Delicious Canadian Ham

Two show-off actors strut their stuff in new books.

Laurence Oliver once observed, apropos of Method actors who dig deep into personal experience for the motivation of their characters, that he had never been conscious of any motivation in his own work apart from the desire to show off. Christopher Plummer and William Shatner, casting aside Canadianness, set out to become show-offs of great amplitude. But only Plummer, wretched toward his family, fickle with his women and as malicious as he insists he is—the title of his memoir is In Spite of Myself—is also a show-off possessed of insight and decisive artistic power.

Shatner, on the other hand, is as nice a man as—well, as Captain James T. Kirk. The biographies are a study in contrast. While Plummer laments the dumbing down of popular culture and retreats whenever possible from lucrative movies to the classical stage, according to Up Till Now: The Autobiography Shatner threw over the classics the moment he was offered a commercial endorsement. Today Shatner is a fixture of Star Trek conventions and late-night TV where he shills for companies like Priceline.com. His overwrought spoken version of songs such as “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” are universally regarded as kitsch.

Is this a bad thing? Depends. I suspect Shatner has become a skilled vaudeville clown, falling over chairs from stage left to stage right, insisting he did it on purpose, and garnering the extravagant love of a mass audience that cannot wait for his next pratfall.

Both young actors grew up in Montreal. Plummer, a scion of the upper class, lived on his mother’s ancestral estate with a beloved dog named after a governor general. Such was the trauma of his parents’ early divorce that he barely mentions his father. Shatner, on the other hand, was the son of a loving and hardworking Jewish shmatte dealer. His trauma came from outside the home, in the form of anti-Semites waiting to beat him up on his way to the synagogue.

Both were masters of emotional disguise from an early age. Both worked their way up through Dominion Drama Festivals, and both arrived at the Stratford Festival in 1956. Plummer arrived with a contract to play Henry V, having previously performed to acclaim in New York. Shatner arrived as his understudy. That summer Plummer fell ill with a kidney stone and Shatner got his big chance. His performance was dazzling. “It came together in a way it never should have,” he writes, already selling himself short. Tyrone Guthrie then gave him lead roles in subsequent seasons and named him Most Promising Actor at the festival.

The kidney stone incident also occurs in Plummer’s book. “Someone [in the hospital] told me that Bill Shatner had scored full marks as Henry … I knew then that the SOB was going to be a ‘star’.”

Plummer’s enchanted childhood, where Oscar Peterson dropped by to play the piano, was nonetheless haunted by emotional insecurity. A beautiful boy, he was French kissed by a nanny at the age of twelve. By the time he was 18 he had already been in a police lock-up, performed Oedipus in an alcoholic fog and had his first affair (inevitably, with a married woman).

An interlude with a repertory company in Bermuda gave him the contacts necessary for a New York launch. Like Shatner, also present in New York by this time, Plummer learned to make easy money in television serials. Unlike Shatner, he looked on TV with contempt, a medium “drunk with power” that would “tell us how to eat … swing elections, topple government.”

Plummer’s book, though often brilliant, must perforce take the form of all actors’ biographies: a dizzying succession of celebrity encounters. By the age of 26 he is playing opposite Judith Anderson in her historic Medea—in Paris, with Jean Cocteau and Alice B. Toklas partying backstage. Two years later he stars in Cyrano de Bergerac in New York. “What you had taken to be an essentially heartless city suddenly opened its doors, and … presto!—it had adopted you!”

For a self-described vain actor, Plummer is surprisingly aware of the larger currents of cultural history. Looking back, he observes that he arrived on Broadway at “a time when the American theatre was still rich in invention.” If that was the year that saw the premiere of A View from the Bridge, The Diary of Anne Frank and Waiting for Godot, this was not unconnected to the fact that Martin Luther King had just begun to preach, and Nabokov had just published Lolita.

Two persistent Plummerian characteristics had already emerged. One is self-dislike. Working with Boris Karloff in Jean Anouilh’s The Lark, Plummer observes that the gentle and elderly Karloff is one of the few “truly good humans” he had met. “I realized, with a sharp pang of envy, I could never be one of them.”

