The single greatest performance I ever saw an actor give was Christopher Plummer‘s Iago, which he played, not as a human being, but as the embodiment of unadulterated, fathomless Evil. This was back in 1982 at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. James Earl Jones was a fine Othello, but it was Iago’s show from start to finish. Plummer didn’t win the Tony for his miraculous performance, however. That year, the Tony went to the actor who gave the second greatest performance I ever saw: Roger Rees’ star turn in “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby.” Rees was so great in that monumental play (eight and a half hours long!) — the greatest theatrical experience of my life — that I doubt even Christopher Plummer could have resented losing the award to so excellent a performance. 1982 was a good year for Broadway.
I’ll never forget the way Plummer delivered the lines quoted above: his clarion voice brayed out the words in an accelerating, but even, rhythm and the notes ascended the scale until he arrived at the word “enmesh,” when he startled the audience by lingering on the “shhhhhh.” Such nerve! And so thrilling! A lesser actor would have sounded ridiculous. In his black leather, Plummer already looked like a reticulated snake — one with porcupine quills bristling on his head. The “shhhhhh” clinched the look: the most villainous snake-in-the-grass of all time. I remember the Sunday matinee crowd I saw it with audibly gasped at his audacity. But his whole performance was like that: surprises everywhere, but always completely in service of the story. Plummer was so diabolically funny and entertaining, you couldn’t help rooting for him . . . until his plans started to pay off with tragic results. He made Iago irresistibly entertaining — a wise choice, since it happens to be the third longest role in Shakespeare. (And perhaps the longest, since Hamlet’s and Richard III’s lines are often heavily abridged.)
That was the first time I saw Plummer on stage. Before then, I only knew his work from the pictures he’d been in. Until the mid 70s, he wasn’t much good in pictures, to be quite frank. Certainly, it wasn’t entirely his fault: he was in a lot of dogs. “Inside Daisy Clover” is a fantastically bad picture: nobody in it emerged with his dignity intact. And in the famous musical from 1965, which Plummer likes to call “S and M,” he wasn’t good. In most of the pictures he made before the the 70s, he seemed anxious to make it clear that he knew how crummy the material was — “Don’t blame me, folks: I didn’t write this crap.” The result was that he often came off worse than those who did their best to do elevate the second- and third-rate stuff. At his best, he was very good — as, for example, when he played Rudyard Kipling in John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King” (1975). But nothing prepared me for the sensational Iago he played in 1982.
In recent years, he has become one of the most reliably entertaining character actors in pictures, but Christopher Plummer’s natural habitat is the theatre, in front of a large, adoring crowd. In the theatre, he’s stunning, even in the worst crap. A revival of “Inherit the Wind,” for instance, back in 2007. I found something I wrote to a friend right after coming home from seeing it:
Plummer was wonderful as always, but gee whiz, what a terrible, turgid piece of agitprop! It’s amazing that it keeps getting revived. From first to last, it’s utterly false — & the platitudes rain down in torrents. My expectations weren’t high: I’ve seen the movie, which is pedantic & dull & preaches nosily & clumsily to the choir . . . but I hoped that seeing it live might make at least parts of it crackle. Alas, no. The whole thing is so smug & one-sided — nobody opposed to the Darrow character is allowed to have a flicker of intelligence or humanity — Darrow is saintly & sagacious & everyone else is a prating fool or hypocrite or both.
In some ways just as bad is the quasi-one-man show, “Barrymore.” I saw that idiotic show twice. Plummer made it worth seeing, but it’s awfully thin porridge.
As Barrymore, Plummer is wonderful wonderful wonderful. The moment he enters, wheeling a cocktail tray ahead of him and with an inebriate glint in his eye, you know you’re in for a high old time. He looks amazingly like the Great Profile himself. (Poor old Jack Barrymore was so haggard from alcohol that Plummer, who was 67 when he played the role on Broadway, looked younger than Barrymore did when he was 40. Barrymore was only 60 when he died, but looked decades older.)
Plummer richly deserved the Tony he won for that performance, but the script is far beneath his talents. The writing, especially as it gets toward the middle, is hopeless. Barrymore’s actual words are marvellous, but when the playwright has to invent . . . well, it’s roughly the equivalent of what it would sound like if Neil Simon tried to write Shakespearean verse: impossible. Somewhere I read that the movie of “Barrymore” is an unholy mess, but of course I read it online, so who knows? The DVD is to be released on May 7, 2013, and I’ve already ordered a copy. There’s at least an hour of Plummer at his Plummiest, but the play stinks. The writing is so incompetent that it’s not even really a one man show: half way through, when the playwright runs out of invention, he has an offstage voice converse with Barrymore. On Broadway, the offstage voice spoke the lines so amateurishly, I felt more compassion for Plummer than I did for poor, doomed Jack: why should such an artist be forced to work with such a piss-poor co-star? Both times I saw the show, I was distressed to see so much talent lavished on such drivel, but now I remember only the extraordinary wit of the performance.
Happily, the other plays he has done on Broadway have been better than “Inherit the Wind” and “Barrymore.” He was the greatest King Lear I ever saw, and the wittiest. Indeed, his performance made a deep impression on me because, to date, he’s the only actor who ever made it clear why Cordelia, Gloucester and Kent are faithful to him, while his other two daughters hate him. And it all has to do with his venomous wit. As Plummer played him, Lear’s rages aren’t nearly so terrible as his acid tongue. Goneril and Regan didn’t spring from the womb as villainesses; they were driven to it by their hateful old father, who never loved them. Cordelia gets the shaft in the first scene, but it’s the first time she ever incurred Lear’s disfavor. She loves him because he always loved her best. Gloucester and Kent are faithful to him because he had been a very great king until he made the disastrous decision to retire from the cares of the throne. Plummer’s interpretation made this absolutely clear.
In interviews, Plummer has said that he, like Olivier, lacks pathos. His Lear wasn’t as moving in the final act as others I’ve seen, probably because one doesn’t easily feel sorry for Christopher Plummer. But he was refreshingly unsentimental and he spoke the lines beautifully. He explains some of his thinking about the role in the clip below.
[To be continued . . . ]