Sean Connery's James Bond portrayal remains the gold standard; nobody else comes close
No matter his other films, Sean Connery will, inevitably, be remembered for the Bond years first and foremost.
The Scottish actor Sean Connery, one of the most enduringly popular screen icons of the 20th century, died in his sleep on Saturday, his family confirmed. He was 90 years old. Connery was best known for playing author Ian Fleming’s Mi6 spy James Bond, a film franchise whose success he was “largely responsible for”, as producer Barbara Broccoli admitted in her eulogy. He played Bond in a total of six films (Doctor No, From Russia With Love and so on) from 1962-1971, before returning to the role one last time for 1983’s Never Say Never Again.
A former bodybuilder who took up first theatre and then cinema by accident, Connery’s initial film appearances were marked by his tremendous screen presence — but little else. He grew to become a capable performer, however. Following his frenetic Bond decade in the 60s, Connery set about expanding his repertoire in real earnest; he felt stifled by his image as Agent 007, even professing a hatred of his beloved character at one point. He did two back-to-back movies with the director Sidney Lumet (12 Angry Men, Network): The Offence (1972), where Connery played a violent, morally ambiguous cop to much acclaim; and the Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express (1974).
He also played an over-the-hill, ageing Robin Hood alongside Audrey Hepburn’s Lady Marian in 1976’s Robin and Marian — this film marked Hepburn’s comeback after nearly a decade away from cinema, and critics agreed that she and Connery shared great chemistry. The movie’s bittersweet final scene is still remembered as one of the great tearjerker moments of 70s Hollywood. Connery continued doing a variety of dramatic roles throughout the 70s and 80s, the high points being John Huston’s 1975 film The Man Who Would Be King (based on the Rudyard Kipling book of the same name), Richard Attenborough’s sprawling WWII drama A Bridge Too Far (1977), the 1986 Umberto Eco adaptation The Name of the Rose, and Brian de Palma’s gangster classic The Untouchables (1987), for which he received an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
These are all fine films, but Connery will, inevitably, be remembered for the Bond years, first and foremost.
It wasn’t just that the movies were blockbusters or cultural landmarks; of course they were. But the actor’s real achievement here was becoming the face of the era’s dominant collective fantasy. Remember, this was the era right after World War II. Heroism had to be covert, commissioned and executed in “foreign climes, with exotic birds” (as Connery himself put it) — because Hiroshima was still so recent, audiences didn’t really need a realistic, plausible story of international intrigue and warfare-by-another-name. What they did need was flair, originality and a sense of humour and Connery delivered on these fronts emphatically. Connery’s total commitment to these outrageous, over-the-top situations and characters was what made the early Bond films tick.
His James Bond remains the gold standard for the role. Nobody else comes close: not Pierce Brosnan, not Daniel Craig, and certainly not brief occupants like George Lazenby and Timothy Dalton. Ian Fleming even gave the character Scottish ancestry in later books, honoring Connery’s portrayal.
In the 90s Danny Boyle cult hit Trainspotting, the character Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) is obsessed with Sean Connery — here’s what Sick Boy had to say about the young Connery. “I’d say in those days he was a muscular actor, with all the presence of someone like Cooper or Lancaster but combined with a sly wit, to make him a formidable romantic lead, closer in that respect to Cary Grant.” Arguments about various aspects of Connery’s career were a running gag throughout Trainspotting, where the main characters are all Scottish. He was, quite simply, a part of Scottish culture. Yesterday, Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s First Minister, tweeted that all of Scotland “was in mourning” after Connery’s death.
And yet, as with so many of his contemporaries, one cannot ignore or airbrush the darker parts of Connery’s legacy — in his case, the dangerous views he expressed about domestic abuse. In a 1965 Playboy interview, Connery said, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman, although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An open-handed slap is justified if all other alternatives fail.”
Over two decades later, in 1987, he repeated more or less the same position during a televised interview with Barbara Walters. “If you have tried everything else – and women are pretty good at this – they can’t leave it alone,” Connery said, upon being asked what circumstances justified hitting women. “They want to have the last word and you give them the last word, but they’re not happy with the last word. They want to say it again, and get into a really provocative situation. And then, I think it (hitting) is absolutely right.”
Actress Diane Cilento was married to Connery during the peak Bond years (1962-73). After their divorce, she wrote in her memoir that Connery had been verbally and physically abusive with her. Connery always denied these claims, but eventually reversed his stance on abuse in the late 2000s, expressing regret for his earlier statements. Sean Connery was many things; a sex symbol, an actor who learned on the job, a patriotic Scotsman — and yes, a man with decidedly primitive views about women (even if this was ‘the norm’ back then). His life and career remind us that our icons are perfect only inside our heads. In the real world, nobody gets do-overs and everybody has to live with their own flawed, messy, sometimes downright harmful words and deeds.
And so it is with a man like Sean Connery, you either love him or you don’t. As Connery himself said as King Arthur in First Knight (1995), “I take the good with the bad. I can’t love people in slices.”
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