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As we say so long farewell to veteran actor Christopher Plummer, Mark Shenton praises the art of obituary writing

If, as Monty Python famously urges, we should always look on the bright side of life, then the brighter side of death are obituaries. They’re one of my absolutely favourite forms of journalism, and I read them just as avidly as I read the best critics; and it’s for the same reasons.

They may shine a new and revealing light on something or someone I’ve had my own experience of, and think I already know but now find out more about; or they allow me a window into a life I didn’t know at all.

Take Christopher Plummer, who died on Friday, aged 91. The veteran screen and stage actor’s lasting legacy may have been playing Captain von Trapp in the 1965 film version of The Sound of Music — one of the most popular movie musicals of all time — but it wasn’t one he was especially proud to embrace.

The film made him an international star at the age of 35, but in a 1982 interview in People magazine that is quoted in his New York Times obituary, he was reported saying: “That sentimental stuff is the most difficult for me to play, especially because I’m trained vocally and physically for Shakespeare. To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role. That damn movie follows me around like an albatross.”

In The Guardian, chief film critic Peter Bradshaw noted: “As the years and decades went by – and almost everyone swallowed their pride and admitted that they loved The Sound of Music – Plummer became the most famous and stubborn refusenik until almost the end of his life, calling it ‘awful and sentimental and gooey’.”

That quote came from a 2011 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, in which he also said: “You had to work terribly hard to try to infuse some minuscule bit of humour into it.” In the same publication’s report of his death on Friday, Mike Barnes added: “He also said most of his singing parts in the movie were performed by someone else. Plummer, however, had changed his tune when he appeared with Andrews before a screening of the musical at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood and added his hand and footprints to the collection outside the TCL Chinese Theatre.”

In his own autobiography, he admitted he’d not behaved well during The Sound of Music shoot: “My behaviour was unconscionable. I’ll admit it. I was also a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theatre roles.”

His reputation for being difficult continued to precede him. His obituary in the London Times, published yesterday, concluded with a deathless remark by Alan Bennett that Plummer was “his own worst enemy — but only just.”

The best obituaries, however, are more than extended rehashes of their subject’s Wikipedia credits and accomplishments, but go on to reveal something of the person’s character. Bruce Weber’s New York Times obituary wonderfully balances both, as these paragraphs illustrate:

“The scion of a once-lofty family whose status had dwindled by the time he was born, Mr. Plummer nonetheless displayed the outward aspects of privilege throughout his life. He had immense and myriad natural gifts: a leading man’s face and figure; a slightly aloof mien that betrayed supreme confidence, if not outright self-regard; an understated athletic grace; a sonorous (not to say plummy) speaking voice; and exquisite diction.

He also had charm and arrogance in equal measure, and a streak both bibulous and promiscuous, all of which he acknowledged in later life as his manner softened and his habits waned. In one notorious incident in 1971, he was replaced by Anthony Hopkins in the lead role of Coriolanus at the National Theater in London; according to the critic Kenneth Tynan, who at the time was the literary manager of the National, Mr. Plummer was dismissed in a vote by the cast for crude and outrageous behaviour.”

The good obituarist also collects the best quotes about their subject, and in that same Weber obituary in the New York Times, he quotes another interview that Plummer gave to the same paper in 1982.

“I’m not a superstar — thank God. Christ, to be a superstar must be extremely tiring and limiting. I prefer being half-recognized on the street and getting good tables in restaurants. Unfortunately, the really good, smashing parts do not always come my way because they go to the first tier of superstars who are bankable.”

Weber then adds: “As accurate as that self-assessment was, it pertained only to the movies. Onstage, with a fierce intelligence, exemplary control of his body and voice, and a formidable command of language, Mr. Plummer had few equals.”

He then goes on to quote Plummer’s own assessment of the importance of theatre to him, from his 2008 memoir that was called ‘In Spite of Myself’:

“As T.S. Eliot measures his life with coffee spoons, so I measure mine by the plays I’ve been in.”

And the critics regularly agreed. Of his Iago opposite James Earl Jones’s Othello, in a production that originated in Connecticut in 1981 before transferring to Broadway in 1982, Walter Kerr wrote in the New York Times, “It is quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance to have originated on this continent in our time.” And Frank Rich, writing for the same publication, explained why: “He gives us evil so pure — and so bottomless — that it can induce tears. Our tears are not for the dastardly Iago, of course — that would be wrong. No, what Mr. Plummer does is make us weep for a civilization that can produce such a man and allow him to flower.”

Plummer was a pre-eminent Shakespearean, from his native Canada where he became a fixture at Stratford, Ontario’s annual Shakespeare Festival to London and Broadway, and as Weber notes in his New York Times obituary:

“For more than a half century, through 2010 — when, at age 80, he appeared at the Stratford Festival in The Tempest — Mr. Plummer’s performances, including those in New York and in London, where he lived in the 1960s, were more often than not appreciated in extravagant terms. ‘The performance of a lifetime’, Ben Brantley wrote in The Times of Mr. Plummer’s King Lear (pictured below), which arrived on Broadway in 2004 after first being produced at the festival. ‘He delivers a Lear both deeply personal and universal: a distinctly individual man whose face becomes a mirror for every man’s mortality’.”

