Even at 66, Christopher Plummer still has a touch of raffishness. It is there in the wide, mobile mouth, with its flicker of irony—and in the glancing mischief of the eyes in the leonine face.
Visiting Toronto to promote his appearance in Barrymore, a drama by American playwright William Luce that received its world première at Ontario’s Stratford Festival on Sept. 20 (it runs until Oct 20), Plummer is sipping coffee in the deserted bar of his hotel—and reminiscing about the good old days when he was known as the bad boy of Canadian theatre. The year was 1960, and Plummer, then 31, was performing in Shakespeare’s King John at Stratford. Infuriated by a patron in the front row who was reading a text of the play—rather than following the action onstage—Plummer strode over with his sword and flicked the text out of the man’s hand. “By sheer accident, it worked out brilliantly,” Plummer recalls. ‘The book flew up into the air and did little spirals in the light.
The audience broke into an ovation.”
Later, Plummer discovered that the man, who fled the theatre soon afterward, was a recently released convict with a deep love of Shakespeare. “I felt terrible,”
Plummer says. “I felt I’d crushed the man’s whole spirit. But you know, John Barrymore had a very similar experience.” And the actor launches into a parallel tale about the great American performer he portrays in Luce’s drama, who one night grew so incensed with a man coughing in the audience that he threw a live goldfish at him.
Plummer readily acknowledges that the similarities between himself and Barrymore—who died in 1942 at 60—are too startling to overlook. Luce’s play catches the hedonistic, broken-down star in the last year of a career that embraced both great classical stage roles and plenty of Hollywood schlock. The Canadian-born Plummer has
spanned a similar range: often cited as one of the most gifted actors of his generation, he has won raves for his leading roles with such prestigious troupes as Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. And he has appeared in a long line of films, not all of them good, from 1965’s The Sound of Music (“The Sound of Mucous,” as he once dubbed the sentimental musical) to character roles in the recent Malcolm X and Twelve Monkeys. Then there is the matter of marriages. Barrymore had four wives; Plummer has had three, including American actor Tammy Grimes—the mother of Plummer’s daughter, actor Amanda Plummer—and reporter Patricia Lewis. He is currently married to
Elaine Taylor, an actor he met during the filming of Lock up Your Daughters! in 1968. Today, they and their four dogs live on a country property in Connecticut. Plummer credits Taylor for helping him moderate the hard living that marked the early decades of his career. Plummer did
his first acting in Montreal, where he grew up, and by his mid-20s had become a celebrated young star on Broadway, appearing in 1955 with Julie Harris in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark. But his reputation as a carouser (“I was never drunk on a show,” Plummer declares) at first prevented him from being hired at Stratford. Although already a success elsewhere, he failed his first two auditions for the festival—because, he claims, a Montreal radio producer he had once worked for badmouthed him to Stratford’s artistic director Tyrone Guthrie. “The producer was convinced I was having an affair with his mistress,” Plummer says, shaking his head. “He was so wrong. I was having affairs with everybody else’s mistress, but not his.” Plummer finally appeared at Stratford in 1956, electrifying audiences in the title role of Shakespeare’s Henry V. In his six seasons at the festival, he and actors such as Zoë Caldwell—who played Cleopatra to his Antony in 1967—brought a tumultuous energy to performances that are still talked about. “There was sex on that stage then,” Plummer says. “There isn’t any more.” Plummer counts his years at Stratford as among the best in his life. He speaks with great respect and affection for Michael Langham, whose demanding direction
Plummer says made a classical actor of him. He also made several lifelong friends at the festival, as well as ruffling a few feathers. Veteran Stratford actor Douglas Campbell once remarked that Plummer “was a bastard to work with. He never let himself become part of the company.” Confronted with Campbell’s remark, Plummer seems genuinely taken aback. “Well, Douglas always was a very generous man,” he says with heavy irony. A moment later, he adds: “Sure, I was pretty selfish sometimes. But I think you have to be ruthless to take the stage. If somebody gets in the way, you have to do something about it.” In Barrymore, Plummer’s first appearance
at the festival in nearly 30 years, he has the spotlight all to himself. It is 1942, and Plummer, as Barrymore, is stumbling about on the stage of an empty New York theatre. Barrymore is obviously quite drunk and—fuelled by a trolley of bottles moored within easy reach—getting steadily drunker. For the next hour and 45 minutes, the old actor tells jokes, spins out memories of his life and trades gibes with his offstage prompter, Frank (Michael Mastro). The one thing he does not do, at least not very well, is run through his lines for the title role in Shakespeare’s Richard III. At the burnt-out end of a long career, Barrymore is trying to revive his fortunes with a part he had once excelled in. But his hands shake, and his memory is a sieve. It soon becomes obvious that he is not going to make it.
