It was no fluke that Christopher Plummer was tapped to clean up in Kevin Spacey’s stead in All the Money in the World on a moment’s notice. The man’s a closer. He stands a Grammy Award way from the highly coveted EGOT – after his 1986 nomination for The Nutcracker came up short in the Best Children’s Album category. Just try to discern the difference in performance between projects he believes in and ones he might just be collecting a pay cheque on. Here’s a run through the six decades of Christopher Plummer’s career – with highlights and maybe some roles you didn’t know of and should check out.
After getting his feet wet in TV movies and showcases. Plummer’s star truly began to ascend in the Sixties. Much of the world probably knows him best as Captain Von Trapp in 1965’s The Sound of Music – he used to rather famously refer to it as “The Sound of Mucus” – but he’s shortselling his own performance. The captain’s rigidity earlier in the film makes it all the more touching when he softens more than halfway through the epic and then defies the Third Reich at the end. Clearly not a singer anywhere near the level of co-star Julie Andrews, the way his voice breaks with emotion during “Edelweiss” ensures he’s not just a handsome face upstaged by seven children and Mary Poppins.
And don’t miss him in 1969’s Battle of Britain. Talk about an all-star cast – Michael Caine, Laurence Olivier and Robert Shaw, to name but a few. Plummer could be overwhelmed amid this lot with the constant scene shifts, but instead he stands out as a squadron leader in the British Royal Air Force. His character’s more frustrated by his marriage to a fellow officer (Susannah York) than by the Axis’ attempted invasion of England. The film utilises its impressive cast well to show the absurdity of war with humour one second and tragedy the next. And Plummer’s character is a perfect microcosm of that effort.
The Seventies brought us a lot of intriguing films that haven’t shown tremendous staying power. The Silent Partner in 1978 is one of those. Both Plummer and star Elliott Gould seem to be simultaneously trying to shed their best-known characters. Plummer’s shaking off the “mucus” with a sociopath kind of role that might have been tagged otherwise on Anthony Perkins. Gould’s got a bold take on his familiar ne’er-do-well character, this one thwarts the psycho’s bank robbery by stealing the money himself. And although it that role might not be too far afield for Gould, Plummer’s the one who gets to do the real 180. You may never look at a mall Santa the same way again.
And don’t miss 1979’s Hanover Street, if only for the incredible bonding scenes between Plummer and Harrison Ford. They spend the bulk of the movie in a tug-of-war for the love of Lesley-Anne Down during World War II, but this treacly soap-opera element gives way to truly entertaining sequences between the male leads later in the film. They’re forced to depend upon each other for their very lives when Ford’s American pilot is called upon to transport Plummer’s military man to France. The first half of the movie is eminently forgettable, and the second half, quite the opposite.
For the Eighties, 1987’s Dragnet … just kidding. But Plummer dials down the camp a couple of notches as the villain in 1984’s Dreamscape. This one’s become quite the cult classic. On the DVD commentary track, the filmmakers said Plummer admitted the two roles he gets stopped on the street about are The Sound of Music and Dreamscape. The latter truly benefited from having both Plummer and Max Von Sydow in the movie, because their interplay – with each other and star Dennis Quaid — elevates the sci-fi flick from what could have been a cheesy 80s film about the government using dream-sharing technology to a sublime guilty pleasure.
And don’t miss 1983’s Prototype, a TV movie that could take credit for an array of sci-fi movies that came out after it. As Dr. Carl Forrester, Plummer’s the very terse and structured creator of a cyber man (David Morse). Running true to form, he doesn’t play the doctor as a typical protagonist, some of the unilateral decisions he makes are just cringe-worthy. His creation comes off as more human than he does for much of the picture, but Plummer shows us there’s a lot more to Forrester than just his need to keep the android out of the hands of the government.
In 1999’s The Insider, Plummer knocked one out of the park as Mike Wallace. He wasn’t Oscar nominated, but the National Society of Film Critics saw fit to bestow best supporting actor honours upon him for the perfectly modulated performance. In one of his most engaging roles, he’s dignified and forthright, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when Wallace realises he’s fallible after five decades in the business. You look forward to every moment Plummer’s on camera. Pound for pound, he delivers a more fleshed-out TV journalist than we’ve ever seen before, including in movies focused on the gathering of news.
And don’t miss the 1991 TV movie A Marriage: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Plummer plays the latter. He’s a real cad to his wife (Jane Alexander), but simultaneously the greatest promoter of her paintings. There’s real insight to be gleaned from the fact that a liberated woman remained in a marriage that might have come off as more of an inconvenience to Stieglitz for long periods of time and the most important thing in the world to him at other moments. It’s understandable with Plummer in the role at least.
The 2001 film A Beautiful Mind racked up four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director Ron Howard. And although Plummer doesn’t enter until about halfway through, his contribution as Dr. Rosen shouldn’t be overlooked. True to form, he brings a perfect ambiguity in his first moments. Since we’re siding with Russell Crowe’s genius John Nash, we’re not entirely sure that the doctor is on the up and up. There’s an element of mystery to him, and without that, it might have descended into movie-of-the-week terrain. Crowe isn’t eager to follow Rosen’s prescribed treatment for schizophrenia, but we’re not inclined to discount it out of hand because of Plummer’s presence.
And don’t miss the 2005 Showtime movie Our Fathers. Because before Spotlight scored a Best Picture Oscar, there was Plummer, Emmy-nominated for the role of Cardinal Bernard Law. In this role, his ability to say one thing when we’re almost positive he’s thinking another is etched on his face. There were pedophile priests running amok in Boston and the cardinal had a lot to do with the coverup, but one wants to believe he’s guilt-ridden over something he could have stopped when push comes to shove. All credit to Plummer for that. And sincerest apologies to his Oscar-nominated performance as Tolstoy in 2009’s The Last Station, because that was yet another sign that the actor’s powers hadn’t depreciated in the slightest.
Plummer became the oldest winner of an Academy Award for his dynamic performance in 2010’s Beginners. It was a no-doubter. Life started at 75 for his Hal, who came out of the closet after his wife passed away. He comes off like a teenager when he begins a relationship with a much younger man and that’s certainly not something we’ve seen a lot of on the big screen. Even when Hal falls ill, Plummer still shows exuberance in moments like when he uses mousse on his hair for the first time on his deathbed. And although he had a lacklustre relationship with Hal for most of his life, son (Ewan McGregor) learns how to love before it’s too late … just like the Academy did.
And don’t miss the 2015 flick Remember, you’ll almost shake your head with Plummer still performing at the height of his powers. Decades after the Holocaust, his Zev Guttman travels through writer/director Atom Egoyan’s intense film unable to remember the man he was. When he finds out who he was, the reveal is devastating. Filmmakers are still finding unique and interesting takes on that era, but no one has tackled it quite this way. And Egoyan couldn’t have done so without Plummer investing in the role with such zest.
So it’s no small wonder the powers-that-be at All the Money in the World scooped him up immediately when needing to rework their entire film in the wake of the Spacey scandal. Plummer still has the goods and he delivers them with seeming ease.