Sunday, February 21, 2021

Sunday Best: Rest in Peace Christopher Plummer


photo by Carl Van Vechten

I will be honest, Christopher Plummer scared me a child.

Partly it was because of his stern portrayal of Captain Von Trapp in The Sound of Music.  To a child, his hard, authoritative presence was frightening.  And even though he softens his persona as the film goes on, my young mind had not the attention span to follow it.  The first impression was the strongest.

The second reason was that I confused him with Christopher Lee who played Dracula in the Hammer horror films.  Look at a picture of Lee from Dracula Has Risen From the Grave and tell me there isn't a resemblance.

It wasn't until I was older that I began to really appreciate Plummer's decades-spanning career and appreciate his talent as an actor.

As mentioned above, the film that he will be remembered for more than any other is The Sound of Music.  I have seen many productions of this show on stage, but Plummer stands out.  Partly its because the movie gives the actor more breathing room to show the slow thawing of his heart.  His Captain begins the movie as a stern, but broken man.  And yet you see his easy charm with Max and the Baronness.  It is something I did not appreciate as a child, to see how grown-ups let their guard down when the children are not around.  But the moment that the movie gives him his best moment is when he hears his children singing.  It is a beautiful scene where he has to show you how music awakens his heart for the first time in years.  The stage show rushes this moment so that it often feels forced.  But here, Plummer nails it.  You see the music act as arrow that pierces his armor and conquers him.  And yet, he still remains the strong, masculine presence of the film.  He boldly stands up to the Nazis with principled fortitude.  All the while, you can understand how Maria begins to fall in love with him.  Unlike the juvenile love of Liesl and Friedrich, Maria falls for a man who truly is a man.  And Plummer gives us such an image of masculine romance and affection.

But Plummer was an incredibly versatile actor.  Looking back, I was amazed at how he has been a constant presence in films over the years.  His villainous turn in Dreamscape encapsulates the conniving, subtle villainy that he played so well.

He also was a gifted comedian.  His turn in Dragnet showed a side of him I have never seen.  I still can't believe it was him who delivered the lines "Evil bringeth hear our plea, she's as pure as she can be.  White and clean as driven snow, from Orange County, here we go!"  He plays Rev. Whirley with such cynical malevolence masked by a benign niceness that it makes his performance all the funnier.

One of the best performances of his for me is his turn as Herod Antipas in Jesus of Nazareth.  His Herod is the exact opposite of Captain Von Trapp.  Plummer plays Herod as vain, lustful, callow, and lacking any kind of backbone.  Watch how he gets pushed around by his wife Herodias and how he lays his feelings at John the Baptist's feet.  I love how Plummer embodies that spirit of man where we feel in our hearts what is right, but that utter self-contempt we have when we don't follow through.  

And just as an aside, Plummer plays a pivotal role in one of my top ten movies: Somewhere in Time.  He plays Robinson, the manager to Elise.  And throughout the movie he warns her that one day a man would come who would destroy her life.  He is convinced that this man is Richard, the man who comes back in time to be with her.  I have often wondered if Robinson himself was also a time traveller who was trying to save Elise's life in his own way.  Plummer plays the character with just enough ambiguity to make you think this is a possibility without giving away the store.

As a sci-fi fan, I love the fact that Plummer stood toe-to-toe with Captain James T. Kirk in one of the best Star Trek films, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.  Plummer's literally Shakespearean take on his Klingon General Chang elevates what could have been a simple scenery chewing villain.  Plummer infuses his character with all the passion and deviousness that is needed to be a worthy adversary.  I would say he is the best Star Trek film villain after Ricardo Montalban's Kahn.  And as my good friend Rick-O has pointed out, when Chang realizes what Kirk has done in his final move, he stands at attention.  You can see in Plummer's performance that his rage and taunting give way to acceptance and respect for a superior foe.  

Plummer also did a lot of memorable voice work in movies like An American Tail, Up, and The Gospel of John.  He kept working as a nonagenarian.  He won his first and only Oscar just 11 years ago for his role in Beginners (a movie I have not seen.). He also appeared in several other movies I've seen like A Beautiful Mind, 12 Monkeys, Knives Out, The Insider, The Man Who Would Be King, Malcom X, Dolores Claiborne, Nuremberg, Hector and Search for Happiness, National Treasure, Wolf, Must Love Dogs, and Dracula 2000.

In his personal life, he was married 3 times in 14 years, but his he and his third wife were married for over 50 years until his recent death.  He was not a religious man.  He instead devoted himself to the arts.  Despite this, he helped participate in some wonderfully Catholic dramatic films.  So let us pray for the repose of his soul.

Rest in Peace, Christopher Plummer.

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