Christopher Plummer (Profile)

"I've always refused to have cameras come into the theatre," says Christopher PLUMMER. "You can't meddle with one medium, mixing it with another. But this time I thought I would let it go." On Jan.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on February 9, 2009

Plummer, Christopher (Profile)

"I've always refused to have cameras come into the theatre," says Christopher PLUMMER. "You can't meddle with one medium, mixing it with another. But this time I thought I would let it go." On Jan. 31, selected Cineplex movie theatres around the country will be showing the high-definition film of Plummer and Nikki M. James in Shaw's comedy Caesar and Cleopatra, shot at the STRATFORD SHAKESPEARE FESTIVAL in 2008. That was a big year for Plummer, since it also saw the publication of his autobiography, In Spite of Myself, the story of his 50-plus-year career as one of the most famous actors Canada has ever produced. But what he's most famous for isn't Shakespeare or Shaw. As the 79-year-old star told Maclean's: "The Sound of Music still gets me good tables in restaurants, but otherwise, it's not my most noble moment."

That's where Caesar and Cleopatra comes in. It's a stage-to-film transcription patterned after the Metropolitan Opera's series of opera screenings, where a live stage production is recorded with multiple high-definition cameras and then shown to a multiplex audience. The film's producer, Barry Avrich, enthuses that this is the way to preserve a great performance for posterity in a form that's actually watchable: "It takes a lost art, makes it a brilliant treasure forever." And it might introduce larger audiences to the kind of acting that made Plummer a major star.

Not that Plummer really needs to introduce himself to anyone at this point. As a stage actor, he is what Antoni Cimolino, general director of Stratford, describes as "one of the finest actors alive," someone with the voice and looks and authority to make a classic play "as good as it can possibly be." Plummer's been a fixture at Stratford since the '50s, when all its plays were mounted inside a tent. He's been a famous Iago, Henry V, Hamlet, and most recently, King Lear. His Broadway successes included his role in the Pulitzer Prize-winning J.B., playing Satan (always a better part than God). He made a Stratford hit out of Shaw's Caesar and its weird mix of parody and drama, which isn't easy to do: Cimolino says, "Not since Olivier played this part has there been a theatrical hit with it."

But Plummer hasn't had that kind of impact in the more permanent world of film. He never became a movie star, and he's quite comfortable with that. "Once I became a character actor - thank God! - the interesting parts began to flow." So he's always playing a role that is overshadowed by someone else's: Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music, Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King, Peter Sellers in Return of the Pink Panther. And unlike Laurence Olivier, who transferred his great Shakespeare roles to film, Plummer hasn't made film versions of classic plays, except for a dreary movie of Oedipus Rex (Oedipus the King). On film, he's a useful actor; on stage, he's a star.

It's not surprising, then, that both the book and the new film emphasize that Plummer is a theatre actor first and foremost. His book, which he wrote himself (no "as told to" co-author), was a witty, good-natured tale of what it meant to be a working actor in the live theatre, back when live theatre wasn't just something people did to get hired in television. The book became famous for its candid, sometimes bawdy or catty anecdotes (he writes that the Algonquin Hotel was nicknamed, "when particularly effete members of our profession were in residence, 'The Alicegonquin' "), but its real focus was on the many actors and personalities Plummer has been in touch with in his stage career. "I had to get it off me," he says. "I wanted people to know how one develops through working with other extraordinary actors and actresses, what one learns."

And though it was taped before the publication of In Spite of Myself, Plummer's performance in Caesar and Cleopatra is now extra enjoyable because it feels like a tie-in with the book; the personality he projects for 600 pages is the same personality that comes out in his portrayal of Caesar. The Plummer who relishes the farcical comedy of his leap into the water at the end of Act Three, and gets a huge laugh simply by his affected, sarcastic way of saying "No," is the same guy who wrote that after he first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, "a couple of Ty Power's ex-courtesans turned up to pay their respects (for this relief, much thanks!)."

The book and the film are also connected by the way they reinforce Plummer's identity as a Canadian, even after he scored big successes in England and America. In Spite of Myself spends the first 80 pages looking back at the vibrant, effortlessly multicultural Montreal of his youth ("I'm glad the publishers kept it in," he says. "I was afraid they were going to cut the Canadian stuff"), and Caesar and Cleopatra shows him at Stratford, where he first became famous over 50 years ago. Anyone who knew him from The Sound of Music, or thought he was British, will now understand that he's first and foremost a stage actor - and a Canadian one at that.

All of this means that Caesar and Cleopatra is like an archival record of Plummer the theatre actor, something we can look at to get an idea of the kind of stage acting he describes in his book. Plummer, who served as one of the executive producers of the film, wanted it to be clear that the project represents "a stage performance and not a movie performance," and says that he was only willing to allow the performances to be filmed "as long as the audience was visible and present all the time." Even the sound recording had to make it clear that we were eavesdropping on a theatre performance: the original cut of the film had the audience laughter too distantly miked, and Plummer called the producers constantly to make sure that "when the sound mix is fixed, hopefully, then the audience and the laughter will be as present as our performances." Even when the filmmakers did a session for close-ups and special angles, they invited a small hand-picked audience for the session. Everything about the film emphasizes the fact that the performance was really for the benefit of the people who were there; we can still get absorbed in the story, but we're reminded that real theatre exists in the moment, like the performances described in Plummer's book.

The presence of the live audience means that Plummer can be broad and theatrical in a way that wouldn't be possible in a real movie. His Caesar is a hearty, bumptious fellow who uses effects like shouts, long pauses, and, especially, hearty stage laughter. Caesar ends his first scene with one word - "Incorrigible!" - and Plummer tears into that line like it's the big meal he eats in the fourth act. By watching this film, we can get a better understanding of how an experienced stage actor feeds off the audience response, "which not only is necessary," he explains, "but which inspires you to be better." Avrich says that Plummer's rapport with the audience is part of what this evening is about: "You see him shine when the audience reacts. It's reflected in his lines, it's reflected in his face."

But the difference between Plummer on stage and Plummer on film is still real. Even Cimolino, who thinks that this film provides "the best of both worlds" of movies and theatre, adds that there's no substitute for the live experience of an actor like Plummer, for "the power of his body in space, as well as his voice." Though the quality of the image is better than you'd get on one of the old CBC broadcasts of Stratford plays, it's still very much a reproduction of a theatre performance in a very different kind of theatre: acting that worked beautifully when it was live can seem too broad when the HD camera captures it, and the audience in the recorded performance sometimes laughs at jokes that don't come off with the movie-theatre audience. Plummer explains that seeing a theatre performance on film isn't always a satisfying mixture, because in the theatre, "you are seeing it from a distance. You are not up close. Our performances and the way we gauge them are geared for that distance." Even the pickup sessions with extra close-ups couldn't solve this problem, because "if you tone down too much, you lose energy."

So HD filming is a compromise, not a substitute for either theatre or movies. But the film, which will also air on the Bravo! cable TV channel later this year, at least lets us see a major production in decent quality; without it, Avrich explains, "You see it and experience it for one season, and then it's gone." Plummer himself calls the film "one of the better attempts I've seen, I must say," but adds that it would be better to "rethink the whole thing and concentrate much more on the medium we're doing it for." What filmgoers will see on Jan. 31 is an idea of what it must have been like to see Plummer live, and that's still more interesting than seeing him in the average movie. "He's very particular about his legacy," Avrich says. That legacy might be well served by this screening; at least it's a better part of his legacy than the scene where he lip-synched to Edelweiss.

Maclean's February 9, 2009