Feature

Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On

At eighty, Christopher Plummer, who’s spent most of his life outside the country, is still a Canadian icon

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Illustration by Anita Kunz

• 6,557 words

Illustration by Anita Kunz

This is the year of the Stratford Christopher Plummer Festival. It’s not billed that way, of course. The season’s brochure still announces the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, with “Stratford” spelled out on the front cover in large capital letters, “Festival” in much smaller capital letters, and “Shakespeare” squeezed between them, with a capital S, but with the rest of his name in lower case. Two other names appear: those of Antoni Cimolino, the festival’s general (read “administrative” ) director, and Des McAnuff, its artistic director. But there’s only one face—a keen-eyed, questing, weather-beaten face—on that title page, and it takes up most of the space. The back page shows the face’s owner at three-quarter length in a jovial, parental pose, his arms wrapped protectively around the shoulders of the two directors, both of whom are some thirty years his junior. No name accompanies the picture on the front page, and you have to look very hard to find it at the back. The assumption seems to be that no name is needed.

It probably isn’t. Christopher Plummer, aged eighty and sporting the first Oscar nomination of a career that includes more than 100 movies, is appearing in just one of this season’s twelve Stratford shows. He plays Prospero in The Tempest, and, according to Cimolino, advance bookings for the production equal those for the festival’s two major musicals, Evita and Kiss Me, Kate. On some days, it even outsells them. (Why it should be deemed worthy of remark for Shakespeare to do better business at his own theatre than Andrew Lloyd Webber is a question best left for another occasion.)

If Plummer’s star billing is justified commercially, so it is historically. A history of the festival, published in 2002, described him as “the poster-boy Stratford actor,” but he might just as well be termed the poster boy Canadian actor. He hasn’t lived in this country since the early 1950s; he has seldom appeared in any Canadian theatre other than Stratford; and most of his film career has been American. But he has deep Canadian roots, and he has maintained a Canadian, and certainly a Stratford, presence—even when not working here. (He can usually be spotted in the festival audience at least once a season.) He is the local boy who made good internationally but is still thought of as local.

When Plummer first came to Stratford, in 1956, playing the title role in Henry V, he was twenty-six. He remained a virtual Stratford fixture until 1962, made a brief encore return in 1967, and wasn’t seen onstage here again until 1996, when he appeared in Barrymore, named for and celebrating the fabled American actor John Barrymore, who died in 1942 but whose image, Plummer said, “inspired a lot of us guys, all the good two-fisted drinkers of our time.” He could hardly be said, though, to have rejoined the Stratford company by playing the role; Barrymore was a virtual one-man show, mounted in collaboration with a commercial producer and bound for Broadway the following year.

Plummer returned in 2002, for the festival’s fiftieth season, and this time it was a return in earnest, maybe the greatest earnest possible: he was playing King Lear. What was impressive about his Lear was that it wasn’t, as it might easily have been, a mere guest turn by a visiting star. It was, in the best sense, a modest performance, from an actor who seemed to have parked his ego at the stage door (at least until the curtain call). It was a very complete performance of the old king as a vain, deluded, but fundamentally honest man, bewildered into new experience and running with it, into madness and beyond. Plummer’s performance, under the medically informed direction of Jonathan Miller, became famous for its intimations of dementia (this Lear could never remember the name of one of his daughter’s suitors), but it was more truly notable for its incarnation of what the text calls “authority,” which here translated into “bluff off-handedness.” Plummer was a humorous Lear, regally unused to introspection, who brooked no nonsense but whose idea of nonsense was anything he didn’t wish to hear. Two of the actor’s finest moments were delivered from offstage. Before his first entrance, we heard the sound of cackling as he shared a joke with his faithful Fool. Before his last, we heard a transfixing, feral moan that resolved, when he appeared with the body of his murdered daughter, into the four most devastating monosyllables in Shakespeare. So he took us on a highly articulate journey between two inarticulate extremes: from “heh, heh, heh, heh” to “howl, howl, howl, howl.”

He was back again in 2008, as Julius Caesar in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra (a production subsequently filmed). Still in sparkling vocal, physical, and intellectual shape, he perfectly realized Shaw’s idea of Caesar as a passionate soldier and philosopher whose relationship with the young queen Cleopatra was strictly pedagogical. The role reflected his position in the Stratford company; he was charming, witty, irrepressible, and unbeatable. Prospero (like Lear, a father; like Caesar, a teacher) seems a natural progression.

