‘In Spite of Myself’ By CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER
Published: December 18, 2008, Illustrated. 648 pages.
A rollicking, rich portrait of a life. And what a life! By one of today’s greatest living actors.
He was born a Canadian on a Friday the thirteenth in 1929—the year of the Crash. His boyhood was one of privilege: an ancestor was a Governor General; his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was Canada’s third prime minister and owned railroads. There were steam yachts, mansions, and a life of Victorian gentility and somewhat cluttered splendor.
Plummer tells how “this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down,” and writes of his early acting days as an eighteen-year-old playing the lead in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, directed by the legendary Komisarjevsky of Moscow’s Imperial Theatre.
We see his glorious New York of the fifties, where life began at midnight, with the likes of Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and Paddy Chayefsky, and how Plummer’s own Broadway world developed and swept him along through the last Golden Age the American Theatre would ever remember . . . how the sublime Ruth Chatterton (“she might have been created by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis”) introduced him to the right people in New York . . . how Miss Eva Le Gallienne gave Plummer his Broadway debut at twenty-five in The Starcross Story (“It opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!”). He writes about Miss Katherine Cornell (the last stage star to travel by private train), who, with her husband, Guthrie McClintic, added to what experience Plummer had the necessary gloss, spit, and polish to take him to the next level. Guthrie bundled Plummer off to Paris for a production of Medea, opposite Dame Judith Anderson (“a little Tasmanian devil . . . who with one look could turn an audience to stone”).
Plummer writes about the great producers with whom he worked—Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Whitehead, and Roger Stevens—about Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan (“If you weren’t careful, this chameleon of chameleons might change into you, wear your skin, steal your soul”), and the miracle that was the new Stratford Festival in Canada, where Plummer blossomed in the classics under the extraordinary Tyrone Guthrie. He writes about his (too brief) encounters with his favorite geniuses, Orson Welles and Jonathan Miller. He writes about his lifelong friendships with Raymond Massey and the wild Kate Reid, and with that fugitive from the Navy, “that reprobate and staunch drinking buddy, the true reincarnation of Eugene O’Neill, whose blood was mixed with firewater,” Jason Robards, Jr.
Plummer writes about his affairs and his marriages, and about his daughter, Amanda, who “despite her slim looks and tiny bones could raise tempests, guaranteed to loosen the foundation of any theatre in which she chose to rage.”
We see him becoming a leading actor for Peter Hall’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with a company of young talented players, each destined for stardom—Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O’Toole, et al., collectively the future of the English stage. The old guard was brilliantly represented by Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Gielgud. Plummer, the only fugitive from the New World, played Richard III, Benedick, and Henry II in Becket.
He writes about his film career: The Sound of Music (affectionately dubbed “S&M”) . . . Inside Daisy Clover, which brought him together with the beautiful Natalie Wood . . . John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (Plummer was Rudyard Kipling). He tells the story of accepting Sir Laurence Olivier’s invitation to join the National Theatre Company, playing in Amphytron directed by Olivier himself (“a great actor but lousy director”), and writes about falling deeply in love with and eventually marrying a young actress and dancer, Elaine Taylor—to this day, his “one true strength.”
Seamlessly written, with stories that make us laugh out loud and that make real the fascinating, complex, exuberant adventure that is the actor’s (at least this actor’s) life.
By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY Updated 11/17/2008
For some public figures, the memoir can be a means of self-defense or catharsis, an attempt to either justify or come to terms with one's failings and foibles.
Not so Christopher Plummer, bless his heart. No one reading In Spite of Myself, the veteran actor's delightfully sprawling account of his life and career, could accuse him of being a withholding guy. He is candid to a fault, and many faults are acknowledged here.
But Plummer isn't begging our forgiveness or courting our affection and admiration. He has a loftier goal: offering access to the world of a tireless working artist and bon vivant, someone gifted and lucky enough to be able to fully engage his passions and inspire others in doing so.
Plummer, 78, paints that world in almost exhausting detail.
Recalling his early years in theater, he lustfully drops names, iconic and obscure, and embellishes their exploits with effusively captioned photos: "Roddy (McDowell), the welcome court jester!" or "Jean Gascon, Renaissance figure who brought all of life to the stage."
The writing is robust and unapologetically florid, littered with exclamation points, bawdy slang and French. (Plummer was raised outside Montreal.) There's plenty of self-deprecating humor and reports of naughty and gory escapades, a few involving hospitals, that can be mercilessly graphic.
But there also are moments of unfettered poignancy. Plummer doesn't dish on his most famous role, that of Captain von Trapp in the beloved screen version of The Sound of Music, until nearly 400 pages in; but his witty musings and heartfelt appreciation of the film — and its golden star, Julie Andrews — are worth the wait. "The picture belongs to Julie," he writes. "Her optimism, delicious humor and selfless nature were always on parade. … She held us together and made us a team."
His complex and redeeming relationships with two other British actresses — his daughter Amanda Plummer and his third and current wife, Elaine Taylor — are addressed with frankness and tenderness.
