It isn’t until Chapter 41 of Christopher Plummer’s more-revealing-than-he-intended memoir In Spite of Myself that what you may have suspected for awhile becomes clear. Alongside his brief evocations of a couple of large-scale films, Plummer, in this chapter, expresses great love for, and spends a decent chunk of prose, on his growing pack of dogs – far more prose than he has spent on his daughter, Amanda, who, you realise, he has barely had any contact with her entire life. He also, in this chapter, tells you about his haunted house.
Chapter 41 thus reveals both Plummer’s enormous self-absorption (or, frankly, selfishness) and the fact that he’s a little batty. All actors are self-absorbed and a little batty, and many, many actors have drinking challenges. Plummer’s life has taken these elements to a far greater extreme than most, something which is hidden, but there – “in spite of himself” – in his pages. His chosen title essentially acknowledges that he’s had a miraculously charmed life despite his own shortcomings, but he is sometimes annoyingly coy about them, at least directly. Thus we are told of hundreds of drunken adventures, but never with any tinge of regret – and nor is there regret for his complete rejection of any fatherly duty. This is hardly a mea culpa. Rather, it’s a bit of a gloat: “Look at me! I was a drunken cad, quite horrible to many people, and I got away with it! Hell, last year they gave me an Oscar!” The closest he comes to any form of acknowledgement that his behaviour may not have been, always or perhaps at all, conforming to society’s preferences, would be in his (guiltily short) chapter on The Sound of Music, in which he admits to being a prize dick.
His philandering is treated with the same celebratory air, and, in least in his younger years, his bawdiness will startle some readers who see him as nothing other than the epitome of elegance. As a husband, he’s obviously been lacking (he’s on his third wife) but he’s proud of himself as a cocksman. Indeed, he’s quite simply very proud of himself, something that comes through in his prose style, which is gratuitously florid; it’s as though he’s set himself the task of writing a theatrical memoir in the style of those grand actor-managers from a bygone era, and, while he’s certainly earned the right to do so, the effect is unintentionally almost parodic; it’s certainly pretentious, especially when he quotes long passages of Shakespeare (and in the audiobook, very much performs them). He also chooses, very often, the weirdest anecdotes to include: from the set of Waterloo, he spends the better part of a page detailing the time the crew started lunch without him; it’s as though he’s still pissed off about it, decades later, and wants to have a little sulk. When he commits a truly appalling act – not attending the funeral of his lifelong theatrical agent, who literally would cross oceans to bring him his contracts to sign, and who spent her life serving him – he tosses it off in a quick sentence without explanation, excuse or, again, regret.
Plummer would probably be a fantastically entertaining guy to have a bunch of drinks with, a boorish dinner guest, an ungrateful houseguest and a hellish husband or co-star. I realised at some point during his book that I didn’t like him. But his career has been so huge that it has a thousand points of light, and I liked the book, for all its stories, places, and characters, despite the man.
Plummer reads the book beautifully, of course: he’s got one of the most beautiful speaking voices in the world. But he has a hugely unflattering habit of laughing at his own witticisms, as well as his own more outlandish behaviour. Almost any reference to getting loaded is followed by his little chuckle, which again smacks of nothing less than and I got away with it. His reading is a perfect metaphor for the book itself: he comes off sounding very much in love with the sound of his own voice, knowing that we’re pretty much guaranteed to fall in love with it too.