So his Stratford work has found him at the two extremities of his career. It’s as if he’s gone straight from Roaring Boy to Grand Old Man, with Barrymore as a way station in which he was a Grand Old Man playing a Roaring Boy—or, just conceivably, vice versa.

In 2008, and without benefit of a ghostwriter, Plummer published his autobiography. It’s actually billed as “a memoir,” though that seems a slight term for a volume of 656 pages. Its title, In Spite of Myself, playfully reflects its overall tone, which ranges from rueful to gleeful, with the latter predominating. It also reflects its author’s singular position among Canadian actors. Most obviously, it’s a picture of high living and high success, the story of a theatre star. It’s also, seemingly, the story of a movie star. And yet there’s an air of bashful incredulity about it, as if the narrator were still dazzled by the company, professional and otherwise, that he’s been privileged to keep. He’s with them, but he’s not quite of them: enough of an outsider in Hollywood for us to identify with him. In the theatre, American as well as Canadian, his name, all by itself, is bankable. But that’s never been true in films, where he’s respected but not idolized. So the theatre can feel proud of him without ever feeling that it’s lost him. And since the theatre is his real home, as both his book and his track record attest, it’s worked well for him.

The book’s first, arrestingly blunt sentence is “I was brought up by an Airedale.” This is then elaborated, with what proves to be typical buttonholing whimsy, as follows: “I won’t deny it, ’tis the truth and nothing but, Your Honour—a bumbling, oversized, shaggy great Airedale.” Dogs have featured prominently in Plummer’s life; the house in Connecticut he has shared for thirty years with his third wife, Elaine, has been overrun with them; four of them even make it—along with her—into his book’s dedication.

The dog who watched over him in his earliest memories was called Byng, named after Field Marshal Lord Byng, a former governor general and a friend of Plummer’s grandparents. That was the kind of family he was born into; a great-grandfather on his mother’s side was Sir John Abbott, the country’s first Canadian-born prime minister. Plummer himself was an only child. His parents divorced soon after his birth in 1929, and he barely knew his father. It was, with all respect to the Airedale, his mother and her extended family who brought him up. Home was Montreal, and his family were “the distinguished poor—not poverty-stricken, I assure you.” They were certainly cultured. He got hooked on acting after seeing his first school play, but he was equally enthusiastic about music—all kinds of music.

Montreal before and during World War II was a music-hall and cabaret mecca, and Plummer, even when underage, was able to get into the clubs and developed a taste for all kinds of high life. He saw every entertainer who came through town, from Edith Piaf to Count Basie to the stripper Lili St. Cyr, and those who already lived there, like the young prodigy Oscar Peterson. A lifelong jazz fan, Plummer had an equal passion for classical music. He studied to be a concert pianist, and Cimolino says he’s still a fine one. The one musical expression he’s always felt sheepish about—unnecessarily, one suspects—is singing. He has starred in one musical on Broadway, and his most famous film remains, of course, The Sound of Music (1965), but his vocals were dubbed. It came very early in his movie career, and he expressed an uneasy contempt for it, famously renaming it “The Sound of Mucus,” but he has come to accept and even love it. The late Richard Monette, former artistic director at Stratford, reckoned that the film contributed mightily to Plummer’s Canadian icon status: “People see it when they’re young; he’s living forever.” In a backhanded way, it made him famous.

Plummer entered the professional theatre at a time when there wasn’t much Canadian theatre to enter. He was able to begin with what was then the nearest thing to a full-time company, the Canadian Repertory Theatre in Ottawa. But his richest early Canadian experience came in radio. McAnuff, who directed him in Caesar and directs him in The Tempest, was talking to him over dinner about current young actors’ vocal facility, or the lack thereof, and asked him where he developed what Kenneth Tynan once called “a voice of kaleidophonic virtuosity.” Plummer replied that it came from radio: “It was my bread and butter.” He commuted from Montreal to the cbc studios in Toronto, exploiting his Quebec upbringing to appear in “so many soaps in both languages” that he once forgot to show up for one of them. (It was a live broadcast, of course, and his fellow actors had to improvise an off-mike death scene for him—at least that’s what he says in the book.) Not all good radio actors prove equally good onstage, but McAnuff was sufficiently impressed by Plummer’s account to consider inaugurating radio classes for the current Stratford company.

