“You always wanted to hold my hand when you were little.”
I was meeting with the SBIFF staff via Zoom on Friday when we heard of Christopher Plummer’s death. There was a pause in our conversation, and a sinking feeling. Everybody loved Mr. Plummer – and it derived from the fact that we all had seen him repeatedly in “The Sound of Music” (1965). In it, he plays the stern patriarch who learns to love after the arrival of Maria, and becomes a warmer father to his children. Our affection towards him was because he had become, through the years, our cinematic father figure. Ironically, the actor was not fond of the role he was most famous for. In 2012, we honored him with the Modern Master Award at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, and he spoke to Leonard Maltin on the Arlington stage about his complicated relationship with Captain Von Trapp. “I was bored with the character,” Plummer told Leonard. “Although we worked hard enough to make him interesting, it was a bit like flogging a dead horse. And the subject matter is not mine. I mean, it can’t appeal to every person in the world. It’s not my cup of tea.” He brought down the house admitting the nickname he had for the film, “The Sound of Mucus.”
In person, Plummer was the most gentlemanly person I have ever met. I don’t usually get starstruck, but meeting him made my knees weak. He was 81 at the time, and so dapper and so handsome. I told him I had seen him on stage a few times – a fact that he seemed to enjoy because he loved performing in the theatre. He was very grateful to be with us. I will never forget those intense blue eyes of his and the smile that reminded me of a Cheshire. Besides Von Trapp, he left an arsenal of great performances. My favorite roles include Rudyard Kipling in “The Man Who Would be King” (1975), Mike Wallace in “The Insider” (1999) — for which he should have been nominated for the Oscar, Chang in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) and Harlan Thrombey in “Knives Out” (2019). I am of course extremely fond of his Hal Fields, the role in “Beginners” (2011) that brought him his well-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor in 2012.
Mike Mills’ film is a wonder. It’s loosely based on his personal life. His father Paul Chabourne Mills was the director of the Santa Barbara Museum of Art. His mother, Janet L. Dowd was a draftsperson who also fixed houses. They were married for 44 years. She died of cancer in 1999, and, six months after, Paul came out as gay at age 75. “I always loved your mother, but now I want to explore this side,” says Hal – a fictionalized version of Mills’ father. He died six years later of lung cancer.
The movie starts right after the death of Hal, and his son Oliver is still reeling from the loss – cleaning his house. He inherits his dog, Arthur – a Jack Russell. The two of them will have a terrific rapport on screen. Oliver speaks to the dog as if he were a human being. Eventually the dog’s thoughts will be shown as subtitles on the screen. “I hope this feeling lasts,” says Arthur at some point.
The film is ultimately about Oliver learning to live again after the loss of his father – and through a series of interconnected flashbacks we see the story of his father coming out – and their close friendship. His father embraced his homosexuality wholeheartedly and gets himself a younger boyfriend, but is diagnosed with Stage IV cancer. “Let’s not rush and tell everyone,” his dad tells him. Hal shares that he knew he was always gay but that because of the times, he found comfort with his mother, and they made it work. “Did you know about me?” he asks Oliver, who replies, “No I just thought you and mom weren’t in love.” In the present – and consumed with ennui – Oliver meets a French actress called Anna. Through the memories of his father and inspired by his joie de vivre, Oliver finds the courage to take a chance on love.
Mike Mills has worked as a graphic designer for album covers for bands including the Beastie Boys and others. He has also directed music videos, is a musician himself and a photographer. I bring up all of these facts because the way the film is put together has this playfulness about it, using collages, photographs – condensing and expanding time. The whimsy that he uses counters the pain and sadness that’s inherent in the material. Ultimately, there’s a sense of hope and optimism that shines through – a gift passed down from his father.
Ewan McGregor is soulful as Oliver and a perfect foil to Plummer’s bon vivant. The highlights of the film are the moments the two of them share together. It plays as a beautiful love story between father and son. Plummer is sublime and seeing it now after his death – I’m glad he was able to not only deliver this pinnacle of his career but also receive all the accolades that came with it.
Good night sweet prince.
Hal: “I’ll try anything!”
Available to stream on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO Max and DIRECTV. Available to rent on Amazon Prime, Microsoft, Google Play, YouTube, iTunes, Vudu, Redbox and FandangoNOW.
