Amanda Plummer: Odd Woman In
The day I was to meet Amanda Plummer she left a panicky message on my answering machine at 6:30 a.m. claiming she didn't know if it was day or night, whether she'd overslept or the sky had darkened. It was a miniature expressionist performance, extreme and funny, real and confected all at once. On the other hand, war had broken out and we'd all had a bad night. I didn't even hear the phone ring. Still, it gave me pause. What was I going to do with Amanda Plummer?
What are we going to do with Amanda Plummer? That question must have been asked dozens, hundreds of times by agents, casting directors, producers, studio executives. Who is this woman? She's so...weird. And she's not very pretty, is she? You couldn't see her shilling for product during prime time. She fails to reassure. She's not anybody who would live next door. You wouldn't, say, cast her as a single mother of three who goes undercover for the DEA at her local supermarket and meets cute with a roguish government inspector (played by, say, Bruce Boxleitner) who rediscovers human warmth in the course of a sting operation.
Plummer's had phenomenal success on the stage (a Tony for Agnes of God, and raves for The Glass Menagerie, Romeo and Juliet, The Cherry Orchard, A Lie of the Mind--a full range of great stuff to do on the boards). But she's been stiffed by the movies. So much so that Terry Gilliam's new film The Fisher King represents the first time that she's had a significant part with substantial screen time in a major motion picture. She's had significant parts (Cattle Annie and Little Britches, Daniel), she's had screen time (in the same two pictures), and she's been in major films (The World According to Garp), but never all at once. Mostly she's done cameos in movies neither you nor anyone else saw, like Made in Heaven and Joe Versus the Volcano. (Her biggest audience exposure to date, in fact, came from a stint as the retarded Benny's girlfriend on "L.A. Law," an experience she simply will not discuss.)
Maybe it's because she's had the bad luck to be the daughter of two stars--Tammy Grimes and Christopher Plummer--who themselves are hardly mainstream. Or because she had the bad luck to be branded an eccentric at an early age. (Eccentrics are permitted to run loose in their declining years, but seldom in their youth and prime.) Maybe it's because she had the bad luck to possess features that are so protean she looks different from moment to moment, not just from role to role. Or because she had the bad luck to be theatrical, in an era when actors are expected to be regular, if not ordinary, just Joes and Janes from your subdivision with a little bit extra. Flamboyance and idiosyncrasy are not desirable in role models and demographic representatives.
But Amanda Plummer is flamboyant and idiosyncratic. For all the fragile and even spooked qualities she emanates over the phone, in person she is animated and disarming, bounding out into the lobby (if you can call it that) of the modest Little Italy quasi-tenement in which she leads a quiet, solo, almost student-like existence involving much reading and writing. She is wearing a short fake-fur something and her hair is yanked back under one of those wide headband things that women are wearing these days. "It makes my hair feel longer," she allows, explaining that she had to lop a lot of it off for The Fisher King and she's impatient for it to grow back.
Amanda and I head off to a nearby coffee shop where the waiters wear bow ties and read tabloids at the counter. She orders scrambled eggs "hard, very hard," and then allows them to congeal. I eventually point out that they must by now be feeling neglected. "I eat cold, "she says, leaving no doubt as to the superiority of this choice.
So far I'm finding Amanda to be fairly normal, cold eggs notwithstanding. True, she looks and sounds like no one else (Time once said her voice "sounds like she went to the Berlitz School on Mars," and another critic said it "sounded like a rusty key turned in a boudoir lock"). But the giddy way her affect constantly shifts, from confidential to melodramatic to sultry to comical, is obviously unpremeditated, and she strikes me as extremely intelligent.
We're still at the small-talk stage, and the recorder has hardly begun rolling, when she suddenly announces, "I'm not considered a movie person at all." Then, perched so that she is almost kneeling on the seat, she hops gears to an over-enunciated, wilting-flower voice: "It's hard for very distinctive-looking people like myself to make it in film because the face is unusual." Now the voice drops an octave or so and she leans forward, becomes a drinking buddy: "Goddamn. We know it has nothing to do with talent, right?" Her growl dissolves into giggles: "I'm being fashee ...fachee... facetious. Producers generally don't like me; directors do, generally. Convincing the producers is hard. They can't see the commercial value behind such a face, nor would they get a commercial value, necessarily--and I don't mean that in a good way or a bad way."
Indeed, Amanda Plummer will never be mistaken for a homecoming queen or one of Donald Trump's love interests. This does not mean she is unattractive. On the contrary, it is an extraordinary face. She can look like a victim or an embittered veteran or a goofball, but she can also look like a German fashion model or a child bride. She knows this, and the Industry's investment in blandness makes her angry: "People go out of their way to say, she's not very pretty, she's kind of ugly. I've been known as an ugly duckling in this business--and I'm 33, not a duckling anymore."
While telling me all this, Amanda has been using up all the available length and depth of her banquette as well as several yards of airspace above it, sliding, climbing around, bobbing and sprawling, turning to observe or commune with the kaffeeklatsch assemblage of six or seven middle-aged women from the neighborhood whose boisterous conversation alternates between hair-care and warfare. We all speculate on where, if we were Saddam, we would choose to perpetrate terrorism. Amanda opts for Columbia University, "because of all the students."(Does she know something I don't?) Occasionally she leans over to the recorder to make sotto voce observations on the passing scene, sounding like someone in a blazer covering the Masters Tournament: "Now they're getting up and leaving, and the noise level abates." I go to the bathroom, and she records this fact, too, for the dubious amusement of the transcriber.