"How lucky I have been to have made the acquaintance of such an extraordinary collection of vagabonds," Plummer writes. "And how fortunate that the same century sent such remarkable women to show me the way."
And how nice that we can now share in that bounty.
Christopher Plummer’s in Spite of Myself - An Actor’s Memoir on 60 Years in the Biz
February 1st, 2009
Raconteur. Bon Vivant. Any way you slice it ace actor Christopher Plummer sure has led a charmed life. Thanks to Knopf Canada readers get a chance to learn all about this fabled chameleon's life. Distinguished thespian Christopher Plummer has just penned a delightful memoir about his most illustrious career. Those who thought Mr. Plummer's claim to fame was a film career have been woefully misled. Here, through 600 plus pages, we get an up close and personal peek into one of Canada's brightest lights.
At the ripe old age of 80 it's quite remarkable how the details of Christopher Plummer's life flow so easily no matter how far in the distant past. His biographical tour de force is flesh full of details, trivia and an homage to Canada and his roots in Montreal.
Early on we learn about the family name and its impact on governance. Old Montreal is recounted with great affinity as are the struggles this man faced growing up in a special household. We get a peak into the lifestyles of the then rich and famous and see how hard work benefitted this aspiring artist.
Most folks know Christopher Plummer as an actor. Today, as in the past, the greatest stars earned their acting chops in the theatre. Being on stage seemed second nature for young Chris as he took to the stage like a duck to water. Readers are taken on a trip down memory lane as we carouse old Montreal with this Bon Vivant who managed to rub shoulders with some of the greats of show business during the '40s through the '70s, a somewhat protracted golden age. Consider this young upstart to be the golden boy of theatre as stints on the stage in a multitude of plays made him one of the top draws in the land.
Personal accounts of working with a host of A name stars of theatre and stage are almost limitless in this life that is full of famous exchanges with larger-than-life characters. Among the men (and women) Chris worked with as a young man on stage were a then unknown William Shatner, Orson Welles, Lawrence Olivier, Richard Harris and many more. Stints on Broadway in musicals were a forerunner to great European displays on stage in London and elsewhere.
Above all else this tale shows the great affinity a member of English society had for his Quebec brothers and sisters. Lots of coverage of Christopher's upbringing in Quebec makes this tale one all Canadians should be rightfully proud of. Most of us, however, know Mr. Plummer as a star of the stage. Tremendous stories on what it was like to work behind the scenes on scores of popular films make this read enjoyable from start to finish.
Some of the "classic" films Christopher starred in are explored in great detail, with very revealing personal insights as to what it was like to film in far away exotic locales like Marakesh or in front of tremendous sets built in Italian mega studios. Personal egos are always fun to relish and here lots of dirt is dished out in a nice sort of way with the personal exchanges this quiet man had with some of the biggest stars on the planet over a span of 60 years in show business.
Let's hope Christopher Plummer continues to act and write for many years to come with his lovely daughter Amanda luckily following in this gentle giant's footsteps.
A critical eye on the arts from Rochester
Literature it’s not, but what a read! Christopher Plummer has written a memoir of his life on the stage, on the movie set, and in the bedroom. We were riveted by every page of stage gossip and titillating reminiscences.
In Spite of Myself reads in Mr. Plummer’s own voice; there’s no trace of a ghost-writer. He begins with his childhood in Montreal, where his mother read him the Just So Stories and The Wind and the Willows (just what Emsworth read to his own children!) and the Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock (introduced to Emsworth by his favorite college professor). She also took him to the theater (his first play: J. M. Barrie’s Mary Rose, another of our favorites).
Plummer studied piano but was upstaged by a more talented high school classmate, Oscar Peterson. Still underage, he began to hang out at Montreal nightclubs, where he met an alcoholic Diana Barrymore, who asked her to escort him to a posh after-dinner party. As Plummer remembers it,
I boldly sat down at the piano, hoping to accompany Diana in a French song or two. She winked at me and took up the cue. As was her custom, she had decked herself out in a daringly revealing low-cut dress. In the middle of a song in order to emphasize a phrase, she made a sweeping theatrical gesture, miles over the top, when suddenly, not just one but two glorious breasts popped out in full view and stayed out for the rest of the number.
That’s on page 49; this 650-page book is full of juicy bits like this.
And his amours! For the most part, Plummer names names. By his account, he has enjoyed the favors of scores of beautiful women (besides his three wives) over his long life.
His show-business stories (not all of which involve him personally) are marvelous. One that tickled our fancy has to do with the composer-pianist Percy Grainger, whom Plummer saw in Montreal as a teenager:
The Australian, Percy Grainger, came to town very often — declined hotels and insisted on sleeping on his piano in a studio at Steinway Hall. He was most eccentric and would play only two encores: “The Man I Love,” as if Grieg had written it, and his own “Country Gardens.”