Written and Directed by Mike Mills
Starring Christopher Plummer, Ewan McGregor, Mélanie Laurent and Goran Višnjić
About Christopher Plummer
Born Arthur Plummer in Toronto in 1929, the great-grandson of John Abbott, Canada’s third prime minister, and grew up in Quebec speaking English and French fluently. After leaving school he joined the Montreal Repertory Theatre, and after a short spell on Broadway achieved his first leading role as Hal in “Henry V” at the 1956 Stratford festival in Ontario. More stage roles followed, in both Stratford and on Broadway, including his first Tony nomination in 1959 for best actor in Archibald MacLeish’s “JB,” which was directed by Elia Kazan. He also secured roles with the Royal Shakespeare Company in the UK, playing Benedick in the 1961 production of “Much Ado About Nothing” (opposite Geraldine McEwan) and the title role of Richard III in the same year. “The Sound of Music,” released to huge success in 1965, proved Plummer’s breakthrough to stardom…His well-known distaste for the film mellowed over time: “I’ve made my peace with it,” he added. “It annoyed the hell out of me at first. I thought: ‘Don’t these people ever see another movie? Is this the only one they’ve ever seen?’ … But I’m grateful to the film, and to Robert Wise, who’s a great director and a gentleman, and to Julie [Andrews], who’s remained a terrific friend.” After “The Sound of Music,” Plummer was in demand as a character actor in high-profile films, appearing in a wide variety of material, from “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” and “The Battle of Britain” in 1969, to Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic “Waterloo” (1970) and “Return of the Pink Panther” (1975). He played Rudyard Kipling in “The Man Who Would Be King” and Sherlock Holmes in “Murder By Decree” (1979). He also had success on stage, winning a Tony award in 1973 for the title role in the musical “Cyrano.”
…He continued to work steadily in the 1980s and 90s… including roles in “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” (1991) as Klingon general Chang, and Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X” (1992) as a racist prison chaplain; he also played virologist Leland Goines in “12 Monkeys” (1995) and TV journalist Mike Wallace in “The Insider” (1999). His stage work, as before, appeared to sustain him, with another Tony award in 1997 for the title role in “Barrymore,” about the Shakespearean actor John Barrymore, and a King Lear in 2002, directed by Jonathan Miller, which led to another Tony nomination after its transfer to Broadway in 2004. However, as he neared his 80s, Plummer’s screen career enjoyed a sharp upturn. In 2010, he received his first Oscar nomination, for the Tolstoy biopic “The Last Station.” Although Plummer lost out to Christoph Waltz for the best supporting actor statuette, the nomination sparked a flurry of interest in his work, and two years later Plummer won the Oscar in the same category for “Beginners,” for his role as a man who comes out as gay in his senior years – and, at 82, he remains the oldest actor to win an Oscar. Plummer subsequently broke another age-related Oscar record, as the oldest actor to be nominated, when he secured his third Oscar nod in 2018, aged 88, for “All the Money in the World,” in which he played J Paul Getty, the plutocrat whose grandson was kidnapped by the mafia in 1973… (theguardian.com) Plummer was in the TV series “Departure” and the films “The Last Full Measure” and “Knives Out” all in 2019. Plummer passed away on February 5th, 2021.
Writer and Director Mike Mills on Bringing “Beginners” to the Screen
The script for “Beginners” first began to write itself…years ago when Mills’ father came out as a gay man at age 75 and how his heterosexual son came to terms with a father suddenly experimenting with house music and a younger boyfriend. Five years later, Paul Mills was gone at age 80 from terminal cancer. The basis for “Beginners” was Mills’ own grieving and the revelation of the true origins of his parents’ unique marriage that appeared to him as he slowly peeled back the layers of their relationship…The filmmaker, who first made waves in the indie film world with the lovably kooky comedy “Thumbsucker” in 2005, says it was never a question that he would make a film about the profoundly odd curveball thrown in his personal life. “I didn’t have much of a choice with the way I make things,” he admits laughing. “Of course, I’m going to make a film about this! I needed to capture on film how crazy those last years with my dad were. Crazy in a good way. ‘Thumbsucker’ found an audience but it wasn’t like people were calling and saying, ‘What’s your next movie?’ I didn’t know if there would be a next movie. It allowed me to be brave and say ‘[expletive] it, if I only get to make one more film, this is going to be the one.’ I put everything into it. It was the last five years of my dad’s life rubbing off on me. He was emboldened. It was punk. I enjoyed remembering my dad while working on this and I enjoyed the weirdness of trying to write from your parents’ perspective. I’ve enjoyed this high stakes game of ‘Did I get it right, pop?’ “