Plummer’s real theatrical baptism occurred outside Canada: in Bermuda, in fact, as the young leading man in a year-round rep housed in a hotel. (Another Canadian, Kate Reid, was his leading lady.) Contacts he made there got him, in phenomenally short order, to New York. And it was New York that got him back to Stratford.

Plummer is a Janus figure, looking forward and back—on his own behalf, on the Stratford Festival’s, and on Canada’s. When he first came to Stratford, he was the spearhead and symbol of a generation, Canada’s new wave of actors in its first approximation of a national theatre. Internationally, he became associated with a generation of British and American actors who were first tagged as angry young men and later, after achieving success and accumulating its trappings, as—well, good two-fisted drinkers. They included Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, and (an especially close friend) Jason Robards Jr. But Plummer was also a throwback. His peers, the British ones anyway, were hailed for bringing a revolutionary, proletarian energy to theatre and movies, and especially to the classics. Plummer, born into the Canadian upper-middle class, didn’t have the advantages of their disadvantages. Breathing fire and gleaming with irony, he was a new traditionalist, a neo-romantic, Canada’s—and ultimately North America’s—own Laurence Olivier. Indeed, when he first appeared in Britain, in the ’60s, he was widely regarded as an imitation Olivier, and it took him some time to live that down; arguably, it’s only in the past ten to fifteen years that he’s finally done so. He had some of the Olivier mannerisms (and, offstage, can do a shattering impression of Olivier’s barking call-to-arms delivery that is part parody, part nostalgic homage).

When Plummer made his Stratford debut as Henry V, he was taking on one of the two iconic Olivier Shakespearean roles. The other is Richard III. Their status derives not from their being kings but from Olivier’s having recreated his stage performances of them in famous self-directed films. Plummer was to play Richard as well, in 1961, at the British Stratford. That’s worth contemplating: just five years after his Stratford, Ontario, debut, he was the leading man at the most prestigious Shakespearean theatre in the world, on the playwright’s own turf. An English theatrical magazine of the time ran extracts from the diary of a small-part actor in the company, who wondered nervously how he was expected to behave toward a) Dame Edith Evans and b) Chris Plummer. Local boy had really made good.

The 1956 Canadian Stratford season made history in many ways. It was the festival’s fourth season, its last under canvas (the present concrete structure went up in 1957), and the first with Michael Langham as artistic director; Tyrone Guthrie had brought him to Stratford the previous year as a guest director. As well as being the festival’s artistic founder, Guthrie was Langham’s mentor and father figure, as Langham—who had also grown up fatherless—was to become Plummer’s. It was also (after three seasons in which the company had been led in succession by Alec Guinness, James Mason, and the expatriate Czech tragedian Frederick Valk) the first Stratford season without a visiting star.

But then, by some lights, it had a visiting star. Plummer had played Broadway—maybe not in star roles, but in substantial ones. Most important, he’d been the Earl of Warwick in The Lark, Jean Anouilh’s play about Joan of Arc, opposite—all right, supporting—Julie Harris. (Five decades later, Plummer’s daughter, Amanda, would play the Anouilh Maid at Stratford, with her father—again an absentee for most of her life—sitting in the audience and marvelling.) It was seeing Plummer’s Warwick that prompted Langham to cast him as Henry V. He had, said Langham, “the chemistry of a romantic classical actor—a lot of sex, great charm, a natural comedic gift.” Plummer himself, in a 1997 interview with the New York Times, said that playing Henry “zapped my career. From that time on, my name was above the title.”

