In Spite of Myself

In Spite of Myself

A Memoir

Book - 2008
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A rollicking, rich portrait of a life. And what a life! By one of today's greatest living actors.

He was born a Canadian on a Friday the thirteenth in 1929--the year of the Crash. His boyhood was one of privilege: an ancestor was a Governor General; his great-grandfather Sir John Abbott was Canada's third prime minister and owned railroads. There were steam yachts, mansions, and a life of Victorian gentility and somewhat cluttered splendor.

Plummer tells how "this young bilingual wastrel, incurably romantic, spoiled rotten, tore himself away from the ski slopes to break into the big bad world of theatre, not from the streets up but from an Edwardian living room down ," and writes of his early acting days as an eighteen-year-old playing the lead in Shakespeare's Cymbeline , directed by the legendary Komisarjevsky of Moscow's Imperial Theatre.

We see his glorious New York of the fifties, where life began at midnight, with the likes of Arthur Miller, Carson McCullers, Tennessee Williams, and Paddy Chayefsky, and how Plummer's own Broadway world developed and swept him along through the last Golden Age the American Theatre would ever remember . . . how the sublime Ruth Chatterton ("she might have been created by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Sinclair Lewis") introduced him to the right people in New York . . . how Miss Eva Le Gallienne gave Plummer his Broadway debut at twenty-five in The Starcross Story ("It opened and closed in one night! One solitary night! But what a night!"). He writes about Miss Katherine Cornell (the last stage star to travel by private train), who, with her husband, Guthrie McClintic, added to what experience Plummer had the necessary gloss, spit, and polish to take him to the next level. Guthrie bundled Plummer off to Paris for a production of Medea , opposite Dame Judith Anderson ("a little Tasmanian devil . . . who with one look could turn an audience to stone").

Plummer writes about the great producers with whom he worked--Kermit Bloomgarden, Robert Whitehead, and Roger Stevens--about Lillian Hellman, Leonard Bernstein, Elia Kazan ("If you weren't careful, this chameleon of chameleons might change into you, wear your skin, steal your soul"), and the miracle that was the new Stratford Festival in Canada, where Plummer blossomed in the classics under the extraordinary Tyrone Guthrie. He writes about his (too brief) encounters with his favorite geniuses, Orson Welles and Jonathan Miller. He writes about his lifelong friendships with Raymond Massey and the wild Kate Reid, and with that fugitive from the Navy, "that reprobate and staunch drinking buddy, the true reincarnation of Eugene O'Neill, whose blood was mixed with firewater," Jason Robards, Jr.

Plummer writes about his affairs and his marriages, and about his daughter, Amanda, who "despite her slim looks and tiny bones could raise tempests, guaranteed to loosen the foundation of any theatre in which she chose to rage."

We see him becoming a leading actor for Peter Hall's Royal Shakespeare Theatre, with a company of young talented players, each destined for stardom--Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Peter O'Toole, et al., collectively the future of the English stage. The old guard was brilliantly represented by Dames Edith Evans and Peggy Ashcroft and Sir John Gielgud. Plummer, the only fugitive from the New World, played Richard III, Benedick, and Henry II in Becket .

He writes about his film career: The Sound of Music (affectionately dubbed "S&M") . . . Inside Daisy Clover, which brought him together with the beautiful Natalie Wood . . . John Huston's The Man Who Would Be King (Plummer was Rudyard Kipling). He tells the story of accepting Sir Laurence Olivier's invitation to join the National Theatre Company, playing in Amphytron directed by Olivier himself ("a great actor but lousy director"), and writes about falling deeply in love with and eventually marrying a young actress and dancer, Elaine Taylor--to this day, his "one true strength."

Seamlessly written, with stories that make us laugh out loud and that make real the fascinating, complex, exuberant adventure that is the actor's (at least this actor's) life.
Publisher: New York : Afred A. Knopf, 2008.
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780679421627
0679421629
Branch Call Number: 791.4302 PLUMMER
Characteristics: 647 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm.

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Tonymcdonough Nov 25, 2013

Full of inacuracies
He should have had a fact checker or better yet an editor.
Also why no index?

Cdnbookworm May 17, 2011

This is a highly entertaining piece of writing by a great entertainer. He has certainly done a lot of things that aren't looked kindly on by society: drinking a lot, playing tricks on people, having a lot of relationships; but he notes those and moves on.
His life is really his acting career, and yet he is not all about himself. He notes those he admired, those he worked with and gives praise to those he thinks deserve it (and that is a lot of them). Even when he talks about those he had difficulty working with, he tries to find the reasons behind that.
I learned a lot about his career and life and interesting insights into many others in the entertainment industry.

c
claire1953
May 06, 2011

Although one of my favorite actors, In Spite of Myself was a disappointment to me since Mr. Plummer goes into never ending descriptions of life on the stage while not quite conveying his true inner feelings. This made for a laborious read.

g
GailRoger
Mar 19, 2010

Christopher Plummer has got away with a lot in his long life. Part of this must be due to sheer luck. Given his appetite for alcohol, food, and women, all of which appears to be meticulously detailed in this autobiography, it's a miracle he's in the good shape he's in, or indeed, alive at all, given more than one close call (also carefully related). Another thing that gets him off is his extreme good looks. People are always more willing to forgive handsome and charming people. The third thing that excuses this over-the-top catalogue of questionable doings is Plummer's own self-deprecation. Sure, he tells tales, but mostly on himself.

Plummer is a smart man. He knows, more than most people, that it takes a dollop of healthy self-regard to survive in the theatre, movies and television, and there's absolutely no doubt that he has that in spades. However, he also knows that no one succeeds in acting purely through one's own doing. In fact, sometimes one succeeds in spite of oneself. (Apt title, Christopher!) Thus, Plummer is careful to give credit to those who gave him breaks, who performed brilliantly alongside him, who loved him and put up with him. The story of his Tony nomination for Iago in Othello is buried by his account of daughter Amanda's Plummer's Tony-win for Agnes of God in the very same year. (And he cheerfully admits that he was "a lousy father" to his only child.)

There's a lot to forgive in this book: the rather precious sprinkling of French throughout (yes, he grew up in Montreal, but *really*), the number of times he describes friendships in terms of being "inseparable", the often purple prose, the vague and often downright inaccurate references to actual historical events. Did he even have an editor? However, the anecdotes are amusing, his life story is fascinating, and if you check the list of his accomplishments, he's left out a great deal. All delivered with devilish charm.

Finally, given his long life and the huge range of his acting, we can certainly forgive the name-dropping. That's no doubt why we picked up the book in the first place.

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