Weber also gives us this nugget of information of a performance we alas won’t now see: he reports that Plummer’s wife Elaine Taylor, said that “at his death Mr. Plummer had been preparing to appear as Lear on film for the first time, under the direction of Des McAnuff” (McAnuff was a former artistic director at Stratford Festival).

And we also find something out about the demons behind the talent. As Weber writes,

“By the early 1960s, Mr. Plummer had become allied with the bad boys of the British acting world — Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Peter O’Toole — motivated, he once said, by the cantankerous rage against propriety exhibited in the work of John Osborne.

In his memoir, a dishy, rollicking account of a life lived sensually and energetically, he was not shy in detailing his amorous adventures, or his drinking with fellow actors. In a 1967 interview with the CBC, he acknowledged himself to be a drunk — “though not when I’m working, producers take note,” he said — and considered the question of why actors in general drink.

“The more you give to an audience, which is a tremendous amount that you give during a night if you care about your work, the more you spill out of yourself with either loathing or loving them and getting loathing and loving back,” he said. “It’s a tremendous letdown when the evening is over. You’ve given an awful lot of your own personality with just the reward of applause at the end, which is a marvellous reward but it isn’t quite enough to fill the rest of the night.”

It was working onstage in the theatre where he loved to spend his nights most. In the Hollywood Reporter obituary, Mike Barnes notes: “He palled around with Jason Robards and George C. Scott in his early days in New York and made his Broadway debut in 1954 opposite Mary Astor in The Starcross Story. ‘It opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!’ he wrote in his autobiography.”

He’d go on to a two-time Tony award winning Broadway career — in 1974 for playing the title role in the musical Cyrano, based on the play of the same name, and in 1997 for playing Hollywood legend John Barrymore in a one-man show about the great actor called Barrymore (he’s one of only four actors to win the top two acting Tonys; the others are Robert Morse, Rex Harrison and Zero Mostel), with five more occasions on which he was nominated, most recently for his final Broadway appearance in a revival of Inherit the Wind in 2007. In the UK, he worked for both the RSC and National, and won the Evening Standard Award for best actor for his appearance in Becket in 1961.

In a 2011 interview with the New York Times, Melena Ryzik wrote, “In the 1980s Mr. Plummer began doing what he freely called ‘money movies,’ to support his theatre habit. ‘I’ve played some awful parts as if they were Coriolanus or Lear,’ he said, though he admitted to not watching the ‘crappy movies’ afterward.”

In another appreciation of the actor in the New York Times, published on Friday, by the paper’s current chief theatre critic Jesse Green who met him three times in 2004 as he rehearsed King Lear in New York, he drew on his personal experience to write this:

“He could underplay on film because he knew how to play big onstage; he had long since mastered his register and was not afraid of extremes. ‘Edith Evans taught me the superstition that you never say the last line of the play until opening night’,” he explained. ‘And then you whisper it, you hardly say it all, so that it absolutely screams across the footlights. Of course, those were the days when the audiences knew the words already, so you didn’t have to say them at all, really.’

They were also the days when theaters had footlights. Plummer was perhaps the last of the great actors trained in the pre-Method, pre-academic, pre-movie style. (He didn’t go to drama school; he went on the road). Especially as his type became rarer and rarer, that made his control of his effects ever more valuable. What he could do with his voice, his hands and even his teeth — in King Lear, they seemed to grind independently of his will — was amazing, even if all were tricks.

Which is not to say he ignored character work from the inside out, provided there was an inside. When he was cast as Captain von Trapp in the movie of The Sound of Music, he begged the director and screenwriter to improve the role from what it had been onstage: a man so inconsequential, he told me, that ‘every time he opened his mouth, Mary Martin had another song’.

He did make something more complex out of that empty character; when I said he was a bit creepy in the role, he was delighted. In truth, I found Plummer, for all his charm, a tiny bit creepy himself. Not malevolent, but uncanny: a superannuated genius child like the kind you might find in a horror movie. You had to watch him.

On Twitter, writer Michael Goldfarb posted this:

The Chris Plummer film they won’t mention in the obits:

— (((M Goldfarb))) (@MGEmancipation) February 5, 2021

It was from the film version of Peter Shaffer’s play The Royal Hunt of the Sun that he’d first done on Broadway in 1965 (playing Francisco Pizarro), and then swapped roles to play Atahuallpa (opposite Robert Shaw as Pizarro) in the 1969 film.

But Plummer himself should have the last word: as he wrote in his autobiography,

“As I creep deeper into the twilight, it is not so much the fear of dying that disturbs me but the sudden awareness that I’ve just begun to live and how dreadfully I’m going to miss it all when I’m gone. If only I might linger by painting myself into the landscape so I could always see the beginning of the day.”

from News, Reviews and Features – My Theatre Mates

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