This might look like one of those better-late-than-never citations the Academy sometimes dangles in front of senior thespians, a belated consolation prize for a lifetime of outstanding work, offered just in case this is the last chance the Academy ever has to honor the performer in his declining years. Except that Plummer hardly seems to be in his declining years at all. As a character actor, he's as busy as ever, having enjoyed prominent roles in at least four major films this year ('Last Station,' 'Up,' '9,' and 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus'), and he shows no signs of slowing down. It seems impossible that, six decades and 100 movies into a distinguished film career, Christopher Plummer has never won or even been nominated for an Oscar. He's won Tonys and Emmys and Genies (Canada's Oscar equivalent), but he's been ignored by the Academy ... until this year's nominations, when the 80-year-old star earned a Best Supporting Actor nod for his role as Leo Tolstoy in 'The Last Station.'
This might look like one of those better-late-than-never citations the Academy sometimes dangles in front of senior thespians, a belated consolation prize for a lifetime of outstanding work, offered just in case this is the last chance the Academy ever has to honor the performer in his declining years. Except that Plummer hardly seems to be in his declining years at all. As a character actor, he's as busy as ever, having enjoyed prominent roles in at least four major films last year ('Last Station,' 'Up,' '9,' and 'The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus'), and he shows no signs of slowing down.
Still, it's a mystery that he's never been nominated before, despite a string of memorable roles going back almost 50 years, to the part that made him a star, Capt. Von Trapp in 'The Sound of Music.' Here's a celebration of some of those milestones -- some of the many reasons why, even if he doesn't win this year, Plummer has had an Oscar-worthy career.
• 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' (1964) - The Canadian-born actor was relatively new to movies, but at 35, he was already recognized as one of the leading classical stage actors in the world. He'd conquered Broadway and the West End, but not the big screen. This sword-and-sandals epic, the inspiration for 2000's 'Gladiator,' saw him play Roman emperor Commodus, the same part for which Joaquin Phoenix would be nominated for an Oscar 36 years later. Plummer's version is just as hotheaded and muscular, but far less campy.
• 'The Sound of Music' (1965) - Half a century later, an ambivalent Plummer still calls this film an albatross around his neck. Though it made him famous, it got him typecast as stiff leading men for years to come, and even today, it's still the first movie anyone interviewing him wants to talk about. Plummer doesn't actually do much of his own singing in the movie -- fearing Julie Andrews would blow him off the screen vocally, he persuaded director Robert Wise to bring in a musical ringer to dub most of his warbling. Still, that aloofness worked for the character. In fact, it's one of the most macho musical performances in film history. Plummer fathers seven kids, seduces a nun and stands up to the Nazis. Top that.
• 'Murder By Decree' (1979) - Having played a traditionally stoic Sherlock Holmes on TV, Plummer does a 180 and portrays the Victorian sleuth as emotional and impulsive in this drama, which puts Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper. Plummer's Holmes is still brilliant and logical, of course, and he has great, lived-in chemistry with fellow old pro James Mason as Watson.
• 'Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country' (1991) - Plummer brings as much Shakespearean flair as he can to the role of a Klingon general with a bolted-on eye patch. He seems to be having the time of his life in his reunion with William Shatner, who came up through the ranks of Canadian theater with Plummer before heading into outer space aboard the Enterprise.
•'Dolores Claiborne' (1995) - In this non-supernatural Stephen King adaptation, Plummer is marvelously understated as a weary detective on the verge of retirement, a dogged Javert in pursuit of the one murder suspect who got away. Ornery cleaning woman Kathy Bates plays the title role.
• 'The Insider' (1999) - Plummer seemed a Best Supporting Actor shoo-in for his imperious performance as '60 Minutes' mainstay Mike Wallace, portrayed here as a star caught between his own reportorial zeal and his corporate bosses' cravenness when a litigious tobacco company caused CBS to spike a cigarette exposé. The real Wallace has insisted that he played a more active role in defending the story than the movie depicts -- not that that takes away from Plummer's wily performance as a veteran with a gimlet-eyed perspective on his business. Told that the scandal will blow over in 15 minutes, he replies, "You get 15 minutes of fame. Infamy lasts a little longer."
• 'Ararat' (2002). Atom Egoyan's multilayered film uses the Armenian genocide of 1915 as the jumping-off point for a thoughtful, poignant meditation on the ways in which the present struggles against the past, and how art attempts to turn those struggles into something positive. In one subplot, Plummer plays David, a Canadian customs inspector who, on his last day before retirement, interrogates a filmmaker of Armenian descent. Do the cans he refuses to open contain reels of undeveloped film, which he says is a movie about the mass slaughter, or do they contain smuggled heroin? It resembles the role Plummer played in 'Dolores Claiborne,' but David has his own issues of family, heritage and legacy to overcome, and Plummer renders his challenges with subtlety and grace.
• 'The Last Station' (2009). Plummer plays Tolstoy, the Russian novelist and national hero, not so much as a great man or aging revolutionary, but as a celebrity basking in his reputation for greatness and controversy. He's a bawdy old coot who feels no obligation to live by the ascetic lifestyle he preaches, and the only one who won't let him get away with anything is his long-suffering wife (Helen Mirren, also nominated for an Oscar). Neither performance would work without the other; indeed, when Plummer gave an official response to news of his nomination, he insisted on sharing the credit. "I'm absolutely delighted that Helen Mirren and I have both been nominated by the Academy for portraying that stormy couple, the Tolstoys," he said. "As I've just turned 80, there's no way it will go to my head."
Tolstoy may not be Plummer's greatest performance, and it probably won't even win him the Oscar, since 'Inglourious Basterds'' Christoph Waltz seems all but assured of waltzing off with the trophy. Still, if Plummer does finally win, we're sure there's no way it will go to his head.