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The Christopher Plummer Syllabus

The Hollywood legend behind everything from ‘The Sound of Music’ to ‘Knives Out’ passed away at the age of 91 on Friday

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Christopher Plummer, a true legend of Hollywood whose career spanned seven decades, died at the age of 91 on Friday. “Chris was an extraordinary man who deeply loved and respected his profession with great old-fashioned manners, self-deprecating humor, and the music of words,” his manager Lou Pitt said in a statement. “He was a national treasure who deeply relished his Canadian roots. Through his art and humanity, he touched all of our hearts and his legendary life will endure for all generations to come.” Below, we remember some of his greatest moments.


The Sound of Music

It is only now, as I write this, that I find myself learning an extremely un-fun fact: Christopher Plummer was not a fan of The Sound of Music, the 1965 film in which he played the icy and impossibly handsome father of seven Captain Georg von Trapp. Plummer had mostly done Shakespearean acting before appearing opposite Julie Andrews in the Oscar-winning adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein production, and he called the film his toughest role in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable in 2011: “So awful and sentimental and gooey,” he explained. “You had to work terribly hard to try to infuse some miniscule bit of humor into it.” To others, he described the role as an “empty carcass” and an “albatross,” and is alleged to have referred to the movie over the years as “The Sound of Mucus,” a dad joke if there ever was one.

Of course, all of this sounds a lot like something Captain von Trapp, with his skeptical half-sneer and his clearly refined tastes and his stern lil whistle, might have said too about such a blatantly heartstrings-tugging film. And to be fair, Plummer eventually kind of came around on the movie’s charms, thanks to a children’s Easter party. As for me, the only sounds of mucus I will continue to recognize are my own sniffles at those first notes of “Edelweiss,” and my jealous tears during the dance scenes, and my drooling over Cap von Trapp with the guitar. I bet he’d play a mean—like, actually mean—version of “What I Got.” —Katie Baker

Beginners

“You’re only two years older than me, darling—where have you been all my life?” said Christopher Plummer to his Oscar statuette in 2012, a wry acknowledgment of his own age, as well as the idea that such recognition had been a long time coming. In Beginners, Plummer plays Hal, a 75-year-old man who comes out of the closet following the death of his wife; it’s a supremely charming performance that conveys the joy and trepidation of a man belatedly coming into his own while reckoning with the emotional consequences of this revolution to his adult son (Ewan McGregor, whose generous, self-effacing acting keeps serving up moments for his co-star to spike over the top). Mike Mills’s film is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, and Plummer leans into the vibe without cheapening or simplifying a character based closely on the filmmaker’s own father. Even a potentially corny scene like Hal dancing to house music on his first excursion to a gay bar is redeemed by a gentle flamboyance that seems to belong solely to the character. You know an actor’s been at it for a long time when he can make something feel totally spontaneous. —Adam Nayman

The Insider

60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace was, like many other top journalists, trustworthy, combative, shrewd, quick-witted, and ego-driven. But what made him a legend was that he was a consummate performer. Christopher Plummer understood that, and injected that notion in his turn as the TV newsman in Michael Mann’s film about a tobacco industry whistleblower named Jeffrey Wigand.

The then-69-year-old actor realized that Wallace was always on, even when he wasn’t on the air. No scene better illustrates this than when Wallace learns that the network went behind his back to heavily edit an interview he gave explaining why the network wasn’t airing the full Wigand segment. Wallace proceeds to unload, first on the CBS News president who claims it was cut for time: “Bullshit! You corporate lackey! Who told you your incompetent little fingers had the requisite skills to edit me?!” Then he turns on a lawyer, ending with this flourish: “I’ve been in this profession 50 fucking years. You and the people you work for are destroying the most-respected, the highest-rated, the most-profitable show on this network!”