For the most part, Plummer’s gossip is good-humored; several accounts of nasty behavior by show business colleagues omit names. One is left in awe of the sheer numbers of distinguished actors, directors, playwrights, and producers, from Noel Coward and David Selznick to Katharine Hepburn and Julie Andrews, that Plummer has known during his career.
And there’s plenty in this book about the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario), which is clearly close to Plummer’s heart, as well as about Plummer’s work in England and on Broadway. Did you know that Duke Ellington dedicated his 1957 album Such Sweet Thunder to the Stratford Festival? Plummer met Ellington when the composer, doing research for his album, was in Stratford monitoring a rehearsal of Hamlet. The dedication’s right there on the front cover.
One does not have to believe all of Plummer’s stories to enjoy them. (Did Grainger really sleep on his piano?) At one point Plummer tells of a Montreal music critic who fell asleep, missed a performance by Horowitz, wrote a glowing review of a performance he did not hear, and only discovered afterward that the maestro had become ill and did not play. Over the years we have heard other versions of such a story, with different performances and critics; no doubt Plummer thinks he is telling the original.
Another tale that tested our credulity involved an affair between the young Plummer and a married actress. According to Plummer, he and the lady were making love on a chair in a dressing room when the lady’s husband walked in and engaged them in casual conversation. Supposedly, the husband never suspected what was happening, because the lovers’ lower limbs were fully covered by the woman’s long, full gown. It’s clear that’s how Plummer remembers the incident. But it’s hard to believe it happened quite that way.
In Spite of Myself: A Memoir
By CHRISTOPHER PLUMMER
Reviewed by Brooke Allen, Barnes and Noble
In his new memoir, Christopher Plummer names John Barrymore as an early inspiration, recalling that it was Gene Fowler's Barrymore biography, Goodnight, Sweet Prince, that decided him on his own future career at the age of 14. Plummer has not been an unworthy disciple: over a decade ago, the notoriously hard-to-please critic John Simon deemed him the best living actor in the English language, and the intervening years have seen him hone his craft still further in fine movies like The Insider and Syriana. The play for which Simon provided the rave review was, significantly enough, William Luce's Barrymore, in which Plummer masterfully and mesmerizingly held the stage alone for two hours.
Plummer's In Spite of Myself: A Memoir gives Good Night, Sweet Prince a run for its money in Falstaffian tomfoolery, kiss-and-tell gossip, and sheer high spirits: as a record of a more celebratory and less puritanical era in theatrical history, a time when Broadway stars propped up the bar at Sardi's and P. J. Clarke's rather than earnestly taking up Buddhism, Scientology, and Kabbalah, his autobiography easily rivals classic showbiz memoirs like David Niven's The Moon's a Balloon and Errol Flynn's My Wicked, Wicked Ways. A loose and lively writer, Plummer is as free with the exclamation point as Queen Victoria, and he exhibits a positively Shakespearean inventiveness in coming up with synonyms for "drunk" -- to mention just a few of these, "pie-eyed," "smacked," "pissed as a newt," "compl?tement blotto," "pretty well swacked," "quite boulvers?'d, paralytic!"
Interspersed between loving descriptions of parties past and present, however, Plummer manages to sneak in some quite profound insights on the art of acting. Having skipped acting school and gone pro as a teenager, he learned his craft by watching his older colleagues. Working with the great comedian Edward Everett Horton, for instance, the young Plummer observed that the prime lesson to be learned from him was "just how real, natural and true one had to be in order to make comedy the supreme art that he proved it was?. Although he quite clearly prepared his performances from the outside in, comfortably relying on a stupendous technique, ironically the results were quite Stanislavskian in their spontaneity and freshness?. I couldn't wait to walk on stage and play a scene with Eddy; he made it all so relaxing, so effortless. Sharing a dialogue with him wasn't 'acting' at all; it was simply a pleasant chat with an old friend." Jason Robards was a contemporary and close friend from whom Plummer never ceased to learn: "Though he played realistically, he was always larger than life and completely instinctive. He gave naturalism a classic proportion."
Plummer is an enormously versatile Shakespearean actor, having played nearly all the major roles in his years at the Stratford Festival in his native Canada, Britain's National Theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company, on Broadway, and at the Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut ("Stratford-on-the-Gin-?n-Tonic"), with costars as various as Edith Evans, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Laurence Olivier, and Plummer's convivial countryman William Shatner. His most recent attempt was Lear, which he had always been told was a Mount Everest of a role. "No, it is not Mount Everest!" he discovered. "Perhaps the play is but not the role. Richard III is much more vocally and physically challenging. Hamlet is monstrously more daunting?. Shakespeare was not kind to his 'star.' He forbade him to drive his own play. He barricaded his progress -- coitus interruptus at its most flagrant. Perhaps when poor old Lear is sitting alone in his dressing room, waiting interminably to reenter, dying for a drink or a fix, anything to help provide the adrenaline that will carry him to the summit -- perhaps that is the Everest to which everyone is alluding."