In In Spite of Myself, Plummer writes of playing Henry that “I had some of the best times of my life in it—it was like quaffing gallons of champagne.” The book’s approach to acting, particularly its author’s own, is less analytical than anecdotal, but he does try to place the production historically, calling it “the tale of an angry young rebel reluctant to shed his youthful debauchery for a throne he didn’t particularly cherish, only to discover… he had grown up, not just a brawling soldier, but a king—and a king with some conscience… it was… raw and very right for the mid-fifties.” Plummer’s reverence for theatrical and movie history—for older actors and most especially for older American actors—leaps off the pages, but he isn’t always trustworthy on the details. He writes of his Henry that “a considerable amount of time had gone by since Laurence Olivier’s mighty motion picture,” and that “Richard Burton at the Old Vic had soon thereafter made a sonorous, rough and ruthless brawler out of the young king, but no other major production of the work had since been given.” In fact, Burton, the closest in type to Plummer of all the two-fisted fraternity, played the part at the Vic just a few months before Plummer did it at Stratford—they all but overlapped—and the two performances seem to have been on similar lines. They even look alike in the photographs, although the young Burton possessed a mystical, driven quality to which the younger, more practical Plummer never aspired. The production, though, had its own mystique, in Langham’s casting of Québécois actors as the French court. When England and France joined in marital league at the end of the play, it seemed to speak to Canada in a way that made it one of the key productions in Stratford’s history. Plummer, an anglophone from Montreal, found himself cast, fleetingly but imperishably, as a symbol of Canadian unity. The following year, Stratford mounted its first Hamlet, with Plummer, for a multitude of reasons, the unchallenged choice to play the Prince.

This was another role in which he followed Burton and, at a longer distance, Olivier. All three were romantic adventurer Hamlets, and all three elicited the same critical incredulity that they could have delayed so long in sweeping to their revenge. Olivier was certainly aware of the resemblance, and of the implied competition. He once told an interviewer, with presumably mock indignation, how “Dickie Burton” had had “the sauce” to play exactly the same line of roles in the 1950s that Olivier himself had done in the ’30s. He isn’t on record as saying anything similar about “Kit Plummer” (he seems to have been the only person in Plummer’s life ever to address him by that Elizabethan diminutive for “Christopher”), but the two men came to know one another in the London of the ’60s, enjoying a relationship that was admiring but uneasy. Plummer even acted, not too happily, under Olivier’s direction in the waning days of his regime at Britain’s National Theatre. “I have this image,” Plummer wrote about Olivier, “of a giant Othello, like a great oak about to be felled, trying to remain upright while swarms of nasty Iagos keep snapping at its trunk and gnawing away at its bark until, at last, weakened at the base, it can stand no longer and comes crashing down to earth.” It’s a fate that has never seemed likely for Plummer himself. He has stayed independent. He has never run a theatre or directed a company. Remarkably for an actor of his stature, he has never even directed a play.

He might reasonably, when he first appeared at Stratford, have been accused of queue jumping. There were other talented young actors of his generation, still playing supporting roles, who’d been at Stratford since the opening season in 1953. Plummer had wanted to be one of them. Sitting in a New York bar and reading about the revolutionary new open stage and the ecstatic night of its first unveiling, he suddenly felt culturally homesick. He had tried. He’d auditioned for Guthrie for that season—and for the two following—and been turned down: not for lack of talent, but because Guthrie felt he wouldn’t be a good company member. Guthrie had been told that Plummer was “a womanizer, a libertine, a drunk, totally irresponsible, undisciplined and a black influence on any company. This all sounded most exciting. Under other circumstances, I only wished it had been true.” That’s what Plummer says in the book. Ten years earlier, talking to the New York Times, he had said Guthrie “thought me a bit of a playboy, and he was absolutely right.”

It turned out that Stratford could use a playboy, or at least a swashbuckler. In his youthful Stratford prime, which was also the festival’s, Plummer’s star roles included blade-flashing wisecrackers like Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, the Bastard in King John, and—the acme of all stage swashbucklers—Cyrano de Bergerac (the part he was to do much later in a musical in New York). He also played just one small role, Bardolph, Falstaff’s sozzled henchman, in Henry IV, Part One: an unexpected bit of emphatically unheroic low-life casting that goes unmentioned in the memoir but seems still to arouse delighted memories in those who saw it.

