Film puts Muhammad Ali, US high court in the ring

Published on NewsOK Modified: October 1, 2013 at 10:17 am •  Published: October 1, 2013
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — 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 recent 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 Saturday (8 p.m. EDT), a history-textured film that puts the boxer's quest to be recognized as a conscientious objector against Vietnam War service and the high court in the ring.

"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, including Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Danny Glover as Thurgood Marshall, the sole black justice.

Stephen Frears, an Oscar nominee for "The Queen," directed, and the script is by Shawn Slovo ("A World Apart"). The film is based on the book of the same name by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace, with additional research by Slovo.

The British-born Frears and Slovo, a native of South Africa, had to become familiar with details of the Ali case. But the United States' social and political churn of the period certainly was known to them.

"I don't think anybody of our generation could not have been engaged by what was happening in America," Slovo said. "It was always something that felt real and immediate to me."

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, quoting Ali — and Harlan's intellectual metamorphosis.