The role of Macbeth he finds altogether more daunting. "It didn't take me long to realize what a workhorse role Macbeth really is and what a cool 'star' part the author gave to his leading lady," he remarks dryly. "She swans in, confident and relatively uncomplicated at various key intervals, wrapping every moment she's onstage -- takes a long pleasant sabbatical in her dressing room and then, after a breathtaking sleepwalking scene, decides to expire comfortably offstage while her poor overworked husband never draws breath, endlessly eulogizing her after she's gone. The lady has barely exerted herself the entire evening, and has taken all the glory! Thankless bitch!" Plummer readily admits to having muffed his 1988 Broadway appearance in the role. "I was properly chastised for my poor Thane. Rather than Irving's famished wolf, I was much more in the mold of Road Runner's Wile E. Coyote."
It cannot please this classical actor that the role for which he is best known round the world is that of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music -- a film Plummer offhandedly refers to as S & M or, elsewhere, The Sound of Mucus. He admits to having behaved badly on the set, possibly due to nerves, for he had never sung before in his life, "not even in the shower," and had to play opposite the most beloved musical star of all time. "To stay on a long-sustained note was, for me, akin to a drunk trying to walk the straight white line, whereas you can bet the very first cry that Julie let forth as she emerged from her mother's womb was in perfect pitch!" How to cope? "I began to hit the schnapps with a vengeance and vent my spleen on the poor innocent baby grand in the Bristol bar night after night." He also gained so much weight that his costumes had to be altered during shooting. Luckily, he wasn't given too many musical numbers. "Edelweiss" was, "thank God, the easiest song of the bunch to sing, and my favorite."
Readers hoping for Freudian insights and emotional soul baring will be disappointed with this memoir, though no doubt Plummer could tell a tale if he chose: he mentions almost in passing that he only met his father once, and that he never saw his daughter (the actress Amanda Plummer) between the time she was a child of eight and when she was grown up. He clearly learned to cover up messy emotions from his Anglo-Saxon, ruling-class family (his great-grandfather was Prime Minister of Canada), whose purse strings had been severely cut but who still "managed to hang on in a world of country mansions, regattas and croquet on the lawn." "I was a lousy husband and an even worse father," he admits of his years with Tammy Grimes (though his third marriage, to actress Elaine Taylor, has lasted 40 years) -- but that's about as personal as he gets.
He reserves high emotion for his vocation. It is "a profession that has treated me for the most part with kid gloves, allowed me to indulge and has been, let's face it, quite honestly, my education. It has taught me music, poetry, painting and dance; it has introduced me to the big bad world outside; it has made me face rejection; it has taught me humour in its blackest and gentlest forms; it has made me think; it has even taught me about love. It has shown me the majesty of language, the written word in all its glory, and it has taught me above all that there is no such thing as perfection -- that in the arts, there are no rules, no restrictions, no limits -- only infinity." There may well be no such thing as perfection; but In Spite of Myself comes close to being a perfectly amusing read.
Palm Beach ArtsPaper, Tuesday, February 3, 2009
Book review: Plummer's 'In Spite of Myself' a delightful read, By Hap Erstein
Twelve years ago, as he was working his way towards Broadway with a biographical play called Barrymore that would win him his second Tony Award, I interviewed Christopher Plummer at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Manalapan.
And while I knew I was treading on dangerous ground, I felt a journalistic obligation to bring up The Sound of Music, knowing it was his best-known work, and hardly his favorite. Worse, I suggested to him that it would be the role for which many would remember him, that it would be prominently mentioned in his obituary.
I recall him going from charming to volcanic in a Canadian moment.
“Why do you bring that movie up? I think it will probably be there, but I think I will get credit for many other roles on both sides of the Atlantic,” he fumed. “If I don’t, then the writer is an ignoramus and shouldn’t be writing the obituaries. Or maybe only the obituaries.”
If you were looking for proof that Plummer -- a great classical stage actor and star of scores of movies, most of them decidedly not musicals -- has mellowed since then, it can be found on page 408 of his new highly readable autobiography, In Spite of Myself. There he insists that a year ago he attended a children’s Easter party, where he was trapped (von Trapped?) watching The Sound of Music, or as he prefers to call it, “S&M.”
As he puts it, “…the more I watched, the more I realized what a terrific movie it is. The very best of its genre -- warm, touching, joyous and absolutely timeless.” Can one mellow that much, that quickly?
Nevertheless, those who know Plummer’s career know that the most significant part of it took place in the theater. Born in Montreal, the precocious descendant of one of Canada’s prime ministers, he gravitated to acting when he was not playing jazz piano, eventually joining the company of the fledgling Stratford (Ontario) Festival, then Great Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company and, of course, appearing on Broadway in such plays as J.B., The Royal Hunt of the Sun, Neil Simon’s The Good Doctor and, most recently, a revival of Inherit the Wind.
Or as he puts it in one of his more candid and introspective moments, “I was a pampered, arrogant young bastard, spoiled by too many great theater roles.”