Langham persuaded Plummer to play that role because a good company man needed to play small parts as well as leads. But he also knew that no company was going to hold Plummer indefinitely: “Chris had a kind of wildness, a passionate desire to live like a ’30s film star.” When Plummer returned to Stratford in 1967, it was to play Antony, opposite Zoe Caldwell’s Cleopatra. Antony was a role that Olivier, who hadn’t done too well in it, had disparaged to Plummer as “such a bad part; he’s just a failed movie star.” Plummer disagrees—“Antony’s a marvellous part… a crumbling noble creature”—but it wasn’t one of his big successes either. (He has said that, at thirty-seven, he was too young for it; he hadn’t, so to speak, reached full crumble. “The libertine with his wenching, drinking, gourmandising was fairly familiar territory for me and not too tough an assignment. What I didn’t get at all were the flashes of the once great conqueror… ” To be fair, few actors have; the problem is that by the time the play starts, all that is in the past.) Still, he made his first entrance like a movie star—his first entrance at rehearsals, anyway. He arrived a couple of weeks after everyone else; he had, fittingly enough, been making a film. As Cimolino tells it (it was before his time at Stratford, but he’d been told the stories), “The door at the back of the auditorium swung open, the light flooded in from outside. Chris walked in, in a rolled-up T-shirt, walked up to Zoe and gave her a long, deep kiss. He made it clear who the alpha male was.”

“Chris,” says Langham, “had many demons,” and in the ’60s he was either exercising or exorcising them in London and New York. He was living much of the time at the Connaught or the Algonquin, spending a lot of money, much of it in bars and restaurants. He’s always loved food, and some of the most relishing parts of his autobiography are concerned with it. It’s been good for him, too, and not just in the sense of keeping him from starvation: it’s saved him from the excesses of his more self-destructive peers (let alone those of John Barrymore); he’s said that he always got too hungry to be a really serious drinker.

His first two marriages both ended in divorce. The first, contracted during his first Stratford season, while he was essentially commuting between there and New York, was to the American actress, singer, and all-around throaty charmer Tammy Grimes, who, according to Langham, “looked as if she had just woken up and found the world surprisingly wonderful. But that marriage was so wild.” They were both, as Plummer quickly came to recognize, too young, too immature, too focused on their own careers, of which hers was at the time the more successful and certainly the more lucrative. (She was headlining on Broadway and in nightclubs; he was in classical Canadian rep.) Amanda is the child of that marriage. Plummer never felt he was much of a father, perhaps because he had never had one himself, and he hardly saw his daughter when she was growing up; for much of the time, they were rarely even on the same continent. They have reconnected in recent years, and he admires her talent inordinately. But when he describes her, especially in his book, it’s as if she were some kind of extraordinary stranger: “an immensely talented, strangely spiritual recluse.” Watching her in an obscure and brutal British movie called Butterfly Kiss, “stark naked as a mad serial killer” and affecting a perfect Liverpool accent, he “felt suddenly terribly old-fashioned, conventional and cautious… I couldn’t help admiring her and her fearless courage more than ever.”

His second marriage, contracted during his swinging London phase in the ’60s, was to a British journalist, Patricia Lewis, who, as he tells it, seems to sum up the time and place: another woman with fearless courage, and a heavy drinker whose condition was greatly exacerbated by a near-fatal car accident. In 1969, he was in Ireland, filming what was supposed to be a Restoration romp entitled Lock Up Your Daughters, based on a successful British musical but minus its songs; Plummer played a fop called Foppington who’d been inserted from another play altogether. (He was actually very funny in it.) Also in the cast, as Susannah York’s maid, was a twenty-two-year-old Anglo-Irish actress named Elaine Taylor. “Oh, yes,” she said (or he says she said), when he was at work on his book and asked her to contribute her memories of their first meeting, “we tumbled into bed and all that, but I didn’t like you very much. I thought you were the most conceited prig—the way you ponced about in that big convertible of yours. And you drank far too much—but there was something, I suppose… ” The “something” has lasted; by Plummer’s own account and those of his friends, she changed, maybe even saved, his life. Langham says that, as an actor and as a man, “Chris has matured in the last thirty years remarkably. He’s been blessed by a wonderful partner, who’s understood his demons… I admire very much what he’s done with his home in Connecticut. It’s a glorious place.”

Mcanuff and cimolino, the Stratford bosses, both refer to Plummer, almost reflexively, as “Canada’s greatest actor.” Both then pause a moment and say, “Of course, there was Bill Hutt.” William Hutt, who died two years ago, represents the other side of the Stratford medal, not the poster boy but the doyen. He was a member of the first Stratford company, in 1953, and he remained at Stratford, essentially, for the rest of his life. Langham, who feels now that he underestimated Hutt during his own twelve-year regime at the festival, thinks Hutt could have had “a pretty good career” in New York (he did act on Broadway) and even in Hollywood. But he is unlikely to have become a star there. In their classical work, Plummer had power, and Hutt had grandeur, plus a fastidious, cello-toned distinction. If Plummer emulated Olivier, whose movie career always ran in tandem with his stage work, Hutt was John Gielgud, whose major successes in film came in his old age. Olivier was always thought of as the fierce animal, Gielgud as the fastidious intellectual; and it’s tempting, if a bit too easy, to categorize Plummer and Hutt in the same way. Hutt said, more than once, that Plummer divided people into two categories—those he was afraid of and those who were afraid of him—and that he made up his mind, right from the start, that he wasn’t going to be the second kind. He never did let on whether he made it into the first.

