out because being a concert pianist is such a hard life. Acting is a friendly profession. You bounce off other people. It’s not the lonely life of a concert pianist.”

The concert hall’s loss has been the theater and screen’s gain. Over the nearly 60 years since he began his career in his native Montreal (performing on stage and radio in both French and English), Plummer has essayed a host of award-winning roles, from Shakespearean dramas to the stage musical Cyrano to films including Murder by Decree, Somewhere in Time, Malcom X, The Insider (where he played veteran television journalist Mike Wallace), A Beautiful Mind, and of course, the part for which generations of children remember him, Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1965.

That’s widely known as one of Plummer’s least favorite films (he reportedly called it “The Sound of Mucus” at one point), but he’s mellowed over the years, saying in a 2009 interview, “It was a very well-made movie…a family movie…It just happened to be not my particular cup of tea.”

Fonder memories of acting, he says, include early performances in plays like Becket. “I did a Royal Shakespeare Company production of that, playing Henry II, that went to London, and it was a wonderful experience,” he recalls. Another favorite: “We did a marvelous production in 1956 at Stratford in Canada of Henry V, where I played the young king and the whole French court was played from actors from Quebec. That was an extraordinary thing at that time, politically. The two different styles of acting on the stage…it was absolutely the right thing to do.” Plummer’s prowess at playing Shakespeare, was, he says, “particularly satisfying” when on the British stage. “You know, they [the British] didn’t think a North American could play Shakespeare,” he says with a chuckle. “I fixed that.”

Among the other Shakespearean roles he’s played over the decades: Hamlet, Iago, King Lear and Prospero in The Tempest, the latter just last year at Canada’s Stratford Festival. At the age of 81 (but looking far younger), Plummer says he doesn’t struggle with memorizing all that Shakespearean dialogue. “I’m still blessed that way, because I do it,” he says. “Most people who succumb to memory loss are not exercising their brains enough. But Shakespeare is actually much easier to remember than modern dialogue, which is so puerile most of the time. Shakespeare is like remembering a symphony. And I’ve always loved poetry. All my life has been words.”

From the outset, Plummer adds, he’s been fortunate to work with some great directors, such as Tyrone Guthrie and Elia Kazan, with whom he did a memorable production of Archibald MacLeish’s version of the Book of Job, J.B., on Broadway. Still—regrets, he’s had a few.

“I worked on Oedipus with Orson Welles, whom I loved terribly,” he says. “And we were to work on Julius Caesar together, where I would play Mark Antony. He would have been a great Caesar. But the problem was, he used to pitch all his ideas himself, and he’d lose his temper by the end of a meeting and start calling his would-be backers a lot of philistines and all that. So the funding would always dry up. But he was a great character.”

Another director he’d love to have worked with: “Stanley Kubrick. But only once, because it would have taken so long.” (Kubrick was famous for spending years on his films.)

Plummer did recently play Caesar himself, although it was in George Bernard Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra. “I loved doing it,” he says. “It was so much funnier than I thought it would be—sparkling and witty and not at all old-fashioned.”

Away from the stage and screen, Plummer has also proven himself as a writer, both with a one-man show and on collaborations with Sir Neville Marriner on a William Walton concert piece featuring speeches from Henry V (he’ll be performing that piece again soon with the New York Philharmonic) and an adaptation of Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But a bigger challenge came when a Canadian publisher approached him about writing his memoir.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you write a story,’ and I said, ‘Oh, God, how awful.’ But he told me, ‘Your family has such a history in this country.’ [Plummer’s great-grandfather was Canadian Prime Minister Sir John Abbott, and his father was secretary to the Dean of Sciences at McGill University.] So I realized I could write about the people I’ve been influenced by, including my own family. That way it wouldn’t be just me, me, me, but more them, them, them. I loved writing it.” The memoir, In Spite of Myself, was published in this country in 2008 to much acclaim. “I broke the ice with it,” says Plummer, “and now I think I may write something else.”

In the meantime, of course, he remains busy with film and stage work. The movie in which he appears at the Sarasota Film Festival is the closing night film Beginners, and Plummer says he found the script “instantly charming and enchanting. It’s witty, funny, and kind of silly.” It’s also a true story, based on writer/director Mike Mills’ own experience when his father (played by Plummer), following 44 years of marriage, came out of the closet at age 75. “He’s making a sort of youthful discovery, and it throws everything in his family off kilter,” Plummer says. “He’s a wonderful character, and it’s only the second time I’ve ever played a gay character. The first was in The Shadow Box with Joanne Woodward, and that was much more serious, about people facing cancer.”

Plummer, like his character in Beginners, has been married more than 40 years now (to third wife Elaine Taylor). His first two marriages ended in divorce; he and first wife Tammy Grimes had a daughter, actress Amanda Plummer.

Other work coming soon from Plummer includes the Hollywood version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (based on the Stieg Larsson bestseller), in which he plays the family patriarch searching for his long-lost daughter. But he won’t talk about any project that’s not well under way. “I never do, because I think it’s bad luck,” he says. “So often the funding goes down the toilet.”

When we spoke, Plummer was in Toronto, shivering in frigid temperatures. “I can’t wait to come to Florida,” he said. “I’ve never been to Sarasota before, but I have friends who live there, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.”

And although the actor already has a shelf full of awards (including two Tonys and two Emmys) and, with 2009’s The Last Station, a long overdue Oscar nomination, he says that he’s “thrilled and honored about the award” he’s receiving here. “It’s an important film festival, and I know Sarasota has a strong cultural feel to it.”

Fest Facts

Pinning down every detail of the Sarasota Film Festival, which takes place April 7-17 this year, is always a last-minute affair. As SFF president Mark Famiglio puts it, “You’re juggling 12 balls, and five of them may fall down.”

But we did have some preliminary information at press time about festival events. Famiglio says last year’s inaugural Investor’s Lab, which draws together potential investors and filmmakers to make deals, may return in some form this year. He also says the international films directed by women that were presented in partnership last year with UNIFEM will be back in stronger presence than ever, as will documentaries in general.

A number of those documentaries have strong local connections, including The Secret World of Recovery, by writer/producer Leslie Glass (see the February issue of Sarasota Magazine for more on that) and Through the Tunnel, the story of the last class to attend Palmetto’s Lincoln Memorial High before integration, which has already won an award at a documentary festival in Miami. Famiglio says submissions to the festival, overall, were way up from previous years.

Also returning will be “The Conversations Series,” bringing together artists and audiences in more intimate

settings (that means Geena Davis at Sarasota High; Plummer at the Sarasota Opera House).

The festival’s opening night film will be Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times, a behind-the-scenes look at the famed newspaper’s role in a changing world; reporters David Carr and Brian Stelter and director Andrew Rossi will guest. Award-winning film documentarian Errol Morris’ latest, Tabloid, a story of love, abduction and a life on the run, should be another festival highlight.

Stay up to date by checking, or call 364-9514 for ticket info.

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