Christopher Plummer's awesome power

Christopher Plummer, the Oscar-winning actor perhaps most fondly remembered for "The Sound of Music," has died at his home in Connecticut. He was 91.

Posted: Feb 6, 2021 10:51 AM
Updated: Feb 6, 2021 8:30 PM


There's a scene in the film 'The Sound Of Music' when Captain von Trapp, played by Christopher Plummer, emerges from a heated standoff with the governess Maria, an effervescent Julie Andrews, to hear voices down the hall.

Following the sound, the captain reaches the door of a room, inside which his seven children are standing, dripping wet (they had fallen out of rowboat earlier) and singing. Caught off guard, the captain watches them for a few seconds, before stepping inside to join in. Nervous, the children stop to listen, before they all finish the song together.

The captain then hugs them all, while Maria watches from outside, spellbound. As she turns to leave, the captain rushes out to stop her. Within about two minutes, Plummer captures rage, surprise, tenderness, warmth, humor, and then contrition. Also, he's wearing a pale gray suit. If by some accident you've never seen the film before, approach this scene with caution: it has awesome power.

Christopher Plummer's portrayal of Captain von Trapp was so impeccable, and 'The Sound Of Music' so wildly successful, that had he halted his acting career in 1965 immediately after the film's release, his legacy would already have been secure. Instead, the beloved Canadian actor, who died this past week aged 91, threw himself into a diverse and challenging career on both stage and screen, distinguishing himself as among the greatest actors of his generation, but also as one who palpably enjoyed every minute of his work.

Though Plummer had reservations about the role as the captain, even kicking up a fuss until there was a little more 'edge' injected into the character, his sense of fun was evident on the set of 'The Sound Of Music.' He and Julie Andrews were so unable to stop laughing during the shooting of the romantic gazebo scene that they inspired director Robert Wise's decision to shoot it in silhouette, to better mask the actors' giggles.

Unsure of his dancing abilities, Plummer showed up to rehearse for the ballroom scene wearing tights - looking as he put it, 'like one of those Albanian vampires.' He credited Andrews with 'carrying him through' the dance, joking in an interview for the film's 40th anniversary: 'I'd already fallen in love with myself in my tights earlier, but I forgot about that when you came on.'

While off-set, Plummer caught rehearsals for performances at Mozart's house, entertained the cast with piano recitals (Julie Andrews remembers him being able to perform Rachmaninoff by ear), and, in his words, got 'soused.' This appears to have been a theme during his career - asked by Conan O'Brien in 2015 how he'd managed to stay in such great shape, Plummer credited a 'long life of hard drinking,' and admitted it had been a 'very relaxed' life. His ease under pressure was perhaps one of his great gifts as a stage actor - he won a Tony award in 1973 for the title role in the musical 'Cyrano,' and another in 1997 for the title role in 'Barrymore,' about the Shakespearean actor John Barrymore.

Later on, character parts in films like 'Return of the Pink Panther,' released in 1975, were an outlet for Plummer's wonderful sense of humor, while roles like that of Rudyard Kipling in 'The Man Who Would be King,' which came out in the same year, underscored his ability to hold his own against bankable stars like Michael Caine and Sean Connery.

In 2010, he received his first Oscar nomination for 'The Last Station,' in which he played Leo Tolstoy opposite Helen Mirren. Two years later, at the age of 82, he took home the gong for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Mike Mills' 'Beginners,' playing a father who finally comes out as gay following the death of his wife. He was - and remains - the oldest winner of an Academy Award for acting.

In 2018, Plummer received another nomination for 'All The Money In The World' - an especially impressive feat given that he had shot all his scenes in nine days, having replaced Kevin Spacey in the role of J. Paul Getty (who Plummer had met at a 'couple parties' decades before). So eager was Plummer to work with director Ridley Scott that he abandoned a holiday to take the part - and so secure was he in his ability to master the role that he declined to watch any of Spacey's footage.

His outlook on the situation was impressively positive under the circumstances - by the time allegations of Spacey's sexual misconduct had emerged, the film was already in the can - and in Scott's words, 'kind of perfect.' Undeterred, Plummer threw himself into what he described as 'a scary and fun experience,' calling the whole thing an 'absolute wonderful, rosy pleasure.'

It's easy, not to mention tempting, to allow people who have portrayed heroes on-screen to remain frozen in time and fiction, never allowing them to grow old, or become real. But Christopher Plummer's transcendence beyond his most famous role only saw him grow more likeable, and his abundant gifts flourish.

Probably the nicest thing about Plummer as a public figure is that he made getting older look like fun - and working into your nineties aspirational. Describing in 2015 his regret at turning down the role of Gandalf in Peter Jackson's 'The Lord Of The Rings' series, he conceded (perhaps unfairly to himself) that he may have been too 'a little cold and imperious' as the wizard, whereas Ian McKellen, who accepted the role, was 'warm and... I hate the son of a b****!'

He was swift to emphasize how very grateful he felt to have been an actor. Describing his work, he said: 'I never want to retire.... I am so sorry for people who actually do want to retire, it means they haven't loved what they do in life. Nothing could be more marvelous than traveling the world and being paid to do that, I mean, that's extraordinary.'

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