in memoriam

10 Essential Christopher Plummer Performances

Christopher Plummer in Beginners. Photo: Qlympus Pictures/Kobal/Shutterstock

Because Christopher Plummer was, famously, the star of The Sound of Music (a movie he hated), and at the end of his career was winning Oscars and headlining blockbusters, the idea has developed that his career was just a straight line pointing up to more and more stardom and success. But this is not what happened. Plummer ran away from his character in The Sound of Music, and, for a couple of decades, that flight from what he was known best for cost him: In the ’80s, he mostly did (highly lauded) stage work, TV movies, and the occasional voice-over. He seemed content with this, but it should be noted that your average moviegoer knew him as Captain von Trapp … and that was it.

That changed in the ’90s, when he was in his 60s, as he became more grizzled and weathered. The directors he worked with that decade are a Who’s Who of top-notch talent: Spike Lee, Mike Nichols, Terry Gilliam, and, most notably, Michael Mann, who directed one of Plummer’s best performances, in The Insider. (Though it did not end with an Oscar nomination.)

Plummer’s work in recent decades, including his Oscar-winning performance in Mike Mills’s Beginners, burnished his reputation and helped him become the revered actor we think of him as now. It sometimes feels like we’ve been honoring him forever, but we had only recently begun to appreciate the greatness that has been there all along.

Stage Struck (1958)

Plummer was nearly 30, with a half-decade of Tony-nominated performances on Broadway and Serious Shakespearean Work already under his belt, when he finally got around to making his film debut. It was a doozy, too, playing a playwright who gets tied up with a bigwig Broadway producer (Henry Fonda) and an ingénue (Susan Strasberg, Lee Strasberg’s daughter, who was set up to be the next big thing but … wasn’t) who’s looking for her big break however she can get it. Sidney Lumet (who was following up his debut hit, 12 Angry Men) cast Plummer for his Broadway bona fides, but he was a natural for the movies: Even this early on, something about him glowed and outshined his far more heralded co-stars. (Available to purchase on Amazon.)

The Sound of Music (1965)

It’s always amusing when an actor who’s part of a beloved classic is openly hostile to said classic. (Part of what makes the original Star Wars trilogy such a kick is thinking about the fact that Harrison Ford never thought much of Han Solo and the whole space-opera nonsense.) Enter Plummer, who has spent decades telling people that The Sound of Music is bad. “That sentimental stuff is the most difficult for me to play, especially because I’m trained vocally and physically for Shakespeare,” he said in 1982. “To do a lousy part like von Trapp, you have to use every trick you know to fill the empty carcass of the role.” But although Plummer came around to the movie in recent years, the Best Picture winner remains, well, not great art but an enduring favorite. And part of that has to do with his earnest portrayal of the captain, a ramrod noble individual who falls in love with the tuneful Maria (Julie Andrews). The regal bearing he brought to the sentimental stuff is what makes it so stirring — he elevates the proceedings through the force of his commitment. The Sound of Music was far from his best work, but his decency is what has made viewers swoon for von Trapp for generations. (Available to watch on Disney+.)

The Man Who Would Be King (1975)

Who do you cast to play Rudyard Kipling, the celebrated witty writer of, among other things, a story about two adventurers seeking treasure in a foreign land — only to discover they’re in over their heads? In John Huston’s dandy adaptation of The Man Who Would Be King, the author becomes a character within the film, and Plummer proves to be a pretty terrific Kipling, suggesting the man’s intelligence and sophistication in only a few scenes. (After all, the movie belongs to Sean Connery and Michael Caine as the scheming former soldiers.) This is Plummer in character-actor mode, supporting the film’s stars while bringing enough personality and gravitas that, when Kipling eventually learns the horrifying truth of what happened to them in Kafiristan, his silent shocked look proves to be King’s crowning moment. (Available to watch on HBO Max.)

The Thorn Birds (1983)

Hey, Gen-X kids: Remember when this TV miniseries made your mom cry for about a week? The ten-hour miniseries about an Irish priest (Richard Chamberlain) and his tragic, doomed love affair with a woman (Rachel Ward) he has known since she was a child is, uh, a little ickier today than it was in 1983, but back then it was the second-highest-rated miniseries in television history, behind Roots. Plummer had done a lot of great work in his career, but when this came out, his role as the priest’s mentor and friend (but also a man with his own priorities and ambitions) was without question the biggest thing he’d done since The Sound of Music. He’s terrific in it, weighty enough to ratchet up the stakes but with enough of a wink that lets you know not to take any of this too seriously. This might have been an underrated pivot point for Plummer: He seems to be having fun, and the Italian accent he uses is a delight. (Available to purchase on Amazon.)

