LOS ANGELES – Christopher Plummer may be frozen in some filmgoers’ memories as the noble-browed patriarch who made stern parenting and anti-Nazism sexy in The Sound of Music.
But Plummer and his career aren’t mired in the past. Slipping easily from one disparate role to another, he’s created Leo Tolstoy in The Last Station, the haunted magnate in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and a man experiencing a late-in-life gay awakening in Beginners, which earned him an Oscar last year at age 82.
That made him the oldest acting honoree ever, and he’s not stopping. He plays a U.S. Supreme Court justice in HBO’s Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, debuting at 8 tonight, a history-textured film that puts the boxer’s quest to be recognized as a conscientious objector against Vietnam War service in the ring versus the high court.
I don’t think retirement exists in our profession, said Plummer, looking every bit the star in elegant slacks and jacket, his white hair perfectly groomed. If you retire, something’s gone very wrong with your career is my theory. Also, why would you want to retire? It’s fun to be in this weird, old, ancient, ancient profession.
The Canadian-born Plummer heads the HBO film as John Harlan II, who was among the justices who decided in 1971 whether Ali’s conviction for refusing to be drafted because of his Muslim-based objections should be upheld or overturned.
The dynamic Ali is represented by the legend himself through news clips woven effectively into the drama. But the emphasis is on the camaraderie and give-and-take among the justices.
The story resonated with Plummer because of Ali’s anti-war stance – As he says, Why should I fight them (the Vietnamese)? No one over there has called me (the N-word),’ Plummer said, – and Harlan’s intellectual metamorphosis.
His law clerk, a composite character played by Benjamin Walker, persuades him to take a second look at the case after it appears settled.
One man, because he listened to somebody else, was intelligent and vulnerable enough to change his beliefs, Plummer said.
That’s hugely dramatic to me.