If he has harsh words for anyone in his autobiography, it is for himself. He seems to have nothing but effusive praise for those he worked with, for such stellar co-stars as Sir John Gielgud, Dame Edith Evans, Ian Bannen and Ian Holm and for such drinking buddies as Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton and Jason Robards. It is a recurring incident through Plummer’s life that Lauren Bacall arrives on the scene and demands in her deep, intimidating voice, “Where’s Jason?” and Plummer has to scour their favorite bars until he finds his pickled pal.
Drink threatened to be Plummer’s undoing. It initially has a romanticized place in his world as he plays the indulged, intoxicated artist, but it gradually takes its toll on him, until his third and current wife, actress-dancer Elaine Taylor, persuades him of his alcoholism and insists that he cut it out of his regimen.
Unlike to many actors who jot off their memoirs, Plummer is a natural, nimble writer, who knows how to tell a good story. Those who think rehearsing the classics is all serious business, for instance, will appreciate his recollection of director Peter Hall’s bad habit of burying his head in the script, all but ignoring his actors, leading Plummer and his colleague Eric Porter to unzip their flies and expose themselves for an entire scene, to Hall’s complete indifference.
Or the ill-conceived production of Richard III, whose overbearing musical accompaniment the cast first encounters in a dress rehearsal. Annoyed by the potential wreckage such an intrusion would make, Plummer made his point by beginning the play with a slight modification of Shakespeare, “Now is the winter of our discotheque.”
While the profession breeds emotionally mischievous man-boys, Plummer places himself at the top of that particular pile. Fortunately, for himself and for us, he has the compensating talent to keep himself in favor among directors, his fellow actors and audiences. In Spite of Myself is how he describes his longevity as an actor, and as a detailed recollection without regrets, it is a juicy, highly satisfying read.
Book Review: Christopher Plummer Recounts His Life
The Arts Fuse
The Culture of New England
By Caldwell Titcomb, Sep 19, 2009
There are those who have proclaimed that Christopher Plummer is the greatest classical actor in North America. There is certainly no gainsaying that he has for some time been in the tiny group at the top of the acting profession. Now as he nears the age of 80 he has brought forth “In Spite of Myself: A Memoir” (Alfred Knopf, 648pp.).
This huge autobiography is crammed with details. Plummer must have an extraordinary memory or carefully kept diaries – perhaps both. Hundreds of people, well known and unknown, pop up in these pages briefly or extensively. He does not spare himself, admitting to constant carousing throughout the first half of his life. From what he repeatedly tells us, it is a miracle that he did not succumb to cirrhosis long ago. But the woman who is now his (third) wife issued an ultimatum: she would not date him unless he “cut down on the booze.” Along the way he contracted hepatitis, sciatic paralysis, and pericarditis. But he always made a full recovery.
His many jobs over the years – especially movies – took him to a host of foreign locations, and he is good at describing geographical milieus. A Rachmaninoff piano recital led him to become an ardent pianist. Later he would be a fan of bullfighting in Spain (a passion he shared with drama critic Kenneth Tynan, who wrote a book on the subject).
Although he talks about some of his film and television assignments, he discusses almost all his theater work. Near the book’s end, he says, “No matter what I do between, the stage always beckons and gets me every time.” The Toronto native made his debut at 16 in Mauriac’s “Asmodée” with the Montreal Repertory Theatre, for which he played Oedipus in Cocteau’s “La Machine Infernale” two years later to great praise. And he was on his way.
He saw Sir Donald Wolfit (1902-68) play King Lear, and says that he was, “for the first time, in the presence of greatness.” He cherishes being cast in a show with Edward Everett Horton, whose “polish and indisputable mastery of timing were light-years ahead of” other comedians. “The prime lesson…was just how real, natural and true one had to be in order to make comedy the supreme art that he proved it was.”
In 1952 Plummer appeared in seven plays at the Bermuda Repertory Theatre, including “The Royal Family.” The play’s matriarch was the formidable Florence Reed (1883-1967), who “had the deepest, most resonant voice I have ever heard in man, woman or beast – deeper than Paul Robeson’s, I swear.” He’s quite right. I knew Reed, and happened to see this production in Bermuda. (In the 1946 “The Winter’s Tale,” she was the most powerful Paulina I have ever seen, and ran off with the reviews.)
Eva Le Gallienne, “an actress of high intelligence and power,” in 1954 gave Plummer his Broadway debut, in “The Starcross Story,” which opened and closed the same night.
The next year Plummer was Jason to the Medea of Dame Judith Anderson, who was “electrifying…a tragedienne of the first order.” His “first big success” was in Anouilh’s “The Lark” (1955), adapted by Lillian Hellman, who at the time was “certainly the most dominating writer of either gender – the only one to have total casting approval over all her scripts.” The show’s star, Julie Harris, “is, without question, a national treasure and for more than fifty years has continued to illumine, strengthen and hold together what has now become the fragile fabric of our theatre. Anything short of canonization would be a colossal snub.”