The other is astute judgement of others. He says no to a multi-season offer from David O. Selznick because it hinges on his performing with Selznick’s wife. She is too old for the roles; he is too young; and Selznick is “blinded by love.” Later he will do likewise when Laurence Olivier proposes to direct him as Coriolanus: the great actor was, in his view, a weak director.

Plummer rapidly became as corrupt as a young prince in a medieval city. He revelled in parties where Marilyn Monroe sat “at the feet of Isak Dinesen” while Comden and Green spoofed their own hit song at the piano: “It’s the fuckiest fuck of the year.” Then he would head off to the Palace Bar and Grill with Jason Robards, where they persuaded a traffic cop to bring his horse inside to have a drink with them.

Unhappily for his daughter, Amanda, she chose this time to be born. Plummer fled the delivery room and got too drunk to return. Tammy Grimes would soon become his first ex-wife, and he would see his daughter only once between then and her 18th birthday.

Like any libertine, Plummer needed a place to regenerate from time to time. Stratford, Ontario, suited the bill. Here he performed his memorable 1957 Hamlet, which he recalls with a fine literary understanding of the Dane and a generous account of Frances Hyland’s uncanny voice as being like “sweet bells jangled out of tune.”

Can this be the same fellow who, the following year, is drinking his way through a Florida swamp in Nicholas Ray’s dreadful film, Wind across the Everglades? It is a Shatnerian moment, and a vivid reminder that America’s commercial culture is always on the lookout to castrate talent. But Plummer was nimbler than Shatner. He loved celebrity culture, he loved the game. But he names Bertolt Brecht and the Berliner Ensemble as his most important influence at the time. And by 1961 he has joined Peter Hall’s new Royal Shakespeare Company, performing an acclaimed Richard III at the age of 31.

At the same time, he made awful epic movies to support his lifestyle. The first was Samuel Bronston’s overblown Fall of the Roman Empire (shot in Spain with Franco’s approval) and proceeding to Russian director Sergei Bondarchuk’s bizarre Waterloo (which the New York Times called “a very bad movie”). Here Plummer evinces a growing fondness for flamboyant aristocracies—just in time for The Sound of Music.

This will certainly be one of the best-read chapters in the book. Plummer does not conceal his feelings about the film, which he elsewhere refers to as “The Sound of Mucus.” He spent much of the shoot dead drunk in a picturesque Austrian hotel, had an affair with a buxom nurse, got too fat to get into his Von Trapp costume and misplaced his wife: “God knows where my real-life bride was—somewhere in England, no doubt.”

And why did he do this movie? A certain “vulgar streak … made me fancy myself in a big, splashy Hollywood extravaganza.” He also needed the money. This is the man who ordered lark’s tongues for supper while returning to London on the liner France.

“I just went along with it all. I didn’t harbour much self-respect,” he wrote. He wanted “to be the bad boy always, convinced it made me more interesting … offstage my real existence had little in it to write home about. I suddenly saw there was nothing particularly original about me.” At this low point he fell in love with the actress Elaine Taylor; more surprisingly, considering his record, she fell in love with him—then and forever. They are still together nearly 40 years later.

He was about to turn 40 himself at the time, “already with bags under the eyes the size of trunks” and beginning to feel the cold wind of mortality. He gave up the gin and the Moscow Mules. He and Elaine bought a permanent home and became involved in a project to re-create Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

Artistically he struggled. The times were changing. A project to do a new version of Peer Gynt collapsed when the sublime poet/playwright Christopher Fry declared it was no longer possible to write verse plays. Shortly after that, Plummer went backstage to congratulate Olivier on his Othello, for which the great actor had blackfaced himself and performed with anklets and matted hair. “They booed me!” cried Olivier. “They think I’m a fucking racist pig … !” Plummer arranged for his beloved Cyrano de Bergerac to be made into a musical, in which he starred and won a 1974 Tony Award. But the public stayed away. A clue to what was happening can be found in his collaboration with the director John Huston on The Man Who Would Be King. Huston approached him at one point and said, “Ah, Chris, just take the music out of your voice.” In essence, Huston forced him to do the Method, to learn to be a modern actor.

