Before finally breaking through as Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music in 1965, Christopher Plummer toiled for over a decade in guest spots on TV and minor roles on film (although his early stage work carried more heft). The Toronto born actor’s first significant film role came in 1964 as Emperor Commodus in Anthony Mann’s extravagant (if dramatically inert) The Fall of the Roman Empire.
The next year would be a banner turn around the sun for Plummer. As a record studio owner, Plummer played svengali to Natalie Wood’s ingenue and earned strong notices for a character listed in the credits as Raymond Swan (AKA “The Prince of Darkness”). But of course, it was Robert Wise’s nearly three hour long musical starring Julie Andrews that not only brought life to the hills, but wind into the sails of Plummer’s career. Even for those who don’t love the musical, or musicals in general (full disclosure: guilty as charged), Plummer became an instant icon as Captain George von Trapp. While heated arguments among film lovers may carry on until the end of time over the quality of The Sound of Music, no one can deny the film’s impact, and certainly, if nothing else, one can find much love (especially in our current day and age) for von Trapp’s rending of a Nazi flag.
Two years later, Plummer would play an actual Nazi as Field Marshall Rommel in Anatole Litvak’s well-received, The Night of the Generals. It would be another eight years before Plummer would score again at the cinema with The Return of the Pink Panther and John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (both in 1975). Plummer would win an Emmy for his supporting work in the mini-series The Money Changers, starring Kirk Douglas and based on the novel by Arthur Hailey. He would play Sherlock Holmes in 1979 in the Canadian production Murder By Decree (with James Mason as Watson). His donning of the deerstalker would bring him the Genie award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.
In 1983, Plummer was a part of the television zeitgeist knows as The Thorn Birds, playing Archbishop Vittorio Contini-Verchese in a mini-series that even as a young child I can remember adults talking about as if there were no other show on TV. For his work as the Archbishop, Plummer earned an Emmy nomination.
Plummer seldom found roles that measured up to his ability over the next decade. Although, I must confess that I (perhaps inexplicably) found him to be a hoot in 1987’s Dragnet starring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks. He also had a small part (a cameo, really) in Spike Lee’s biographical masterpiece Malcolm X in 1992. Two years later, Plummer really sunk his teeth (no pun intended) into Mike Nichols’ Wolf, which deserves a better reputation. Before the film goes full-on werewolf, it’s an often hilarious satire of the publishing industry, and Plummer, playing Raymond Alden – the owner and operator of a massive publishing house – is a wicked stitch. Putting on airs like few others ever have on cinema, Plummer steals nearly every scene from the film’s stars, Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer. Just thinking of the scene where he decides to reward Nicholson’s underhanded maneuver to displace James Spader’s duplicitous cad as editor-in-chief will put a smile upon my face for the remainder of this evening.
Notable parts followed in Dolores Claiborne and 12 Monkeys in ’94 and ’95, but it would be 1999’s The Insider that would provide Plummer with (to my mind) his defining role. As real-life 60 Minutes journalist Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s masterful expose of journalistic integrity (or lack thereof), Plummer is pitch perfect. Whether he’s shafting Al Pacino’s news program producer, or dressing down a couple of corporate suits played by Stephen Tobolowski and Gina Gershon (“Are you going to finesse me?”), Plummer is brilliant. How he got passed over for a Best Supporting Actor nomination by the Academy is a mystery that simply can’t be solved. He was definitive and magnificent as a man trying to retain his standards while holding onto his legacy, and finds that maintaining both is impossible.
The millennium that followed would be fertile for Plummer. It can be argued (successfully, I think) that Plummer truly hit his stride in his seventies. The ’00s would bring fine roles in wonderful projects like A Beautiful Mind, Nicholas Nickleby, Syriana, The New World, Inside Man, Up, and The Last Station. The latter of which (incredibly) earned him his first Oscar nomination as Best Supporting Actor for his turn as Leo Tolstoy across from Helen Mirren as his wife.
Oscar would come calling again in 2012’s Beginners, this time for his droll and tender portrayal as an aging man who comes out to his son while dying of cancer. As Hal, Plummer exquisitely and gracefully plays a man who, in his last days, finally finds himself and makes no apologies for it. Christopher Plummer spent 83 years on earth before receiving a golden statue, but when he did, he was surrounded by full hearts and few dry eyes.
His final two projects of note were Ridley Scott’s 2017 thriller All The Money In The World, and Rian Johnson’s huge hit from 2019, Knives Out. In the latter, he played an aging patriarch whose death sets off an Agatha Christie-inspired mystery with more than a little social commentary about race and the haves and the have nots. But it’s the former that holds the most affection for me. The story of the making of All the Money In The World is almost as fascinating as the true-life one the film tells. Director Ridley Scott shot the entirety of the movie with Kevin Spacey in old age makeup as the billionaire J. Paul Getty, who, at a horrible human cost, refuses to pay his grandson’s ransom. The film was in the can and set for release. The trailer had already been seen in theaters. Then, the horrifying sexual misconduct accusations against Spacey became public. Sony Pictures decided to shelve the film, but Ridley Scott convinced the studio to allow him to recast the role of Getty and reshoot all of Spacey’s scenes. The actor he chose to replace Spacey was Christopher Plummer, who, on incredibly short notice and under truly remarkable and awful circumstances, stepped into the part. He delivered a performance that would be considered magnificent by any standard, but, considering the measure of extraordinary difficulty under which he was working, he turned out to be no less than a savior. Oscar took note, and awarded him with his third, and final, nomination.
Along with Ridley Scott’s adept maneuvering with Sony, Plummer didn’t just save the film as a production, he saved the work of actors Michelle Williams and Charlie Plummer (both so wonderful in the film), the sharp writing of scribes David Scarpa and John Pearson, the filmmaking of Scott himself, and that of everyone else down to the best boy and the key grip. It is a bravura turn that eliminated not only the shadow that hung over the film due to Spacey’s reported misdeeds, but even removed any curiosity of what the film might have looked like with Spacey in the role.
In a career that spanned more than 65 years, Plummer played villains, gentlemen, aristocrats, icons, and everything in between. But I will remember him as more than a man who brought considerable craft and skill to the multitude of parts he played. I will remember him as a hero – because whether shredding a symbol of fascism, or quite literally saving the work of artists whose efforts deserved to be seen, that’s exactly what he was.
Christopher Plummer died today, he was 91 years old.