The genius of Plummer

If you had told me 10 years ago that Christopher Plummer is one day going to win a Golden Globe for acting — which he just has — and will also be a favourite to win in the coming Oscars, I would have said to you:

brilliant Christopher Plummer, in a still from ‘Beginners’.Sure! Absolutely! Of course!, even though Plummer was nowhere to be found on the acting scene back then. Why? Because if you knew him, as I did, from The Sound of Music, then you just knew he was that kind of performer, the Oscar performer. But if you had told me that he was going to deliver a series of brilliant, bold performances (which he now has) I would have laughed you off. Plummer 10 years ago was a bit of a joke to many of us for his hammy acting in The Sound of Music. That’s all we ever saw of him: thin, sardonic lipped Captain Von Trapp with an always impish smile speaking in a beautiful voice to his children, to Sister Maria, to his dogs and the Baroness. Watching The Sound of Music then — and this will be familiar to many of you — was a family ritual. But as my friends and I began to keep pace with the method actors just breaking out, Plummer came off as plumy and polished and artificial.  

What we didn’t know even then was that the poor chap had done brilliant things on the stage, but because of his undeniable handsomeness and plumy voice, became cast in show-offy roles. It was only later that I realised what a natural he was — acting just oozed out of him. (And if something oozes, it overflows, goes over the top and cloys). He just needed a role (and a director) that would keep it in, that would allow him to slyly let it out. I had my first glimpse of what a complex actor he was in a production, alas, (and alas) seen by very few. It’s called Nabokov on Kafka, a one man show where Plummer plays Vladimir Nabokov lecturing to his students on Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’. Its running time is just 30 minutes. (The DVD is available commercially to purchase).

Nabokov shuffles into a classroom and begins reading from the story, pausing every now and then to gloss and annotate. That’s the whole film. When the bell suddenly goes off in midsentence, Nabokov throws up his hands, stops lecturing, the students shuffle out, still dazed by his remarks. He puts away his Kafka copy back in his old, beaten briefcase and shuffles out.  

Christopher Plummer, Russian accent and all, is electrifying as the famous novelist-professor. When this little production opens, Plummer talks to us as Plummer, saying a few words about Nabokov. How he is mostly known for Lolita but what many don’t know is his fame as a charismatic, passionate and brilliant (that word again) lecturer whose classes would often be oversubscribed. Since he allowed only so many students each semester, the ones who didn’t want to miss hearing him camped outside his office overnight to be among the first to sign up for his ‘Lectures on Literature’ series. (The lectures became available as a book — two books, actually — and for several generations of English lit students at Bangalore University signing up for Prof TGV’s classes, this was a bible).   

So, yes, back to Plummer as Plummer introducing Nabokov, genius teacher. Plummer’s accent in the introduction is that famously mellifluous voice cascading down through a nicely rounded, plumy British accent. Cut to: Plummer transformed to a slightly balding, slightly hunched professor shuffling to his classroom. He steps in and even before he has reached his desk, has begun the lecture, making witty, insightful remarks about Kafka and his protagonist waking up to find he has turned into an insect. What is also different about Plummer now is the Russian-English accent he is speaking in, this is the famous Nabokov voice, inflected with Russian diction, and yet displaying a complete mastery of English. Anyway, Plummer is superb throughout: he has the whole story memorised, and even though he looks into his Kafka copy now and then, he is looking straight at you, narrating this Kafka tale.  

That short but uncanny performance sealed it for me: Plummer was a genius. Even if he hadn’t gone on to doing anything else, this complex performance would have been enough to recognise his worth as an immensely gifted and natural actor. But luckily for both him and us, suddenly directors began rediscovering his potential, casting him now in interesting, challenging roles. He was in his 70s then, and now at 82 he has won the Golden Globe for best supporting actor for Beginners (and I’ll wager a lot that he will win an Oscar for the same a few months from now). In Beginners, Plummer plays a gay father taking pleasure in his new identity. He just outs himself to his shocked son. It’s a crisp, funky performance, never sentimental, though endearing. And far away, so very far away from Captain Von Trapp. Plummer was recently celebrated for his performance as the bearded, deep-throated Tolstoy in The Last Station — and see, that kind of extravagant, larger than life role is what I don’t like; that’s what puts him in overdrive and stirs up memories of the strutting Austrian captain.  

Plummer is best when he plays someone more shaded, more thoughtful, or powerful but shadowy characters like the veteran TV newsman he played in The Insider alongside Russell Crowe, or the venal publisher of a New York publishing firm in Wolf alongside Jack Nicholson, or most recently as Henrik Vanger in the new Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. They even found a wonderful use for his voice — the charming, candid and wittily dry voice of J R Ackerley in the animated masterpiece, My Dog Tulip, about a writer and his companion, the German Shepherd Tulip. Plummer’s great, defining role is still coming, still to be fulfilled, and that’s something to keep looking forward to. Nowadays, if I happen to stumble on someone watching The Sound of Music, I stop to look for Plummer. If you see it again now, you’ll see he was one of the most delicious things about it.

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