Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Book review: Plummer's 'In Spite of Myself' a delightful read

Christopher Plummer.

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.

IN SPITE OF MYSELF, by Christopher Plummer, Alfred A. Knopf, 656 pages, $29.95.

This Sunday afternoon, I will be appearing with and interviewing Christopher Plummer at The Beach Club, 755 N. County Road, Palm Beach, in what promises to be a lively, entertaining session. And yes, I will be asking him again about his opinion of The Sound of Music.

Tickets are $125 per person or $200 per couple, including wine, cheese and a signed copy of In Spite of Myself. The event is sponsored by the Palm Beach Theater Guild to benefit the re-opening of the Royal Poinciana Playhouse. Call (561) 655-1051 for reservations or information.

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