Hutt never had Plummer’s glamour; even when he was young, the only juvenile roles he got to play were comics. He became Canada’s generally acknowledged premier Shakespearean and probably, after Gielgud’s death, the finest verse speaker (or, more properly, verse actor) in the world. But the only time he got to play Hamlet was as Plummer’s understudy. The Gielgud comparison rather breaks down there, because Hamlet was Gielgud’s signature role, though one does rather wonder how he made out in the duel. Hutt, on the other hand, could play some of the great Olivier military roles, like Titus Andronicus; and, indeed, King Lear, who must have been a warrior in his youth and who, even at eighty, kills one of Cordelia’s murderers. Hutt played three Stratford Lears and three Prosperos, starting with each of them while he was still a young man. In Stratford lore, he owned both roles and, even posthumously, still does. Plummer’s Lear was a fine performance, but Hutt, for reasons both historical and artistic, was Lear, at least for Canada. His last performance of the role came when he, like Plummer when he played Lear, was in his seventies, in sight of the king’s own age of “fourscore and upward”; and in their senior years, the two actors’ talents grew closer together. So did Gielgud’s and Olivier’s; so do those of most major actors who survive. They economize; they pare down; they become character actors rather than personality performers; they live increasingly on their wits, and especially on their wit. Plummer’s later performances have been notable, among other things, for their twinkle. His Lear was actually more a frail human, less a Blakean prophet, than Hutt’s; the two had, to some extent, exchanged qualities.

As a survivor, Plummer has outpaced the actors he most resembled. He never became the world-renowned figure that Richard Burton did, but he never became sad and lost either. Burton spent his last years talking about returning to the stage and playing Lear. Plummer, who kept acting on the New York stage in his years away from Canada, didn’t have to return; he just went ahead and played it. He writes touchingly in his memoir of being invited to a screening of Olivier’s television Lear, filmed after ill health had forced his retirement from the stage. Olivier had said, “Oh, Kit, you don’t want to see this. I’m not very good in it, you know. I was so bloody weak they had to lift me onto my horse.” It was actually a more moving performance, partly for those same extramural reasons, than any he likely gave when he was younger. Plummer found it “fascinating but overly long” and adds, “He was indeed very frail as Lear and his voice was pitched unusually high—he no longer owned those wondrous ringing tones.” Plummer’s own tones still resonate. And having shed any Olivier mannerisms, he has largely refrained from developing his own. He is natural, even casual, in a way Olivier never was. Perhaps his most attractive quality onstage nowadays is his roguish relaxation. It was evident in his Caesar, and even more in his Barrymore, whom he presented as half beached Shakespearean whale, half shameless vaudevillean.

Neither Plummer nor Hutt has had a true successor, nor do they seem likely to have one. Show business, in Canada and outside, may have changed too much for a Canadian classical actor to become a national treasure and/or an international name while still remaining a Canadian classical actor. Kenneth Welsh and Colm Feore followed in some of Plummer’s footsteps, as Stratford Hamlets who went on to succeed in film. They worked their way up at Stratford, as Hutt did and as Plummer never had to, but they didn’t devote themselves to the stage as single-mindedly as Hutt did. But they didn’t become movie stars either. William Shatner certainly made it in Hollywood, at least in television, but it’s almost impossible now to believe that he was Plummer’s Stratford contemporary (and his understudy as Henry V). Donald Sutherland, another peer, probably made it bigger in movies than Plummer did, at least for a time; but he never had a presence in Canadian theatre, or really in Canadian acting, even if he was drafted this year as the voice of the Olympics.

