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22 May 2024

Plummer paints self-deprecating life story

Plummer, right, dishes the dirt on Julie Andrews. (SUPPLIED)

By John Simon

In Spite of Myself, Christopher Plummer's memoir of his career in theatre and film, is one of the most entertaining books I have encountered in a long life of reading.

Few writers have supplied as many laughs per page as Plummer – laughs often with a core of seriousness that can, without exaggeration, be called lessons in living.

Plummer, to be sure, had several advantages. An extremely handsome man, he has talent to match. And he seems to be at equal ease on stage and page, and can easily pass for a born writer.

What makes the book so appealing is that it is honestly self-critical. It is also kind to most people featured: Actors, directors, writers, producers – even critics – to constitute a history of the performing arts over nearly a century. There are a number of cherished figures, including Orson Welles, Jason Robards and Elaine Stritch, usually in wonderful, mostly new anecdotes.

Anecdote is the key word. Plummer cannily relates not only stories in which he figures, but also those involving people who cross his path. This is what makes the book a history that is told in revealing, often comic, highlights.

Plummer's most famous role, Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music, was also his least favourite – he refers to the film as S and M. But he loved Julie Andrews, and says: "It was as if she'd been hired not just to act, sing and carry the entire film, but to keep everyone's spirits up as well."

They sometimes ate together, and one night he made her eat a dish of ultra-hot peppers. "Her throat was instantly on fire and she turned a deep scarlet. I explained to her that because she sang so well and I couldn't, this was my revenge."

There are also discreet but unvarnished accounts of love affairs, and of Plummer's three marriages: To actress Tammy Grimes, youthful and irresponsible; to journalist Patricia (Trish) Lewis, more mature but undermined by conflicting interests; and, finally, romantic, ripe and mutually fulfilling, to the actress Elaine Regina Taylor, who proves a caring lover and wise spouse for 38 years and counting.

This is a long book of nearly 650 pages, but it reads both rapidly and rivetingly – despite a profusion of mistakes, surprising from a publisher as distinguished as Knopf. A few examples: Hedda Gabler becomes Gabbler, Aeschylus' Oresteia is ascribed to Euripides and the great Prado museum devolves into Prada, a fashion house.

But many sections could stand alone as magazine pieces, such as one account of difficult filmmaking in Wind Across the Everglades on location under Nicholas Ray; and another of tragicomically preposterous experiences in the wilds of Ukraine on Waterloo, under the often exasperating Sergei Bondarchuk.