It is fascinating to see all the verdicts he has about those in the profession. He has much to say about Jason Robards Jr. (a sometime colleague and drinking buddy), who in “The Iceman Cometh” gave “one of the most dynamic and shattering performances I have ever seen.” (It must have been a special pleasure in 2002 for Plummer to receive the Jason Robards Award.) Katharine Cornell “remained always the same – fine, noble, sympathetic.” Frances Hyland’s Ophelia was “the one that was to attain tragic heights.” Elia Kazan “was certainly the very greatest director of tragic drama I have ever worked with.” “Mr Fair Lady,” he says, “is still, arguably, the most perfect musical ever conceived.” Sir John Gielgud was “perhaps the greatest verse speaker of the last century….and possibly the most modest and least selfish of performers ever to grace our profession.”
Plummer portrayed Pizarro in “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” (1965), which “I still think is the best of Peter Shaffer’s writing” (so do I). “Orson Welles was never one person; he was, quite simply, a crowd.” In 1967 Plummer was Antony to the Cleopatra of Zoe Caldwell, “whose four-octave range could summon up an incredible variety of tones….this performance was to reach greatness.” Sir Anthony Hopkins is “a mimic of sheer genius.”
Plummer agrees with most that Sir Laurence Olivier was “no great shakes as a director.” But as an actor he had everything except pathos. “To have pathos one must be born with it. Ralph Richardson had it in spades; so had Brando and Chaplin; so, I believe, had Chaliapin and the great Salvini.” When Olivier filmed “King Lear” at the end of his life, he told Plummer, “I’m not very good in it, you know. I was so bloody weak they had to lift me onto my horse.” Plummer agrees it is poor. But he termed Olivier “the greatest theatrical animal of the century.”
I did not find many factual errors. The Boston tryout of “The Lark” took place at the Plymouth Theatre, not the Colonial. Cherry Jones’ Lady Macduff was not her Broadway debut but her second Broadway role. In “The Oresteia” Plummer’s Clytemnestra was “that powerhouse of lady performers, the statuesque Irene Worth. Irene, who spoke the English tongue with more precision and perfection than most Brits, was, ironically, an American….This had not deterred her from taking out British citizenry and becoming one of England’s very finest classical actresses. Much later she would grace the Honours list as a Dame.” Worth was a dear friend of mine, and this is what ought to have happened. But she never relinquished her American citizenship and was thus ineligible to be created a Dame. The queen, however, did make her an honorary Commander of the British Empire. Plummer asserts that “Macbeth” is “the shortest of all Shakespeare’s plays,” whereas “The Comedy of Errors” is the shortest and “Macbeth” the fifth shortest.
In such a lengthy tome one is not surprised to find a modicum of small slips and typos. Here is a sampling. The violinist Mischa Ellman (p. 35) was Elman. The actor Paul Lucas (120) was Lukas. Alec Guiness (165, 334) was Guinness. Fritz Weaver and Hurd Hatfield did not both play Julius Caesar (173); Weaver’s role was Casca. The Austrian waltz called the Lendler (404) should be Ländler. The wonderful film “Garden of the Fitzi-Continis” (434) should be “Finzi-Continis.” Tennessee Williams’ “Gnadiges Fraulein” (460) needs a pair of umlauts. The noted actor Marc Ryland (487) is Mark Rylance. The celebrated tenor Bjeurling (537) was Björling. Playwright Sam Shepherd (620) is Shepard.
Plummer has appeared on Broadway sixteen times, for which he has received seven best-actor Tony nominations, winning for the musical “Cyrano” (1974) and the one-man “Barrymore” (1997). Over the years he has tackled more than a few Shakespearean roles – including both Mark Antonys, Henry V, Hamlet, Leontes, Benedick, Richard III, Macbeth, Iago, and King Lear.
Lear, he says, “is not Mount Everest! Perhaps the play is but not the role. Richard III is much more vocally and physically challenging. Hamlet is monstrously more daunting.” (These two are the longest roles in Shakespeare.) After Lear, what is left to do? Plummer mentions Falstaff, Malvolio, Jacques, and “old Prospero, and as a last resort, perhaps [Shaw’s] Methuselah or, God knows, even God.” Since this book was published, it has been announced that Plummer will undertake Prospero at Canada’s Stratford Festival next year.
It should be noted that the book is not restricted to people. An important component is provided by Plummer’s dogs, who are the cause of some of the most moving writing in the tome. It is no accident that four of the five dedicatees are Briggie, Rags, Toadie, and Paddy – remembered “with gratitude and love.”
The book has one major flaw. There is no index at all. For a writer who has thought about and encountered hundreds and hundreds of persons named in the text, someone should have compiled a thorough index of proper names with page references. I had to attempt fashioning a partial index for my own use. One might compare this with the excellent index provided in the just-published autobiography by Sir Antony Sher, “Beside Myself: An Actor’s Life.”