Googling Christopher Plummer would, until recently, call up a link reading “Christopher Plummer is arguably the finest actor of the post–World War II period.” Following that rather startling claim to its source, the Internet Movie Database, revealed that he was merely being offered as the finest “never to have been nominated for an Academy Award.” This year that changed. Plummer received a best supporting actor nomination for his performance as Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station. He prophesied that he wouldn’t win; and indeed he duly lost to Inglourious Basterds’ Christoph Waltz, but, at his handsomest and most leonine, he looked sportingly happy to be there. Maybe, in movie terms, he’s always been a supporting actor. He’s certainly made a lot of what might be called supporting films: The Sound of Music, whatever may be thought of it, remains after forty-five years the one undisputed classic in his filmography. Four years after that, he was an extravagant Inca monarch in The Royal Hunt of the Sun (in the stage version, he had played the more sober role of the Spaniard Pizarro). Pauline Kael, reviewing that film, said with unwitting prescience that not even John Barrymore would have given so outrageous a performance: “He wouldn’t have dared.” This performance, and such others as his mad emperor Commodus in The Fall of the Roman Empire, remind us that the Plummer who grew up watching cabaret performers in Montreal has never been afraid of being camp.

He has made epics; he has a background that lends class to a costume drama. These are the kind of films an actor generally finds hell to make and, especially if he’s Plummer, fun to reminisce about. He was the Duke of Wellington in Waterloo (1970), filmed mainly in what seemed like nightmarish circumstances in Ukraine with a Russian director who, though a genius at spectacle, had no knowledge of the English language and very little patience with English-speaking actors. He is proud of having played Rudyard Kipling, lines from whose verses liberally bestrew the pages of the autobiography alongside some pastiches of Plummer’s own, in John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975). He replaced an unavailable Burton in this role, and was teamed with, or adjudicated between, the two greatest British film actors of their—and his—generation, Sean Connery and Michael Caine. These were genuine movie stars, and they owed part of that eminence to having long deserted the stage. They were both loyal theatre animals, though; when the front office threatened to cut Plummer’s character from what they considered an overlong picture, Connery resorted to physical intimidation, to make sure the kid stayed in. Plummer and Caine were old colleagues, though when they’d met before, in 1964, it was Caine who was the supporting player; he had, extraordinary as the casting may seem now, played Horatio to Plummer’s Hamlet, in a television production shot at the actual Kronborg Castle in Elsinore (and, in another footnote for the history books, with Donald Sutherland as Fortinbras). Caine could weep buckets on cue, and, over Hamlet’s dying body, he did. “No Hamlet since Burbage’s time,” records Plummer, “has had a wetter death.”

The turning point in Plummer’s film career came as recently as 1999, with his polished, restrained, infinitely powerful Mike Wallace in The Insider. It revealed an actor in full maturity, and in absolute command of his means. It lit the fuse that led to his Oscar nomination this year—though his Tolstoy is actually less impressive than his mischievous, driven title performance in a more wayward but more imaginative picture, Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, that came out almost simultaneously. As the aged Tolstoy, he’s mainly required to lie around in a long white beard and look impressive; he does it well, but it’s small beer after Lear, even if the two characters bear a certain patriarchal resemblance. Dr. Parnassus is far more interesting, a sly, haunted magician overwhelmingly devoted to his daughter, and surrounded by special effects of his own devising. He is in fact a Prospero figure, and, by accident or design, Plummer looks in the role as if he’s gearing up for his performance this year at Stratford.

He has had one shot at a TV drama series, playing a desk-bound super-cop in Counterstrike, which lasted three seasons. “I guess,” he mused when it was cancelled, “I was never meant to be a rich man. Comfortable, perhaps, but not rich.” It would be hard to claim that he is uncomfortable, financially or professionally. He remains worshipful of movies, and especially of movie stars. But the theatre is, by his own reckoning, the uniquely demanding medium (“not for sissies”) and the one to which he keeps returning, the one he seems never to have left, despite having so frequently gone away. Especially the Canadian theatre, which in his case means, overwhelmingly, the Stratford theatre. He is our figurehead: the one Canadian actor to have sustained both a national and an international career. He has seized a succession of historical moments. Whether he is “our greatest actor” hardly matters; he is, by right of talent and temperament and timing and tradition, our indispensable actor.

This appeared in the May 2010 issue.

Anita Kunz, an Officer of the Order of Canada, recently received an honorary doctorate from her alma mater, OCAD University in Toronto.