In Spite of Myself: A Memoir

In his new memoir, Christopher Plummer names John Barrymore as an early inspiration, recalling that it was Gene Fowler’s Barrymore biography, Goodnight, Sweet Prince, that decided him on his own future career at the age of 14. Plummer has not been an unworthy disciple: over a decade ago, the notoriously hard-to-please critic John Simon deemed him the best living actor in the English language, and the intervening years have seen him hone his craft still further in fine movies like The Insider and Syriana. The play for which Simon provided the rave review was, significantly enough, William Luce’s Barrymore, in which Plummer masterfully and mesmerizingly held the stage alone for two hours.

Plummer’s In Spite of Myself: A Memoir gives Good Night, Sweet Prince a run for its money in Falstaffian tomfoolery, kiss-and-tell gossip, and sheer high spirits: as a record of a more celebratory and less puritanical era in theatrical history, a time when Broadway stars propped up the bar at Sardi’s and P. J. Clarke’s rather than earnestly taking up Buddhism, Scientology, and Kabbalah, his autobiography easily rivals classic showbiz memoirs like David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon and Errol Flynn’s My Wicked, Wicked Ways. A loose and lively writer, Plummer is as free with the exclamation point as Queen Victoria, and he exhibits a positively Shakespearean inventiveness in coming up with synonyms for “drunk” — to mention just a few of these, “pie-eyed,” “smacked,” “pissed as a newt,” “compl?tement blotto,” “pretty well swacked,” “quite boulvers?’d, paralytic!”

Interspersed between loving descriptions of parties past and present, however, Plummer manages to sneak in some quite profound insights on the art of acting. Having skipped acting school and gone pro as a teenager, he learned his craft by watching his older colleagues. Working with the great comedian Edward Everett Horton, for instance, the young Plummer observed that the prime lesson to be learned from him was “just how real, natural and true one had to be in order to make comedy the supreme art that he proved it was?. Although he quite clearly prepared his performances from the outside in, comfortably relying on a stupendous technique, ironically the results were quite Stanislavskian in their spontaneity and freshness?. I couldn’t wait to walk on stage and play a scene with Eddy; he made it all so relaxing, so effortless. Sharing a dialogue with him wasn’t ‘acting’ at all; it was simply a pleasant chat with an old friend.” Jason Robards was a contemporary and close friend from whom Plummer never ceased to learn: “Though he played realistically, he was always larger than life and completely instinctive. He gave naturalism a classic proportion.”

Plummer is an enormously versatile Shakespearean actor, having played nearly all the major roles in his years at the Stratford Festival in his native Canada, Britain’s National Theater, the Royal Shakespeare Company, on Broadway, and at the Shakespeare Festival in Connecticut (“Stratford-on-the-Gin-?n-Tonic”), with costars as various as Edith Evans, Vanessa Redgrave, Glenda Jackson, Laurence Olivier, and Plummer’s convivial countryman William Shatner. His most recent attempt was Lear, which he had always been told was a Mount Everest of a role. “No, it is not Mount Everest!” he discovered. “Perhaps the play is but not the role. Richard III is much more vocally and physically challenging. Hamlet is monstrously more daunting?. Shakespeare was not kind to his ‘star.’ He forbade him to drive his own play. He barricaded his progress — coitus interruptus at its most flagrant. Perhaps when poor old Lear is sitting alone in his dressing room, waiting interminably to reenter, dying for a drink or a fix, anything to help provide the adrenaline that will carry him to the summit — perhaps that is the Everest to which everyone is alluding.”

The role of Macbeth he finds altogether more daunting. “It didn’t take me long to realize what a workhorse role Macbeth really is and what a cool ‘star’ part the author gave to his leading lady,” he remarks dryly. “She swans in, confident and relatively uncomplicated at various key intervals, wrapping every moment she’s onstage — takes a long pleasant sabbatical in her dressing room and then, after a breathtaking sleepwalking scene, decides to expire comfortably offstage while her poor overworked husband never draws breath, endlessly eulogizing her after she’s gone. The lady has barely exerted herself the entire evening, and has taken all the glory! Thankless bitch!” Plummer readily admits to having muffed his 1988 Broadway appearance in the role. “I was properly chastised for my poor Thane. Rather than Irving’s famished wolf, I was much more in the mold of Road Runner’s Wile E. Coyote.”

It cannot please this classical actor that the role for which he is best known round the world is that of Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music — a film Plummer offhandedly refers to as S & M or, elsewhere, The Sound of Mucus. He admits to having behaved badly on the set, possibly due to nerves, for he had never sung before in his life, “not even in the shower,” and had to play opposite the most beloved musical star of all time. “To stay on a long-sustained note was, for me, akin to a drunk trying to walk the straight white line, whereas you can bet the very first cry that Julie let forth as she emerged from her mother’s womb was in perfect pitch!” How to cope? “I began to hit the schnapps with a vengeance and vent my spleen on the poor innocent baby grand in the Bristol bar night after night.” He also gained so much weight that his costumes had to be altered during shooting. Luckily, he wasn’t given too many musical numbers. “Edelweiss” was, “thank God, the easiest song of the bunch to sing, and my favorite.”

Readers hoping for Freudian insights and emotional soul baring will be disappointed with this memoir, though no doubt Plummer could tell a tale if he chose: he mentions almost in passing that he only met his father once, and that he never saw his daughter (the actress Amanda Plummer) between the time she was a child of eight and when she was grown up. He clearly learned to cover up messy emotions from his Anglo-Saxon, ruling-class family (his great-grandfather was Prime Minister of Canada), whose purse strings had been severely cut but who still “managed to hang on in a world of country mansions, regattas and croquet on the lawn.” “I was a lousy husband and an even worse father,” he admits of his years with Tammy Grimes (though his third marriage, to actress Elaine Taylor, has lasted 40 years) — but that’s about as personal as he gets.

He reserves high emotion for his vocation. It is “a profession that has treated me for the most part with kid gloves, allowed me to indulge and has been, let’s face it, quite honestly, my education. It has taught me music, poetry, painting and dance; it has introduced me to the big bad world outside; it has made me face rejection; it has taught me humour in its blackest and gentlest forms; it has made me think; it has even taught me about love. It has shown me the majesty of language, the written word in all its glory, and it has taught me above all that there is no such thing as perfection — that in the arts, there are no rules, no restrictions, no limits — only infinity.” There may well be no such thing as perfection; but In Spite of Myself comes close to being a perfectly amusing read.