Christopher Plummer is Montreal’s greatest gift to the theatre, Canada’s own swashbuckling John Barrymore.
His 650-page memoir, In Spite of Myself, which hit the bookstores last week, is like the actor himself: audacious, romantic, incorrigible, hugely entertaining, occasionally precious and condescending and driven with vanity to burn.
Plummer was born in Toronto, but his parents split when he was one, and he was raised by “a stoic, forthright regiment of women,” in a Senneville mansion, Bois Briant, built in the 1880s on an 18 acre estate by his great-great grandfather Prime Minister John Abbott. A private island in Vaudreuil Bay which disappeared when the Trans Canada Highway was built, was also an important childhood retreat. “Rags to riches could never be my road,” he declares, rather the reverse, with a strong leaning to the gutter. In the beginning, I had no struggle; I didn’t know what it meant. Not exactly coming from the streets there was no urgent need to improve.”
At 14 he read Gene Fowler’s biography of John Barrymore, the self destructive American matinee idol. “It was,” he writes, “the book that decided me on my future.” At 16 he spent an evening with Barrymore’s troubled daughter Diana. “The rebel in her appealed to me divinely,” he states. A spoiled brat, Plummer started frequenting Montreal’s legendary nightspots and drinking when he was still an underage teen. He was discovered playing Darcy by The Gazette theatre critic, Herbie Whittaker in a high school production of Pride and the Prejudice and at 18 made his professional stage debut with the Montreal Repertory Theatre. Plummer then appeared with future Canadian Senator John Lynch Staunton in a production of As You Like It at the Mountain Playhouse, where he was director Norma Springford’s darling. He cut his teeth doing radio plays then sailed off to Bermuda to do summer stock. He was sexually precocious, and boasts about his first affair with a married woman, with whom he did “It,” everywhere -”in dressing rooms, backstage, in public conveniences, at the back of cinemas and cars, even at parties. One night, at one of those large dress-up soireés, she was on my lap and I was inside her, her evening dress spread over us for concealment, when her husband walked in,” he boasts. “We stayed exactly where we were, having the pleasantest of chats, the three of us, he none the wiser.
Early in his career Plummer was not an especially good actor, rather a stage presence. Off stage he was a character, a hard-drinking, obnoxious hedonist. Although Plummer lives in Connecticut, Montreal remains his spiritual home, in his mind’s eye, “Cosmopolitan, stylish, sophisticated and fast!” He describes it as “my welcoming city of sin - where it was always cocktail hour, where I could find at least some madness and laughter, the serum I craved.” Montreal could not contain his ambition, however. He made his New York stage in The Star Cross Story, a show that opened and closed the same night, but went on a successful stage career in England and Stratford, Ont. Plummer made his screen debut in Stage Struck, and went on to do hundreds of “money pics. ” He hated making movies, and his chapters on shooting The Sound of Music, (which he calls the Sound of Mucus and shot under duress, and the “Battle of Batty Poo” (Waterloo) which he shot in Uzhgorod, Ukraine - “snake city” he calls it, are alone worth the $37 price of the book.
He writes about the women in his life, Tammy Grimes, who at 30 he moved to London, where he met Trish Lewis, an entertainment writer that he married only after a car accident in front of Buckingham Palace left her badly injured an unconscious for three days. His first two marriages were careless affairs; he neglected both wives, and his daughter, Amanda. It was his third wife, Elaine, who tamed him and cured the ham in Plummer.
Plummer is clearly passionate about the theatre: “When all the effects and robots and holograms have been exhausted and we poor thespians have been
replaced by clones and digitalized out of existence, there will still be an empty stage somewhere waiting for some one to make an entrance.”
Although he plays fast and loose with the facts, the story he tells is so engaging, it somehow doesn’t matter. For example, he claims to have snuck into Chez Paree to hear Sinatra sing. Perhaps. But Sinatra played there only once, in 1953, when Plummer tells us he was in Bermuda. At any rate, by then he was certainly no underage drinker. He was 23, and didn’t have to sneak into a nightclub. Eddie Asselin was never Montreal’s police commissioner, but Chairman of the Executive Council, Pierre Trudeau did not defeat John Diefenbaker in any election. The book could have also used an eagle-eyed editor - a lesbian, for instance, is a dyke, not a dike. Given the incredible cast of characters and supporting players that appear in the book, - Franchot Tone, Tyrone Power, Peter O’Toole, Nathalie Wood, Jason Robards, Zoe Caldwell, Jean Gascon, etc. the absence of an index is inexcusable.
It’s like attending a play without a program.