Christopher Plummer takes a trip down memory lane as Santa Barbara's Modern Master

Posted by · 11:59 pm · January 28th, 2012

SANTA BARBARA – Tonight brought the second tribute of this year’s Santa Barbara film fest, a spotlight for “Beginners” star Christopher Plummer and the festival’s highest honor: the Modern Master Award.

The evening was moderated by Deadline columnist Pete Hammond, who is a perfect fit for this kind of honoree with his own personal obsessive classic film knowledge and considerations. Plummer told Hammond and the captivated audience a number of wonderful stories throughout the evening, starting at the beginning with his awakening to the arts.

He was encouraged at a young age in Montreal to seek out everything that would play the local cinemas, any kind of theater or ballet, etc. He gravitated toward it quickly and he remembered nursing many a cold beer at this or that club, seeing a young Judy Garland in his youth, a young Frank Sinatra and Edith Piaf, even. “I thought, ‘This is the greatest life,'” he recalled. And soon he made it his own.

Classic theater actress Eva Le Gallienne first spurred Plummer to try his hand at something on the stage, his first big Broadway production. He was giddy, delighted to finally be wading into the waters of drama. “The play closed in one night,” he said to laughter from the crowd. “I thought, ‘Well, that’s it. I guess that’s my career.”

Of course, it wasn’t the end of the road and he forged ahead, working with the likes of Judith Anderson and Katherine Cornell and eventually living it up. He recalled actresses the caliber of Cornell and Ethel Barrymore being the last to travel in such style as to have full trains dedicated to their needs. “It was like traveling with royalty,” he said.

Eventually he transitioned to television and noted the natural shifts that come for an actor making that transition. Recalling a live TV western featuring Lee Marvin, who couldn’t control his horse in one scene and careened into a papier-mâché mountain (after which the horse “crapped” — all on live television), Plummer observed, “You couldn’t get away with anything.”

Moving into feature filmmaking, the actor came into the medium at a time when massive, large-scale historical epics were en vogue. “Money was no object,” he said. “You’d have these three-hour lunches.” He recalled fancy lunch services brought right up into the mountains of one production, the kind of mobilization he couldn’t fathom for something like that. “How we made a movie, I don’t know,” he joked.

Hammond brought up working with Natalie Wood on 1965’s “Inside Daisy Clover,” the same year, by the way, that brought Plummer’s most recognizable work: “The Sound of Music.” Anyone who’s kept up with the actor, particularly via his memoir, “In Spite of Myself,” knows that he’s well over the spectacle that Best Picture-winning musical became. “Can we move on to something else,” he quipped after barely touching the subject.

But on “Inside Daisy Clover” Plummer found himself working with a young up-and-comer of the time, actor Robert Redford. “He was rather promising, I thought,” Plummer said with his matter-of-fact sense of humor. “And way too good looking, with that impudent red hair.”

He also touched on working with director John Huston on “The Man Who Would Be King” in 1975, which gave the audience a chance to observe Plummer’s pitch-perfect Huston impression. “We knew of him, of course,” he said, recalling when he received the role; he had not met Huston prior. “And everything was true. He’d hunt elephants, which I found it difficult to forgive him for. We’d be waiting forever on set for him to come back from hunting.”

Plummer, it turns out, was almost cut from the film as Huston was toying with doing away with the character of Rudyard Kipling (if you can even believe it). Co-star Sean Connery changed all that but fast by swinging his weight around at a time when he had, well, the biggest one in the room, shall we say. (You’re talking about post-Bond, a huge star of the time, etc.)

Then the discussion finally came around to one of my personal favorite performances ever: Plummer’s depiction of “60 Minutes” newsman Mike Wallace in Michael Mann’s “The Insider.” He was criminally snubbed by the Academy in a year (1999) when he probably should have walked away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

“He was so vivid in my mind and my memory,” Plummer said of the TV titan. “He could make people cry. He was a cruel guy, but he was a marvelous TV journalist. I was terrified that he would loathe my performance.”

Those fears were assuaged when Wallace later gave Plummer the thumbs up for his portrayal and noted, “I always open my lecture tours by saying, ‘I am not Christopher Plummer.'”

Hammond made it a point of noting that Plummer was into his 80s when he finally received recognition from the Academy in the form of an Oscar nomination (for 2009’s “The Last Station”). When you look at the clip reel and all the curated moments from his career on that screen, you begin to side with the disbelief, but Plummer took it in stride and barely seemed to give it a second thought. “Charlie Chaplin didn’t get an award until he was 80,” he said. “He basically invented cinema. So I’m in good company.”

Regarding his work this year, Plummer said he was particularly moved by his character’s trajectory in “Beginners” (based in part on the father of writer/director Mike Mills, who came out as a gay man late in life). He noted the desire to live a loving and open life and to get the most out of it, no matter how late in the game it might be. “That’s a lesson we all could learn,” he said.

He also tipped his hat to Rooney Mara, who co-starred with him in David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” and received an Oscar nomination last week for her performance. “For tackling that role, almost pornographic, in a way,” he said, “she’s so damn brave.”

Mills — a native Santa Barbaran — took to the stage at the end of the evening to present the Modern Master Award. He gave a lengthy, heart-felt speech expressing thanks to Plummer for finding ways to illuminate his own father in ways he hadn’t quite envisioned when he committed the story to the page and commended him, enviously, on his camaraderie with his fellow actors. And in accepting the honor, Plummer kept the mood light as he had throughout. “I’m sure I don’t deserve this,” he said. “But no one’s going to take it from me.”

And with that, the evening came to a close. Festival director Roger Durling noted before introducing Mills that he hasn’t wanted to honor someone as much as he has Plummer, because as a poor boy growing up in Panama, the first movie he went to see was “The Sound of Music.” Sure, it might be one that Plummer would rather not discuss at length these days, but it’s the one that sparked an interest in the heart of a man who would later inject a lot of energy into a festival built on honoring talents like Plummer, and so it was nicely full circle.

From here, Plummer goes on to the SAG Awards tomorrow night, where he’ll likely turn up a win for Best Supporting Actor in “Beginners.” But the presence of Max Von Sydow (also 82, also with two Oscar nods and no wins) in the same category at the Oscars makes things a little bit more interesting — especially with the presence of “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” in the Best Picture category. Is it a cakewalk for Plummer after all? Maybe not, but the work nevertheless speaks for itself, and for tonight at least, he’s recognized with Santa Barbara’s most significant prize: Modern Master.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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