Commentary: Plummer deserves an Oscar

50-year acting vet earned first nom this year for 'Last Station'

At 82, Oscar is getting on in years. Given the award's senior status, not to mention that lots of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are no spring chickens themselves, older performers, with a career worth of accomplishments to their credit, might be expected to enjoy an edge when the envelopes are opened March 7.

But that is not always the case.

Consider Christopher Plummer, a supporting actor nominee for his performance as lion-in-winter Leo Tolstoy in "The Last Station." At 80, with more than 50 years of remarkable screen work behind him, it's hard to believe this is the Tony- and Emmy-winning Plummer's first Oscar nom. (Harder still to believe, he only became an Academy member last year.) This also is the year that Plummer voiced the villain in "Up" and played the title role in Terry Gilliam's "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus."

But Plummer isn't expected to take home the trophy home on Oscar night. For months now, Christoph Waltz has been the prohibitive favorite for his irrepressibly kooky/sadistic Col. Hans Landa role in "Inglourious Basterds."

Less attention has been paid to Plummer's work in "Station." From the moment he appears onscreen in his Russian peasant garb, Plummer manifests a physical enormity matched by his literary lion charisma. The famous Plummer prowl -- so familiar to theater audiences -- is much in evidence as he stalks the sets like a Russian King Lear joyously recounting his lusty, long-ago liaisons to the embarrassment of his devoted, virginal acolyte (James McAvoy). His rooster call to Helen Mirren's chicken clucking in their bedroom should be inspirational viewing for the Viagra set.

Plummer's long resume of terrific performances started with his film debut as Joe Sheridan in Sidney Lumet's "Stage Struck" and continued with his mesmerizing Commodus in Anthony Mann's "The Fall of the Roman Empire." (Joaquin Phoenix would be nominated for the same role years later in "Gladiator.") Then there was Captain Von Trapp in Robert Wise's "The Sound of Music" (Julie Andrews wasn't acting alone up there), the formidable Inca emperor Atahualpa in "The Royal Hunt of the Sun," the relentless Detective Mackey in "Dolores Claiborne," and two Oscar shouldabeens for the dastardly Ralph Nickleby in "Nicholas Nickleby" and for Mike Wallace in "The Insider."

But as much as Academy members may admire Plummer, Waltz's convincing English-speaking turn in Quentin Tarantino's World War II fantasy has made him a hot commodity and led to several other Hollywood offers.

Not to take anything away from Waltz's or the other nominee's work in that category (Stanley Tucci, Matt Damon, Woody Harrelson), but the history of Oscar is littered with hot choices who triumphed in the moment, often at the expense of more seasoned actors.

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Harold Russell, a nonactor, already was the recipient of a special Oscar "for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans" for his performance in 1946's "The Best Years of Our Lives." But the Academy felt he should have the real Oscar as well for best supporting actor, beating out a wonderfully maleficent Claude Rains in "Notorious" and a superbly snide Clifton Webb in "Sitting Pretty" (neither of whom ever nabbed an Oscar). Russell took his director William Wyler's advice and didn't pursue a career in films; he returned only for a brief appearance in 1980's "Inside Moves."

As for Haing Ngor, another nonactor -- he won the Oscar for his role as Dith Pran in 1984's "The Killing Fields" -- he beat out Ralph Richardson in his last screen performance (in "Greystoke"), not to mention John Malkovich in "Places in the Heart" and Adolph Caesar in "A Soldier's Story." The Cambodian doctor appeared in a few undistinguished films and TV shows before his slaying in 1996.

Walter Brennan never received an Academy Award nomination for his greatest performance and possibly the greatest portrayal of a lush in Howard Hawks' "To Have and Have Not." But Brennan remains the only actor to have won three supporting actor Oscars. I don't begrudge him his third trophy for his riveting Judge Roy Bean in 1940's "The Westerner," but those first two ("Come and Get It" and "Kentucky") beat out the likes of Mischa Auer, Akim Tamiroff, John Garfield, Gene Lockhart, Robert Morley and Basil Rathbone (twice).

I never really got why Red Buttons won the Oscar for "Sayonara." Perhaps, like previous girls-next-door playing hookers (Donna Reed in "From Here to Eternity" and Shirley Jones in "Elmer Gantry," who both brought home supporting actress Oscars), Borscht Belt comics who kill themselves are a shoo-in. Ditto their cute Japanese wives (Miyoshi Umeki). Probably why such non-Catskill types as Vittorio De Sica, Sessue Hayakawa, Arthur Kennedy and Russ Tamblyn didn't beat Buttons in 1957.

Flash forward to 1961: George Chakiris -- and where's he been hiding for the past 50 years? -- danced up a storm and won a supporting Oscar for "West Side Story," beating out nondancers Montgomery Clift ("Judgment at Nuremberg"), Peter Falk ("Pocketful of Miracles"), Jackie Gleason ("The Hustler") and George C. Scott ("The Hustler").

If, as expected, the trophy goes to Waltz, we'll be left with one haunting question: What's the possibility that Plummer will get another chance at the gold?

Charles Dennis is a filmmaker and film historian. His most recent film, "Hard Four," is being distributed this year by National Lampoon. He can be reached at foodogfilms@aol.com.
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