She is all act, all the time, and by the same token it is no act at all. She is someone for whom acting is in part the nonstop exploration of her own instrument, and not just one instrument--she can play the whole orchestra and she revels in that freedom. Trying to isolate one aspect or another seems like something that only the Amazing Randi could pull off, like picking one particular card from a whole deck flung in the air. You can see where this might make control-freaks and the literal-minded a bit nervous about her. You just never know where she'll jump next. Would Hitchcock have been able to think of livestock for even a minute after seeing her? Maybe he would have said, "All actors are waterfowl."
Amanda was named after the character her mother played in Noel Coward's "Private Lives." Her early training was, despite her heritage, of a rather autodidactic sort. "Before college, I acted in my room, to classical music, because music tells stories," she tells me. "I'd put on a record and proceed, silently. I'd keep putting the needle back to a certain segment because I hadn't died well enough. I had to really, really feel dead." She sighs. "I'd love to do a death scene."
Amanda, who had some stage experience while at Middlebury College, says she resisted acting as a profession. It was just too much in her life already. But ultimately she dropped out of Middlebury after a couple of years and hied herself to the Neighborhood Playhouse. In her second professional effort she played her mother's ward in Turgenev's "A Month in the Country," and her breakthrough came two years later, in 1981, when the Roundabout Theater staged Shelagh Delaney's "A Taste of Honey" as a showcase for her in the lead part of Jo. She was nominated for a Tony for that, and then won the award for her performance in the title role of John Pielmeyer's "Agnes of God."
It was not Amanda, but Meg Tilly who played the spaced-out nun in the screen version of Agnes. Was she bitter about that? "Not as much for me as for Geraldine Page, whom I loved," says Plummer. "Casting Anne Bancroft in Geraldine's role was a cowardly move. Geraldine was an established movie star. Me, I understood. But then, Norman Jewison made a completely different story in the movie--it was less passionate, less contained. I loved the actors who were in the movie. And I can understand, given the choices he made, why he didn't hire such unmanageable actors--unmanageable as in self-directed."
Accompanying her disquisition with a semi-seated dance, Amanda finally gyrates so much that something hard drops to the floor and skitters under the table. It turns out to be a dagger, or a dirk, really, which inserts into her belt buckle and looks like a mere ornament. She succeeds in looking simultaneously sheepish and defiant as she explains, "My weapon," and replaces it.
I decide it's time to ask Amanda about the woman she plays in The Fisher King. I've heard "Lydia" described as a lonely, recessive young woman on whom the quixotic Parry (Robin Williams) fixates. She is, apparently, the kind of character Plummer relishes: "She's self-famished and unhappy. She's quite an unsympathetic character. In fact, except for Robin Williams's, they're all unsympathetic characters. You either like them or not. Lydia is mean and selfish, and there's no reason given, so there's no sympathy tag. It's not so easy to identify with her."
Can't wait to meet this character, huh? Plummer's enthralled. "I'm so goddamn pleased--I like that Terry allowed that to happen and in fact pushed it that way. I like devilish, thorny, dirty, mean roles, muck and mire, unbelievably sad, unbelievably happy, burdened. Inner conflict--that's where drama is. In the story, Lydia takes her heart out of a box she had kept it in for 20 years or so, and she lifts it up in the air, and it's an old child's white furry stuffed cat, as big as her palm, with one whisker, a floppy ear, no tail, bald spots. And she loves it as much now as she did when she was a kid and put it in the box to protect it. Now she's as free as when she was a child. It's a simple story--but they're very complicated, those simple stories."
Gilliam told me he initially resisted Plummer for the part of Lydia despite the recommendation of casting director Howard Feuer. "She seemed too much of a good thing. I couldn't believe she could be that eccentric--she kept going off in different directions. Actually, I was keen on a certain English actress, and there was quite a bit of pressure involved in this decision. One day, I went to have her screen test transferred to the American standard videotape, and while I was there, as long as I had an American machine at my disposal, I thought I'd check out the screen test that Howard had done of Amanda. The lighting was just awful--but she gave an extraordinary reading, and I said, 'This is the girl.' "
Gilliam had worried originally that Plummer's overt theatricality was at odds with the character, but these days he's a fan. "She gives the impression she's flailing about, but she always knows what she's doing. She pulls no punches, and she's not discreet about her emotions. And she's extraordinary looking--beautiful and homely at the same time."
Plummer does not have delusions of movie stardom after The Fisher King. Apart from her eccentricity, there's the problem of the kind of roles women can play these days on the big screen. As she puts it, "In America, women aren't done right. And I say 'done' as in cooked--women are cooked." But anyway, isn't the stage her natural home, when all is said and done? "I prefer theater, but I love to do films, and I prefer theater primarily because I've done more. I know less about movies.
"You can't lie in either medium. The wonderful thing is that the camera, just like an audience, is made out of skin--because celluloid is skin." She goes on: "The camera gives you all the images in its black swirl--what a magical creation! You just have to make sure that you don't give too much, so that the camera is allowed to take."
Outside the winter sun is quickly sinking, and our conversation is beginning to dwindle away, so I make a move to leave. "Is this taken care of?" she asks as I pay the outrageous six dollar tab. After we leave the coffee shop, she walks me several blocks out of her way and then thrusts out a hand. Her shake is hearty. And then she's off. As she disappears among the tourist throngs on Bleecker Street, I think of one of the few times I've ever read about Amanda Plummer in a gossip column. It seems that during the heyday of one now-faded downtown club (not that long ago; the lifespan is brief), Amanda would arrive early and dance by herself. The image seemed a bit sad when I read it, and that's probably why I remember it. But now that I've met her it no longer strikes me that way. Amanda Plummer will dance when she is moved to do so.
Luc Sante has written for Interview, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books.