Christopher Plummer has died. His life, in a way, serves as a clever synopsis of the fate of man with regard to all our foolish dreams of “being somebody.”
There may never have been a more gifted actor, whether on stage or on screen. I am no great admirer of actors in general, nor of acting as a “profession,” but I reserve a special category for men occupying the tier of Plummer, Laurence Olivier, or Max von Sydow, who at their best can transcend the workaday craft of the itinerant showman and become, somehow, walking embodiments of ideas, or practical demonstrations of ways of being.
I was fortunate enough to have seen Plummer perform on stage just once — but it was a once for the ages, namely his King Lear at the 2002 Stratford Festival in Canada, directed by polymath Jonathan Miller of “Beyond the Fringe” fame. Every moment he was on stage was absorbing. Every other performer was elevated by his presence. Most remarkably, the merely passable new actress playing Cordelia suddenly became a young woman worthy of universal longing and lamentation while she lay lifeless in Plummer’s arms, as he uttered Lear’s famous five “Nevers” of infinite regret — “O, thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never” — each one intoned differently by the actor, expressing five completely distinct senses of loss and despair.
Saying the same word five times in a row, and as the play’s climactic line no less, is a trick for any actor, in any role. In this case, one almost feels that Shakespeare — certainly never a writer at a loss for words — stuck this prolonged repetition in there just to taunt any actor who would dare to tackle such an intellectually complex role, as though saying with a sneer, “Move hearts with this, you faker, you mere actor!” Plummer broke a thousand hearts in ten seconds on the night I saw him perform that line. You could hear a tear drop in the room.
And yet on the day of his death, as on every day of his life for over fifty years, the vast majority of humans familiar with the name Christopher Plummer responded to it with the near-universal chorus of saccharinity that haunted the actor throughout his career, and is undoubtedly echoing through the halls of the underworld as he awaits his eternal fate: “The Sound of Music.”
Cast as the lead actor in the movie adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Plummer won fame beyond his wildest imagination for lip-syncing “Edelweiss” and playing “the boyfriend” opposite the film’s real star, Julie Andrews. He subsequently claimed to have been drunk half the time during the shooting of the film, largely in hopes of obliterating the shame and frustration of being reduced to such a bland role in such a trite entertainment film, right at the moment when his career as the most serious kind of actor was blossoming.
As fate would have it — and I use that expression for once in its most intensely meaningful sense — the movie would become a smash hit, and survive its time as one of the most perennially beloved “family classics” in movie history. Plummer would never escape it. There is not enough alcohol in the world to drown a lifetime of “Mr. Plummer, what was it like to work with those adorable children?” As a young man trying to advance his career, he went for the easy money just one time — and that choice became his nemesis in the popular imagination.
All the world’s a stage, to be sure.
If The Sound of Music, a technicolor extravaganza directed by Hollywood legend Robert Wise, and co-starring Andrews, the queen of movie musical sweetness, is an object lesson in how all the money in the world can do nothing to redeem a script unworthy of a good actor, an early BBC production of Hamlet would seem to represent the exact opposite proposition: a great actor with a more than worthy script overwhelming all the inept cheapness on Earth to produce genuine art.
This, I am sure, is how Plummer would prefer to be remembered, so let us remember him this way — each word carefully thought through and expressed as a thought, each turn in a tortured man’s mind painfully exposed by the unforgiving spotlight of an actor reading the greatest writer in the English language correctly.