Plummer takes possession of this role as masterfully as any in his career. He skilfully shuffles his way through fragments of vaudeville, and delivers the show’s endless gags with a master’s timing. “Divorces cost more than marriages,” he confides to the audience at one point, before bringing down the house with the kicker, “but they’re worth it.” He also generates real pathos in the play’s few serious moments, such as when Barrymore longs for the one true friend of his life, playwright Ned Sheldon, who has been paralyzed by arthritis.
But unfortunately, Luce’s script generates a lot more froth than bite. The writer never penetrates very far into the darker side of Barrymore’s life, and the old actor ultimately seems more a tiresome jokester—a stand-up comic who runs on past his time—than a tragic figure with anything very enlightening to say about life or art. As a vehicle for Plummer’s enormous talents, the play falls short—except in those brief passages where the actor gets to quote some classic authors: Plummer’s recitation of Francis Thompson’s poem “The Hound of Heaven” is extremely powerful.
Ultimately, the comparison between Plummer and Barrymore breaks down at such moments, for it is evident that the Canadian actor has retained his abilities as the sodden Barrymore did not. Yet as Plummer confronts the grind of this winter’s tour of Barrymore—the play will visit several U.S. cities before opening on Broadway next March—he evokes the old thespian. “As Barrymore says in the play, ‘Here I am, with the world at war, and I’m trying to revive my puny career. What a masochist!’ ” Plummer takes another sip of cold coffee before adding, with a chuckle: “There are times I feel rather the same.”
The plague years
ANGELS IN AMERICA, PART ONE: MILLENNIUM APPROACHES By Tony Kushner Directed by Bob Baker
In the United States, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1993. In Calgary, some civic officials and media voices denounced it as pornographic trash. Now, it is Toronto’s turn to view Tony Kushner’s controversial 1991 drama, Angels in America, Part One, which opened last week in a boisterous and at times electrifying production by The Canadian Stage Company.
Subtitled Millennium Approaches, the first instalment of Kushner’s two-part epic— running in Toronto until next March—focuses on a number of gay men, their friends and their families in the New York City of the mid-1980s. Ronald and Nancy Reagan are in the White House, and as far as their supporters are concerned, the sun is shining again on America. But few of the characters in Kushner’s drama are feeling very warm. AIDS is rampant, there are beggars in the streets, the ozone layer is fraying, and a spirit of meanness reigns in the land.
Angels in America sets out to expose the underlying causes of the country’s malaise. Does it flow simply from the policies of those in power? Or is there something deeper at work, a systemic flaw in the great American melting pot (“a melting pot that doesn’t melt anything,” as one character remarks)? The play does not come up with any final answers, but it explores the issues with enough energy and ingenuity to create some memorable scenes. It also portrays the dominant mood in the United States as one of paranoia. Nearly everyone in Millennium Approaches is driven by fear, which accounts for the drama’s often hectoring tone. Prior Walter (Steve Cumyn) is terrified of the AIDS creeping through his body. His partner, Louis Ironson (Alex PochGoldin), is afraid of Prior’s pain and spreading sores. Meanwhile, the play’s other couple, Joe and Harper Pitt, are feeling equally beleaguered. Harper (Karen Hines) spends
most of her time locked in their apartment, popping Valium in a futile attempt to forget her problems. Her husband (a rivetting David Storch), a devout Mormon, is terrified of his own homosexuality.
Interestingly, the one main character who seems to be fearless is the villain of the piece, Roy Cohn (Tom Wood, in a savagely brilliant performance). Closely based on the real-life Cohn—the corrupt New York influence broker and former aide to Joseph McCarthy in his Communist witchhunts—this brutally single-minded man is Kushner’s take on naked political power. Cohn brags that he can get the president on the phone in five minutes. He even brags about his role in putting suspected Communist spy Ethel Rosenberg to death in 1953. (He claims to have secretly persuaded the judge to give her the death sentence.) He is also extremely foulmouthed, playing arpeggios on the F-word like a virtuoso. Cohn was one of the main reasons that some Calgary columnists denounced the play as obscene and called on the government to cut off funds to its producers, Alberta Theatre Projects (whose version opened on Sept. 15 and runs till Oct. 12). But Cohn is so joyfully and unapologetically aggressive—and so scandalously funny— that he grows almost lovable.
Kushner mediates his bleak vision with three things: the tenderness of love, humor and an angel. The first two are the more successful elements, as the play’s lovers and friends comfort each other with that uniquely gay mixture of affection and playful sarcasm. As for the angel (Linda Prystawaska) who speaks to Prior in his agony, she is a device of such shameless sentimentality that her presence seriously undermines the play’s claims to tough-mindedness. Angels in America has wings enough; the angel should have stayed on a greeting card.
Angels in America, Part One opens in Halifax on Feb. 27. Part Two-. Perestroika opens in Edmonton on Oct. 26 and in Toronto on Nov. 6.
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