Sunday, April 17, 2011

Christopher Plummer closes Sarasota Film Festival in style

L to R: David Edelstein and Christopher Plummer

He riffed on playing everyone from Hamlet to Captain Von Trapp to Mike Wallace.

Dished on getting hammered with Sir Reginald Harrison.

And had the auditorium howling when he talked about kissing a man for the first time in his new movie “Beginners.”

Yes, the venerable, 81-year old actor proved an exceptional raconteur at the Sarasota Film Festival’s “In Conversation with Christopher Plummer,” which took place from noon until nearly 2 p.m. today at the Sarasota Opera House.

David Edelstein, film critic for New York Magazine, NPR’s “Fresh Air” and “CBS News Sunday Morning,” conducted the interview, which spanned Plummer’s illustrious career.

Questions were largely drawn from the actor’s 2008 memoir “In Spite of Myself.”

“It was cold and we drank a lot,” Plummer said, with a smile, when asked about growing up outside Montreal.

Much of the interview focused on Plummer playing the titular prince in “Hamlet at Elsinore.”

The festival screened the world premiere of the film’s restoration Saturday.

The only sound film shot in the actual Dutch castle where William Shakespeare’s play is set, “Hamlet at Elsinore” aired in the United States in 1965, earning Plummer an Emmy. Robert Shaw, Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland are also in the movie.

Television cameras taped the entire interview and Edelstein explained that the “Hamlet” portion would be used as bonus material for the BBC’s upcoming DVD release of the movie.

“Michael Caine had us in stitches all through the shoot,” Plummer said. “The stories he had! A million of them.”

Plummer praised both Caine and Shaw and then, in regard to the latter said, “He was the most competitive man I’ve ever met. He was extremely violent over ping-pong. Can you imagine that? But I adored him.”

Plummer said he did “The Sound of Music” because he was a fan of Julie Andrews and wanted to learn to sing. Plummer admitted, though, to becoming irritated when told he would have to sing before filming started. Director Robert Wise eventually allowed him to do his singing during post-production but not before the actor became perturbed.

“I behaved badly on set,” Plummer said.

“How did the children react?” Edelstein asked.

“I think they enjoyed it,” Plummer responded, laughing. “They were sweet but the presence of so many nuns, that’s what depressed me.”

Plummer, who briefly replaced the difficult Rex Harrison on the infamously over-budget production of the 1967 musical film “Dr. Dolittle,” would indulge in heavy drinking sessions with Harrison and wife Rachel Roberts.

“Rachel would have a few too many and holler like a wild wolf,” Plummer said before unleashing a loud yelp.

Asked about his relationship with Harrison, he laughed and said, “I don’t think Rex was a dear friend of anybody — but I liked him,” Plummer said.

As for his own alcohol intake, he admitted it had gotten out of hand before he met third wife Elaine Regina Taylor. They have been married since 1970.

“She saved my life,” Plummer said. “Absolutely, no question about it.”

Edelstein lauded the actor’s portrayal of Mike Wallace in the Oscar-nominated 1999 film “The Insider,” which also starred Al Pacino and Russell Crowe.

“I watched Mike Wallace since the 1950s,” Plummer said. “I admired his guts.”

“Beginners,” the festival’s closing night film, which has its second and final screening at 7:30 p.m. today, features Plummer playing a gay man who comes out of the closet late in life. Ewan McGregor plays his son. It’s a poignant — often warmly humorous — movie (tI attended a press screening Friday).

But when Edelstein asked him about preparing for his first kiss with a man, Plummer couldn’t resist making the hall roar with laughter.

The actor who “plays my boyfriend is very butch and nervous and then petulant about it,” Plummer recalled. “I said to him, ‘What’s wrong with kissing me?’”

He added, with a chuckle, “It was rather pleasurable.”

A couple hours before the first, 5 p.m. screening of “Beginners” at Regal Cinemas Hollywood 20 today, I met with the film’s writer/director, Mike Mills, across the street at Brasserie Belge, home during the festival of the “Sponsor and Filmmaker Lounge.”

Mills’ own life inspired “Beginners.”

He started writing the script after his dad died in late 2004. Focus Features, the studio behind such blockbuster, critically acclaimed films as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Traffic,” will distribute “Beginners.” It hits theaters nationwide June 3.

“I wanted Christopher because it would be surprising for audiences to see Christopher play a gay man just as it was surprising for me to see my dad as a gay man,” Mills said in between sips of iced coffee. “Christopher, as you saw today, has tremendous intelligence and wit but also a subversive punk-y sense of humor — and that’s echoed in the character I wrote.”

Mills added, “Casting him was pretty much a no brainer.”

All photos by Wade Tatangelo.

Click my past Sarasota Film Festival coverage and here for today's front page SFF story.

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