Another mildly annoying feature of the Plummer book is the absence of specific dates. There are some, to be sure, but not enough. You might think that in a tome of this size Plummer would have stated the exact date of his birth. In fact, there has been some dispute about that date, a number of Canadian sources giving December 13, 1927. Other references indicate December 13, 1929. In such cases, it is usually wise to go with the earlier date. If the claim that Plummer was born on a Friday the13th is true, then the 1929 year would be accurate. I am inclined to go with the later year and allow Plummer to reach and celebrate the big eight-oh this winter.
To end on a laudatory note, I can report that the book is exceedingly generous with illustrations. These include three of the priceless caricatures by Al Hirschfeld, bringing the total to 182. The photos add enormously to the pleasure of going through a tome packed with engrossing material about a career of more than sixty years. Now on to Prospero.
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER
Published: December 18, 2008
In his rich and riotous new memoir, Christopher Plummer recalls a youthful night spent sitting at the feet of Edith Evans, sipping whiskey as she told him “wonderful stories of the theater and the extraordinary people and places she’d known.” When his turn came, he “began to regale her with some endless histoire,” only to turn and notice that “by God, if the old lady wasn’t slumped in her chair fast asleep.”
Mr. Plummer does tend to go on, but he’s clearly learned something about raconteuring since then, as this long but rarely dull book suggests. A child of Montreal’s waning Anglo aristocracy who was entranced by the footlights at an early age, Mr. Plummer is a true believer in the transcendent magic of “the Theeahtah” (as he calls it). But he’s hardly pious.
Of “Macbeth,” he declares: “Our author has put into the mouth of his unwashed Highland jock some of the greatest, most soaring poetry ever written. The combo I don’t buy — sorry!” Hitler, at least as rewritten by Brecht in “Arturo Ui,” is “an absolute lark to act — funny and outrageous,” while Captain von Trapp from “The Sound of Music” (or “S&M,” as he prefers) is “humorless and one-dimensional.” Mr. Plummer attributes his “unconscionable” behavior on and off set filming that beloved classic — moping and drinking up several sizes of lederhosen — to “the old-fashioned stage actor’s snobbism toward moviemaking.”
He seems to have been everywhere — including inside almost every room of the Hotel du Cap on the French Riviera — and known everyone. And just about everyone is “transcendent” (Geraldine Page), “wonderful” (Peter Falk), “exquisite” (Rosemary Harris), “exceptional” (Tony Richardson), “like being hit by a warm sirocco” (Katharine Hepburn), or capable of igniting a forest fire (Natalie Wood in a bathing suit).
He does throw some darts at his old chum Kenneth Tynan, who traded his critic’s chastity for a job at the National Theater and the chance to rub shoulders with Mick Jagger and “curry favor” with Princess Margaret. “Apart from some entertaining pastiches on bullfighting and haute cuisine” — two of Mr. Plummer’s own obsessions, it turns out — Tynan’s “only contribution to society was ‘O! Calcutta!,’ an inferior sexical performed by numerous unknowns in the altogether, exposing their shriveled parts in frigid London theaters.”
Mr. Plummer didn’t much like John Huston either, but he credits the old man with the two best pieces of movie direction he ever received, including the suggestion, during a scene in “The Man Who Would Be King” that Mr. Plummer wanted to make “touching”: “Ah — ah — Chris, just take the music out of your voice.” For a man armed with “gargantuan and repellent confidence” in his youth, Mr. Plummer comes across as charmingly (if not quite sincerely) self-deprecating, relishing the memory of his inauspicious Broadway debut in “The Starcross Story,” with Eva Le Gallienne, which “opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!”
For all his hints at lost weekends with leggy beauties (“Oh, those Austrian girls!”), that action remains mostly offstage. So too with momentous personal events. While his first wife, Tammy Grimes, is in labor, Mr. Plummer goes out to steel his nerves with a drink and finds himself sitting next to Budd Schulberg, who offers to cast him as the lead in his film about illegal egret hunting in the Everglades. (Mr. Plummer takes the role, and misses the delivery.) The day after he marries his second wife, Patricia Lewis, a London journalist, he jets off to his beloved Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario.
In general he dwells more on gaudy nights with the less fair sex. It seems that every time Lauren Bacall calls him up in his room at the Algonquin to ask, “Where’s Jason?,” Mr. Plummer dutifully goes hunting for his old friend Jason Robards, only to help him stay out another night or two.
The carousing mostly stops when Mr. Plummer meets his third wife, the actress Elaine Taylor, “an angel of mercy” who persuades him to give up “the giant martinis, stingers, old-fashioneds, boilermakers, rum scorpions, moscow mules, all that nectar that had been my sustenance.” (As for wine, “I still drank gallons of that, but then so did she!”) The Plummers live it up, but after British tax law drives them back to America (“What a boring P.M. was Harold Wilson!”) a hundred pages from the end, the book collapses in a heap of charming old houses, lovable new dogs, briefly recounted roles (including Lear and that other wrecked patriarch, John Barrymore), and quasi-valedictory summing up.
