Plummer on Plummer: Christopher Plummer Recalls A Word or Two for New One-Man Play

By Harry Haun
17 Jul 2012

Christopher Plummer in Barrymore.
Photo by Cylla Von Tiedemann

Until last Feb. 26, Plummer with 100-plus films to his credit was considered by many the best actor since John Barrymore not to win an Academy Award. "And I won! I beat him, poor guy." Not only that, the possibility of Plummer winning the Oscar as John Barrymore now exists. The film of his Tony-winning Barrymore, in which he played the actor at the end of his teetering tether, premiered at the last Toronto Film Festival and is set for release here in the fall.

"It's a proper film, more than a filmed record," he clarified. "Erik Canuel, who directed it, did very well with it. It's still a film performance on the stage, but it's changed because at certain moments the camera goes backstage and into rooms that belonged to Barrymore's grandmother, Mrs. Drew. It's quite cinematic. Closeups pick up things that you don't even know they're picking up. In one scene, Barrymore looks out from the stage, and there's no audience. Suddenly, the mood changes.

"We all worked on it collectively for so long. It was quite funny to start with, but they just were gags. Then we said, 'C'mon, let's find some depth to this bloody thing,' and of course there's a lot in Barrymore if you search for it. He's his own kind of self-destruction. Brooks Atkinson compared him to Icarus who flew too close to the sun."

His most recent brush with movie houses, the McAnuff-helmed Tempest, was pre-recorded live over two days at Stratford and presented in a cluster of theatres June 14. "It's a little more cinematic than a film recording, but we did not have time to really make a film out of it. It is, basically, the play photographed."

Plummer in The Tempest.
photo by David Hou

By the time Plummer's long wait for the Oscar ended last spring, he was 82 and the oldest performer ever to win the award, swiping that distinction from Jessica Tandy, a mere 80 at the time of her "Driving Miss Daisy" win. His competition for Best Supporting Actor of the year in film 2011 included Max Von Sydow, who was eight months older but mute throughout "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," giving Plummer the mellifluous edge as a late-blooming homosexual (like, 75 years old) in "Beginners."

Considering the notable personages and parts that Plummer has played in the past, was it surprising that this would be his Oscar-winning performance? "First of all," he replied, "I find it surprising, period. But for 'Beginners,' no — not surprising. I think I did some of the most relaxed work I've ever done on the screen. It was a charmingly written script, and I loved the character. I thought him divinely funny and sweet and not sorry for himself and just free. No, I thought it was sort of a right kind of role to be nominated for, and I thank Mike Mills for writing it so well."

Plummer has played only one other gay man — opposite Joanne Woodward in the TV movie version of Michael Cristofer's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Shadow Box.

Since "Beginners," he has done three or four other features. "I did something with HBO — 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight.' It's about the Supreme Court decision to grant him conscientious-objector status. It was a well-written script, and I'm The Good Guy, John Marshall Harlan, who was one of the judges who granted him this."