The Insider was nominated for seven Academy Awards; somehow Plummer didn’t receive one. Bullshit! —Alan Siegel

Knives Out and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

He may have done his best flag-tearing work early in his career, but Christopher Plummer showed no interest in slowing down in his old age. As Henrik Vanger in David Fincher’s 2011 adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Plummer settled into a role that he would perfect in the last run of his career: Hot Mystery Grandpa. There was simply no one better at playing a dashing, wealthy patriarch who dotes on his eccentric family and holds his secrets a little too close to the chest. In Dragon Tattoo, Vanger hires Daniel Craig’s character to solve the mystery of a beloved niece’s disappearance. And in the 2019 fan-favorite mystery Knives Out, Plummer’s path crossed with Craig again, this time as the murdered (or was he?) novelist Harlan Thrombey against Craig’s scene-stealing detective Benoit Blanc. Plummer played other family patriarchs, in movies like National Treasure and All the Money in the World, but his innate warmth and eternally knowing gaze—with unmistakable hints of mischief and foreboding—made him a perfect match for the grandfathers of Dragon Tattoo and Knives Out. —Kate Halliwell

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Paramount Pictures

Star Trek movie villains are almost always big-name, classically trained actors in ridiculous makeup and costume, with instructions to go out and blow the roof off the set. It doesn’t always work—Tom Hardy almost strangled his own career in the cradle in Star Trek: Nemesis, and he was 10 times better in that film than Benedict Cumberbatch was in Star Trek: Into Darkness—but it’s always, always fun to watch. And if Trekkie orthodoxy requires Ricardo Montalban’s Khan to be held up as the best of these, Christopher Plummer’s General Chang was best of the rest.

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, released in 1991 at the end of the Cold War, explores the confusion of lifelong warriors thrust awkwardly and suddenly into an era of peace. On one side, Captain Kirk. On the other, Chang, a Klingon general with a mustache and an eye patch (Plummer reportedly said his costume made him look like Moshe Dayan). Plummer owned every scene he was in, quoting Shakespeare and Adlai Stevenson, delivering each line with a jaunty smirk or a menacing lean. There’s got to be something liberating about playing a character like Chang—if you’re a Klingon with an eye patch and an affinity for quoting Hamlet, you’re probably the bad guy—and Plummer played him with infectious glee; with Bond-villain levels of evil fun. And that’s why you get an actor like Plummer to play a character like Chang. He lent skill and gravitas to a character who might have been silly, and turned him into the best part of one of the best movies in the series. —Michael Baumann

The Silent Partner

This gritty Toronto-set thriller—a classic of Canada’s tax-shelter era and a favourite of Quentin Tarantino’s—features Plummer as Harry Reikle, a petty criminal who attempts to rob a bank while dressed as Santa Claus. He’s thwarted by a clever teller (Elliott Gould) who pockets the cash after sounding the silent alarm, leading to the indelible image of a gun-toting Kris Kringle being fired at by a mall cop. At this point in his career, Plummer was still mostly identified with his goody-two-shoes role in The Sound of Music, and playing a sociopath seems to liberate him; he stalks through his scenes with a seething, effete fury as he plots revenge on a worthy adversary. For all his stage training, Plummer was always peerless when it came to what he showed the camera and how; shot mostly in clinging close-up here, he concentrates the majority of Reikle’s menace into his burning, ice-blue eyes. In The Silent Partner’s most famous shot, Reikle stares his quarry down through the narrow rectangle of an apartment-door mail slot, a cartoon-style sight gag that’s also deeply, lingeringly creepy in a way that connects to the character’s earlier Santa Claus drag: he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. —Nayman

All the Money in the World

A few weeks ago, amid calls to erase Donald Trump from Home Alone 2: Lost in New York, more than a few people made the same joke: Christopher Plummer should replace him in the movie. This is a spinoff of a joke that’s flourished on Twitter for the past few years—the faux announcements of Plummer replacing problematic men in everything from Deadpool to Master of None to Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. It’s rooted in reality, of course: In 2017, as reports of Kevin Spacey committing sexual misconduct came to light, Ridley Scott made the decision to replace Spacey with Plummer as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World, mostly using digital technology.

It’s an onerous, unenviable task, filling the shoes of such a disgraceful man, in such a public manner. The list of actors with enough gravitas to do it well isn’t very long; Plummer, as the jokes on Twitter get at, is at the top of it. “I thought, ‘To hell with it, I’m doing it,’” Plummer told The New York Times. “There wasn’t time to be frightened or scared.” The performance earned Plummer an Oscar nomination, one that made him the oldest person to ever be nominated for Best Actor. It’s the least form of acknowledgement he deserves, for entering such a bleak situation with such grace; for reminding the world that good people do exist. —Andrew Gruttadaro