Malcolm X (1992)

Oh, did you forget he’s in Malcolm X? He is, and he’s fantastic in his brief role as a prison chaplain who attempts to convert Denzel Washington’s Malcolm (then Malcolm Little) to Christianity and then discovers that Malcolm, after his conversion to Islam, will push back harder than the chaplain was prepared for. Plummer is delectably clueless as Malcolm interrogates him about the race of Jesus, and the disciples. Plummer’s ability to play both self-righteous and self-assured serves him splendidly here; his insistence that “God is white,” and how quickly that crumbles under Malcolm’s logic, is really something to see. Plummer’s career had hit a little bit of a wall when Spike Lee cast him. You can see clearly here the next act is coming. (Available to watch on HBO Max.)

The Insider (1999)

Michael Mann didn’t worry about making Plummer look like Mike Wallace, the cocksure 60 Minutes correspondent who anchored the show’s takedown of Big Tobacco in the 1990s. Instead, Plummer simply embodied Wallace’s essence — the casual air of authority he projects in any room he enters — and it’s crucial to The Insider, which is both a smart procedural and the occasional showcase for acting fireworks. Plummer nails Wallace’s blunt interviewing style, but he also suggests the newsman’s anxiety about the fate of his legacy once CBS threatens to torpedo the piece. Wallace was a shameless showboat, and Plummer honors the diva-ish aspect of his character with real brio. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

Up (2009)

Plummer had long had a career in voice-overs and animation: He’d been the emotional force of An American Tail two decades earlier. But Pixar was a perfect fit, and Plummer digs into that regality and villainy as Charles Muntz, the explorer that Carl Fredricksen idolizes before realizing that he has lost his way — and has even become dangerous. Plummer sells Muntz’s bitterness and self-hatred and helps contrast it with Carl’s ability to remember what inspired him to be an explorer in the first place. He’s such a great bad guy that Pixar had trouble figuring out a fitting send-off. It found one. (Available to watch on Disney+.)

Beginners (2010)

Based on filmmaker Mike Mills’s own dad, who came out late in life, Beginners is an exceedingly gentle, warm drama in which a grieving son (Ewan McGregor) reflects on his dead father, Hal, and the discovery that he was gay. Plummer plays the fading patriarch with such grace that you sense an ailing man who has nothing left to hide and no apologies to make. Even as he faces cancer, Hal seems buoyed by the chance to finally be his true self — now that his wife is gone, there’s no reason to live a lie anymore — and Plummer makes that act of discovery constantly charming and poignant. Actors often win their Oscar for the wrong roles. His Best Supporting Actor win was not one of those cases. (Available to watch on HBO Max.)

All the Money in the World (2017)

Famously cast at the very last minute so that Ridley Scott could replace the disgraced Kevin Spacey, Plummer is all lion-in-winter magisterial as oil magnate J. Paul Getty, who desperately wants his kidnapped grandson returned safely. This was the sort of role Plummer played a lot in his later years — he’s also superb as the sarcastic patriarch in David Fincher’s remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo — but at the time, the shock that Scott was reshooting part of his movie to replace Spacey couldn’t help but feel a little gimmicky. The Academy saw past that, though, giving Plummer his final Oscar nomination. The performance is a portrait of power that is seeped in sorrow — this Getty is closed off from the world, entombed in his money — and Plummer makes it sting. (Available to rent on Amazon.)

Knives Out (2019)

Plummer’s last film is a classic Plummer role: Harlan Thrombey, the brilliant crime novelist who invites his whole family for an 85th-birthday party and ends up dead. Whodunit? Rian Johnson’s cheeky thriller is a love note to the murder mystery, and Harlan has to be both a victim and smarter than everyone else in the film. This fits Plummer perfectly; he’s wise to everyone, with a twinkle in his eye that hints he may have always seen all this coming. It’s a fitting finale: Even in a cast of stars, he’s the one everyone ends up talking about. He definitely closed the book with a flourish. (Available to watch on Amazon.)

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

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10 Essential Christopher Plummer Performances