Plummer’s talent is redoubtable, and he made the transition. A few years later he played a contemporary psychopath in The Silent Partner. By 1981 he attempted his own Othello, and he was not called a racist pig: he won the Drama Desk Award.

“The theatre is not for sissies,” he writes, wondering to himself why he continued to take on uncommercial vehicles such as Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land. “My actor-partner knows that. There is a gleam in his eyes—the promise of adventure. My partner begins to sniff the air—he smells the scent of danger and excitement.”

That he imagines the actor within him as a separate being, his “actor-partner,” explains a lot about Plummer—both good and bad. I think it explains why, a few pages earlier, he wrote some very cruel remarks about Amanda, now a celebrated actress: “Nothing she did or suggested seemed familiar to me; none of it had come from my genes … It was not my daughter up there on that stage but a perfect stranger—nothing of me in her at all.”

He seems not aware of the cruelty. His actor-partner is sniffing the air, and saying the truth without the least thought of the harm it might do. It appears that he and Amanda somehow became friends nonetheless. I guess it is because her actor-partner understands what he is doing.

The rest of Plummer’s story is an amiable one: a Tony Award for his John Barrymore one-man show, Syriana, A Beautiful Mind, The Inside Man and the scaling of the inevitable mountain of King Lear. “How lucky I have been,” he writes, to work with “extraordinary collection of vagabonds from both halves of the twentieth century.”

Although William Shatner is the lesser talent, there are many parallels between the two. In that great 1956 season recalled by Plummer, Shatner was on Broadway too, playing in Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Tamerlaine. And he had embarked on a Plummer-like personal life, having married the first of four wives. But there is a big difference. “I’ve never had great fortune planning my career … I would describe my career plan pretty much as answering the telephone.”

Early on Shatner had the courage to take on projects for artistic quality alone, such as Roger Corman’s anti-segregation movie The Intruder. But he was looking for the show that would make him a star. One after another failed. Shatner was discouraged: there was only one left on the shelf. NBC picked it up. It was called Star Trek.

The Star Trek chapter of Shatner’s book is revealing. It is an odd mixture of serious observation about the innovative style of Star Trek, mixed in with whole pages listing the hundreds of merchandising products that helped make him rich. This kind of incongruity, or slapdash mixing of genres and tones, has been Shatner’s singular achievement. It has led to apparent embarrassments such as his 1968 video of Elton John’s “Rocket Man.” Called “The Transformed Man,” it is usually described as the worst music video ever recorded. Shatner responds by observing that it is the “best-known performance of the song ‘Rocket Man’ ever done,” implying that what is the most popular cannot be the worst. He also observes that he may have intended a parody. Or not. This Sphinx-like stance has led to the peculiar stardom he now enjoys. Mixed with the undeniable charm of the Star Trek franchise itself, it has given birth to a strange meta product.

The definitive moment for this came several years after the series was cancelled by Paramount. People had begun holding Star Trek conventions and Shatner dutifully attended them, answering hundreds of inane questions. Then one day he made the famous speech in which he ordered the Trekkies to “get a life, will you, people? I mean, for crying out loud, it’s just a TV show … Look at the way you’re dressed!”

Nobody was offended. Instead, Trekkies began to greet each other at conventions with the salutation “Get a life!” Shatner now refuses to say whether his “get a life” speech was serious or faked. He has become a sort of Klingon battle cruiser in human form, destroying rational thought and good taste wherever he goes. He recounts with glee that DVDs of one of his movies sell for one cent on Amazon.com.

Eventually Shatner did create another hit TV series, albeit a modest one, called T.J. Hooker. And he finally won a desperately desired Emmy for his work in the series Boston Legal. While he ends his book by declaring that he is a happy man, a reader may seriously doubt it. But then, the truly great comedians are, as a rule, deeply unhappy. And by making himself the centre of a great spreading stain of self-parody, he has actually anticipated and informed the direction in which American culture is evolving.

And that is one thing which Christopher Plummer never succeeded in doing.