For all Mr. Plummer’s eloquence, the book rarely touches any emotional bottom. Toward the end he pays brief tribute to his “neglected daughter,” Amanda, who exits stage left after her birth only to reappear 20 years and 300 pages later in “Agnes of God,” which won her a Tony. Amanda has a “most original personality” and “the rare and inexplicable gift known only as pathos.” (Even Olivier, Mr. Plummer writes, knew only how to fake it.)
“I shall never forget” is Mr. Plummer’s refrain, and boy, does he mean it. He writes with the nostalgia of a man who has seen the passing of more than one golden age: of Montreal cafe society, of theatrical New York of the ’50s, of live television, of London’s swinging ’60s, of the out-of-control period epics of the jet-set ’70s. (He recalls the day when a regiment of Soviet Army extras in Sergei Bondarchuk’s “Waterloo” galloped off set to put down a real border skirmish, still in costume.) To Mr. Plummer it’s all part of one “unidentifiable golden age when the actor reigned supreme.” In the pages of this fine book, it’s still not over.
How we roared!
20 November 2010
To most people Christopher Plummer means Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music. Plummer would not be in the least ashamed by this. A year or so ago he found himself forced to watch the film at a children’s Easter party:
The more I watched, the more I realised what a terrific movie it is. The very best of its genre — warm, touching, joyous and absolutely timeless. Here was I, cynical old sod that I am, being totally seduced by the damn thing — and, what’s more, I felt a sudden surge of pride that I’d been a part of it.
It is an odd book, though. The production is calamitous: some of the illustrations are blurred to the point of mystery; unforgivably, there is no index; if an editor has been anywhere near the text there is no evidence of his existence. Trivial inaccuracies abound. Most pages have a phrase or two in French, put in for no apparent reason except, presumably, to demonstrate the author’s mastery of that language.
Initially, at least, Plummer writes with a relentless showbiz jollity that sets the reader’s teeth on edge. Names are dropped in what becomes a torrential downpour and much of the author’s life seems to have been spent in a drunken stupor, roaring with laughter at bad jokes. ‘We had all consumed an enormous amount of hooch and everything started to sound hysterically amusing’ appears on a thrill-packed page in which the author contrives to include the Dukes of St Albans and Devonshire, Princess Margaret, Patrick Lichfield and Rex Harrison. The previous page boasted Prince Rainier, David Niven, Sean Connery and Trevor Howard ‘and of course beaucoup des jeunes filles mal gardés [sic]’.
It is worth persisting, though. Once he has got the showbizzery out of the way, Plummer turns out to have interesting things to say about his profession, and to say them lucidly and intelligently. One learns, for instance, that Richard III is the most exhausting of Shakespearian roles because the Bard (who wrote the play when he was quite young) never gave his ‘star’ the necessary ‘rests’ throughout the evening. All the relentless vocal pyrotechnics occur in the first quarter of the piece; then Richard has a very short break or two until the end, when the pyrotechnics reappear. Not satisfied, the author makes poor Richard fight an unconscionably long and fearsome duel before he finally and mercifully expires.
This is the sort of technical detail which would be unlikely to occur to the average theatregoer but which enhances one’s appreciation of the role. When he played Antony at the age of 37, Plummer says, he had no trouble with the ‘wenching, drinking and gourmandising’ but failed to getthe flashes of the once great conqueror, legendary leader of men, who ‘with my sword / Quartered the world, and o’er green Neptune’s back / With ships made cities.’
Plummer is commendably objective about his own performances. He was not very good as Macbeth, he admits:
I spoke the verse well, because that I can do, but in my desire to stress the Thane’s ‘vaulting ambition’ I became far too neurotic to be a convincing leader, and that very ambition Macbeth talks about in my case literally ‘o’er leapt itself and fell on the other’.
Equally, when he feels he has excelled, he has no hesitation in saying so. It would have added something if from time to time he had quoted the judgments of the critics. An autobiography must obviously be subjective, but occasional views from the outside give a perspective which is lacking here.
He is in general generous about his fellow actors, both over their performances and their personalities; his description of Olivier’s Othello is an intelligent and sensitive analysis of that most controversial interpretation. Was it, he wonders, a great performance, even if short in pathos?
The answer is yes, I think so. It was not the Moor of Venice, it was closer to John Buchan’s Laputa or Emperor Jones, perhaps, but whatever it was, it was overwhelming — and probably the very last we will see of that timeless larger-than-life kind of performing that belonged to an unidentifiable golden age when the actor reigned supreme.
One of the few contemporaries he did not like was Alec Guinness. Plummer found him remote and exceedingly chilly. There was something sad and troubled about this tense man — as if he had a secret he didn’t wish to share.
‘Sad and troubled’ are certainly not words that can be applied to Plummer. The impression left by this book is one of enormous jollity and zest for life. He may have been from time to time exhausting to know — certainly he can be exhausting to read — but the world has been enriched by his existence.