Ten random connections between Christopher Plummer and Australia

February 7, 2021
In honour of the recent passing of the late, great Christopher Plummer, Stephen Vagg thought he would cobble together a listicle about links between the Canadian actor and Australia. Some of these are very tenuous, but it’s all done in the spirit of the Commonwealth.

1. The High Commissioner (1968) aka Nobody Runs Forever – a not-very-good adaptation of Aussie Jon Cleary’s excellent suspense novel about Aussie cop Scobie Malone (Rod Taylor) sent to London to arrest the Australian High Commissioner (Christopher Plummer) for murder. The basic story is still there and the cast is one of a kind (Lili Palmer! Camilla Sparv! Franchot Tone! Bud Tingwell!) but the movie doesn’t work. Plummer looks bored and has no chemistry with Rod Taylor, when the friendship between the two men should be the heart and soul of the film. When Plummer talks about how much he loves his country, it’s not very believable. I interviewed Cleary in 2004 for the National Film and Sound Archive and the author told me Plummer “really was not interested in it. Christopher Plummer’s main ambition was to be the North American Laurence Olivier and he only made movies to finance his stage ventures. And he really was good on the stage. But he and Rod didn’t get on.” At least it was a 1960s film with some Australian content.

2. The Russell Crowe connection – Plummer co-starred twice with Crowe, both memorably: The Insider (2000), one of Plummer’s best performances, and A Beautiful Mind (2001). Also, Plummer starred in Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), which was basically remade as Gladiator (2000) – the central story is identical, just less well executed; Plummer plays the Joaquin Phoenix part of Emperor Commodus. Rusty posted a nice tribute to Plummer on twitter after the latter’s death recalling how the two men would discuss Peter Finch. See Plummer ham it up as Commodus here.

3.70s Tax dodge movies. As in Australia, the Canadian industry rebooted itself in the 1970s using generous tax concessions (insert Canadian pronunciation of “reboot” joke here). As in Australia, the results were varied to say the least. Plummer always seemed keen to return home and starred in genuine stone-cold Canadian classics – The Silent Partner (1978) and Murder by Decree (1979) – as well as some of the worst Canadian films ever made – such as Highpoint (1980).

4. The Thorn Birds (1983) – Colleen McCulloch’s blockbuster classic-in-its-own-way Aussie novel was turned into a hugely successful mini series, with Hawaii notoriously substituting for Australia and I think just the one Aussie in the cast (Bryan Brown). Plummer pops up as a cock-blocking (Part of the reason he had such a long career was that he could always get a gig playing authority figures.).

5. The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus (2009) – is this a cult film yet? Australian Heath Ledger died during filming. Plummer was his co-star. Random trivia: Ledger wanted to make a movie out of the novel The Queen’s Gambit. Damn, we’ve missed a lot of good stuff from his early death.

6. The Prisoner of Zenda (1961) – Plummer’s early screen appearances were more likely to be on TV that the movies. He appeared in an American television version of the classic novel, adapted by Australian expat Sumner Locke Elliot, then better known for his TV work than his novels. Plummer played the dual lead role, with Farley Granger (!) as Rupert.

7. Spearfield’s Daughter (1986) – another one with a Jon Cleary connection. This Canadian-Australian miniseries starring Plummer was based on a Cleary novel. I talked to the author about it years ago and he called it “a disaster”. It was a co-production between Channel Seven and the Robert Halmi Group. Cleary told me in 2004 that “Halmi had gone to Canada and said if we shoot a certain percentage of it in Canada could we get financial support and they said yes. Which meant that they had Christopher Plummer playing the newspaper baron in it. He made a joke of it. There was a scene in it where he went to a funeral and he turns up in a top hat. He treated the whole bloody thing as a joke, and he was miscast anyway because I’d based the newspaper baron on Lord Beaverbrook. And Plummer was too suave to play it.” Cleary says his script was rewritten and Cleary tried to take his name off it. “I only saw the first hour,” he said.

8. Medea – before he made movies, Plummer leapt to fame as a stage actor (in a book of David Selznick’s memos, there’s one from the late 1950s where he talks about “we gotta get Plummer” for this project… he was the flavour of the month). His early stage appearances included working with Aussie Dame Judith Anderson in a Parisian production of Medea (a part Dame Judith played about a million times). In his memoirs, Plummer called Anderson “a little Tasmanian devil . . . who with one look could turn an audience to stone.”

9. Young Aussie actors connection – I’m grouping these together: Plummer appeared with young Aussie thesps Katherine Langford in Knives Out (2019) and Jai Courtney in The Exception (2016) and I’m using this category to scoop up anyone else I forgot. You’ve probably all seen Knives Out so here’s the trailer for The Exception.

10. The Sound of Music (1965) – As if I wasn’t going to do this movie. Plummer starred alongside Nicholas Hammond, who later emigrated to Australia, popped up as American characters in heaps of stuff, wrote a bunch (Secret Men’s Business) and hooked up with Robyn Nevin IRL. Here’s Hammond in 2015 answering probably his eighth million question about that movie.

RIP Plummer. Your filmography contains some truly batsh*t crazy stuff.

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  1. Desley Deacon

    For more on Plummer’s performance with Judith Anderson ar the Sarah Bernhardt Theatre Paris see my biography Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage.

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