He wasn’t a great actor, actually. Infatuated with false notions of posh that include even mid-Atlantic accents deployed by Democrats, we Americans tend to think every Canadian or British who lived ever could play Cleon or Lear, or, worse, tend to consider the playing of Cleon or Lear signifies greatness. What the British, or, well, Canadians like Plummer do better than Americans is insouciance. Richard Burton and Laurence Olivier seem the only personages who genuinely cared about the category of Great Actor; others, from Ronald Colman and Alec Guinness to Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, think or thought of themselves as commodities first. John Gielgud’s the quintessential British case: so beautifully modulated was his voice that he elides the barries between “reading a script well” and “playing a role.” As for the women, think of the lack of vanity of a Vanessa Redgrave, who does her thing year after year without interviews or campaigning for Tonys and Oscars. Glenda Jackson had other ideas about living — she became an MP.
As for the well-named Plummer, he got off on plumminess — on getting confused for British. My intro wasn’t The Sound of Music. In a Cosby Show episode filmed during the 1987-1988 season, he played a theatre director friend of Russell Huxtable’s (Earle Hyman) who just happened to stop by Cliff Huxtable’s for barbeque. Agonizing over the high school assignment of Julius Caesar, Theo and “Cockroach” are treated to a re-creation of the Caesar-Antony scene (i.e. “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look…”). With Roscoe Lee Brown playing Antony, middle America got a multi-racial rendition of Shakespeare that to me was as Good as Acting Got (Russell read Shakespeare during his eternal bus rides as a trombonist in a jazz troupe, we learn). Uncowed by genius, young Rudy Huxtable forced Plummer, Hyman, and Brown to play the vocal parts of her story about a dragon and princess vacationing in Canada. Then, as coda, Theo and “Cockroach” rap their version of Julius Caesar, and it would not embarrass a contemporaneous Fat Boys track. Plummer, wearing a down market idea of a Cliff Huxtable sweater, is plummy.
Attaining a new level of popular familiarity after solid work in Dolores Claiborne, Plummer moved on to play Christopher Plummer playing Mike Wallace playing Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s The Insider, the least convincing element in a solid film where Russell Crowe plays a chemist who downgrades to high school teacher. I can’t begrudge seniors winning Oscars if it guarantees a higher payday, but Plummer’s for Best Supporting Actor in Beginners (2001) ranks among the most execrable: Hollywood’s idea of what an older gay man is like, yet ancillary to a film in which Ewan McGregor romances Mélanie Laurent, transformed into the pixiest of pixies. I sat with an ex in a packed theater in summer 2010 as if at a Trump rally. I hated it. Still do. Wearing a bandanna, though, Plummer looked like George Martin at The Anvil, which counts for something. And writer-director Mike Mills went on to direct the superior 20th Century Women (2016).
But Plummer kept going. He earned an other Oscar nomination in 2018 for being a good sport in the farrago called All the Money in the World, and in the huge hit Knives Out he played the mystery writing family scion with vampirish glee (“Not giving up the ghost anytime soon,” I wrote in 2019).
Readers will note I have said not a word about The Sound of Music.