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On Saturday night, the 27th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival honored legendary thespian Christopher Plummer with its highest honor, the Modern Master Award, in front of a large crowd at Santa Barbara’s historic Arlington Theatre. (Previous recipients include Michael Douglas, Jodie Foster, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Diane Keaton, Sean Penn, Jeff Bridges, Peter Jackson, George Clooney, Will Smith, Cate Blanchett, Clint Eastwood, James Cameron, and Christopher Nolan.)
The 82-year-old was in fine form, answering questions, sharing stories, and telling jokes for over two hours before being presented with his statuette by Santa Barbara native Mike Mills, the writer-director of the 2011 dramedy Beginners, in which Plummer gave a colorful supporting performance (as Mills’ late father) that earned him a Critics’ Choice Award and Golden Globe Award this month and is widely expected to win him his first Oscar next month.
Following an impressive montage of clips from throughout Plummer’s 54-year screen career, the actor took the stage to a standing ovation and said to the audience, “That was quite a trip! I thought you’d have gone by now!” Then, moderator Pete Hammond (of Deadline.com) guided him through a chronological discussion about his life (which began in Montreal) and work (which began on the stage), and Plummer, a natural raconteur with a great storytelling voice, seemed in his element.
Plummer recounted that he came from an upper-crust family in which the acting profession was frowned upon, since “you were taught not to show your emotions — in public you didn’t show what you felt.” But, even from prepubescence, he knew that he wanted to be a performer, and, as soon as he could, headed south of the border to New York to pursue his dreams. Not long after the dashing youngster arrived, he began to find work. The actress Eva LaGalliene took a liking to him and cast him in a Broadway production — which, to his great disappointment, closed after just a night. Live television offered him ample work — but most of it wasn’t all that good. And then, in 1958, came his first opportunity in the medium that would bring him to the attention of the word: a part in New York writer-director Sidney Lumet‘s Stage Struck (1958) opposite Henry Fonda and Susan Strasberg.
Within a short time, Plummer was a bona fide star, appearing opposite Sophia Loren in Anthony Mann‘s sword and sandals epic The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964) and then, most famously, opposite Julie Andrews and seven kids as an uptight widower in Robert Wise‘s crowd-pleasing musical The Sound of Music (1965), which went on to win the best picture Oscar. It is widely known that Plummer dislikes discussing that film (he has referred to it as “The Sound of Muccus” and “S&M”), perhaps because, as a serious actor, it grates him that it is likely to be remembered for much longer and by vastly more people than any other project of which he has been a part.
When Hammond first raised the subject, Plummer asked, “Shall we move on?” But, on this night, a least, he was coaxed into sharing a few recollections. During the making of the film, he insisted, “nobody had any idea” that it would come to be regarded as anything special. “We certainly didn’t dream that it was going to be as hugely successful as it was.” In fact, he said, he only took on the part, which called for him to do a bit of singing, because he hoped it would be good preparation for another part that he actually greatly coveted (Cyrano de Bergerac), which also required some singing. Once filming was underway, he grew to greatly dislike the presence of the child actors, whose schooling requirements frequently caused shooting delays. Kym Karath, the six-year-old who played Gretl, the youngest of the lot, grated on him the most — that is, he laughed, until he got a surprise backstage visit years later from a “knockout” blonde who introduced herself to him as the actress who had played Gretl in the film, prompting him to say, “And how wonderful you were!”
Plummer went on to star in numerous other films that are now regarded as classics, including John Huston‘s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), Daryl Duke‘s The Silent Partner (1979), Jeannot Szwarc‘s Somewhere in Time (1980) Michael Mann‘s The Insider (1999), Ron Howard‘s A Beautiful Mind (2001), Pete Docter and Bob Peterson‘s Up (2009), and Michael Hoffman‘s The Last Station (2009), for which he received the first Oscar nomination of his career, at long last. Most of these projects — and many others — were discussed at one point or another.
Appropriately enough, onsiderable time was also devoted to discussion of Beginners, in which Plummer portrayed Mills’ father, a man who comes out of the closet to his son (Ewan McGregor) not long after his wife of 44 years passes away, and not long before he does, too — a performance for which Plummer received his second Oscar nomination, also for best supporting actor, last Tuesday. (He is currently the heavy favorite to win.) The gist was that Plummer appreciated the fact that Mills allowed him to make the character his own; loved working with McGregor; and feels that Cosmo, the Jack Russell terrier that appears in Beginners, is vastly more impressive than Uggy, the breedmate who has been claiming more headlines for his work in The Artist. (Plummer volunteered, in all seriousness, “I think our dear little Cosmo was much warmer than Uggy! That was a circus dog — he was so glib! Cosmo’s a real dog.”)
The ceremony came to a moving close when Mills, 45, stepped up to a podium on the side of the stage opposite from the one on which Plummer was seated and delivered about 10 minutes of heartfelt remarks about the actor and his portrayal of Mills’ late father. Mills noted that his father had lived and worked just blocks from the Arlington Theatre, and had actually taken his son to see movies there on many occasions, including one on which he climbed into one of the for-show-only boxes high above the seats to check out the view. Mills suggested that Plummer instinctively knew what his father was like because he has spent a lifetime of investigating — and empathizing with — the characters he has played. And he said that he wished that his father had been able to meet Plummer, as they would have liked each other, and that his father had been able to see Plummer’s performance, because it would have made him proud.
Rumor has it that Plummer twice turned down SBIFF’s invitation to attend this year’s festival before finally being convinced that it was a trip worth making. Because he was on his A-game tonight in a city populated with over 100 members of the Academy, some of whom were undoubtedly in the audience alongside me tonight, he should rest assured: it was.
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