…To get both gifted actors on board his modestly budgeted film, Mills began by writing letters to both. “The act of writing a letter is very personal,” Mills explains. “It was me putting everything on the line and being open and real about why I wanted them to play the roles. Thankfully, it worked because they met with me.” While younger actors might hesitate about a role that required you to wear an ascot and engage in intergenerational same-sex kissing, Mills says Plummer, at age 81, dove directly into the character. “He’s very cosmopolitan and he speaks very progressively about the gay people he’s known in his life and their struggles. He’s a very worldly man. It was never an issue. And as Hal, he knew intuitively how to go back and forth between something potentially dramatic and sad and then merging it with wit. He got that those moments aren’t mutually exclusive. That they can pile up on one another. Forget that it was my dad, Christopher had a deep, thorough respect for the character and that’s why it works.” (atlantamagazine.com)
Christopher Plummer on Being Offered the Role of Hal in “Beginners”
“I adored the part and I thought it was so well written and so unsentimental and brave and witty and free. Totally free,” Plummer says. “Of course he was so relieved to be able to come out of the closet in such a happy way because he was so fond of his latest boyfriend. I just adored the way it was tackled. It was tackled with such humanity and sweetness and fun.” He only found out that Mills’ screenplay was autobiographical after he had taken the part. Initially, this was a source of concern. “I thought, ‘Oh, God. This is going to be awful, because of course he’s going to be at me every five seconds.’ And when I brought this up with Michael, he said ‘Are you kidding?’ He said, ‘I don’t want you to imitate my father. Even if you could, he’s dead. How could you imitate him? Be you and do what you want.'” (npr.org)
About Writer and Director Mike Mills
Mike Mills was born in Berkeley, California in 1966. He graduated from Cooper Union in 1989. Mike Mills works as a filmmaker, graphic designer, and artist. Mills is best known for his independent films “Beginners” (2011) and “Thumbsucker” (2005) as well as his exhibitions at the Alleged Gallery, which were documented in the book, exhibition and film “Beautiful Losers”. Mills wrote and directed “Thumbsucker” (2005), which won awards at both the Sundance Film Festival and Berlin International Film Festival, in addition to winning the Guardian New Directors award at the Edinburgh Film Festival. His second feature, which he wrote and directed, “Beginners” (2011), won Best Film and Best Ensemble Cast at the Gotham Awards and was nominated for best director, best screenplay, and best supporting actor by the Independent Spirit Awards. Christopher Plummer won the Oscar for best supporting actor (2012). His short films include “The Architecture of Reassurance” (1999), “Paperboys” (2001), “Deformer” (2000), and “Eating, Sleeping, Waiting, and Playing” (2003) which have been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, Edinburgh Film Festival, Oberhausen Short Film Festival, The New York Museum of Modern Art’s New Directors New Films, and Rotterdam International Film Fest. Mike is known for his music video work for artists such as Air, Moby, Blonde Redhead, Yoko Ono, and Pulp. His commercial work for Cisco, Nike, Volkswagen, Old Spice, and others have won multiple awards. In 2007, Mike made the feature length documentary, “Does Your Soul Have A Cold?” exploring the issues around the introduction of anti-depressants to Japanese culture. The film premiered at SXSW Festival and was part of IFC’s documentary film series.
As a graphic artist, Mike has designed album covers for Sonic Youth’s “Washing Machine,” Beastie Boy’s “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two,” Wild Flag, and Air’s “Moon Safari.” He designed the book cover for Miranda July’s “No One Belongs here More Than You.” For many years Mike was responsible for all graphic design for Kim Gordon and Daisy Von Furth’s clothing companies and X-Girl. Mike has also designed scarves and fabrics for Marc Jacobs and skateboards for Subliminal, Supreme, and Stereo. In 2003, Mills was included in the National Design Triennial at the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt museum. In that same year, Mills started his own graphics line, “Humans,” producing posters, fabrics, ribbons, and shirts. Humans is a project “in between the art world and popular culture, in between graphic design and art practice.” In 2013 he created a new line of posters sold via Commune Design in Los Angeles. Working in an art context, Mills has had solo exhibitions at Alleged Gallery in New York (1995-2001), Gallery Colette in Paris (1999), MU Museum in the Netherlands (2004), and Pool Gallery in Berlin (2009). He has participated in group shows at Galleria Marella in Milan (2008), and Partners & Spade in NYC (2009), and was included in the traveling exhibit Beautiful Losers (2004-2009) which toured places including the Yerba Buena Center for Arts in San Francisco and the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati. In 2012, Mills took part in Transmissions LA: AV Club – Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, and he is participating in San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s Project Los Altos in 2013. (mikemillsmikemills.com) In 2016, Mills wrote and directed the film, “20th Century Women.” Mills is currently in post-production on “C’mon C’mon”.