The Undeniable Sean Connery | The New Yorker

All’s well that ends well, as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) draws to a close. The entertaining villain has been vanquished. Robi...


All’s well that ends well, as “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” (1991) draws to a close. The entertaining villain has been vanquished. Robin and Maid Marian are about to be joined in holy matrimony. Suddenly, a latecomer rides into the forest glade, interrupts the ceremony, dismounts, and turns to face the camera. It’s King Richard! The audience erupts, in unholy joy. That is what occurred, at any rate, when I first saw the film, and reports from other cinemas confirmed a similar response. And why? Because the new arrival is Richard the Lionheart? Nay, my liege. Because he’s Sean Connery.

With the passing of Connery, who has died at the age of ninety, we have lost one of the last movie stars—perhaps the very last—who were known and revered for playing themselves. Not for being themselves; they made feature films, not documentaries, and, if the money was right, they went through the rigmarole of pretending to be somebody else, with the judicious addition of costumes, footwear, makeup, lines of dialogue, and, in the case of Connery, wigs. But, as with Clark Gable and John Wayne, dramatic characters were, for Connery, no more than facets of the jewel; behind them, you sensed something hard, immutable, and crystalline that belonged to him alone. You really believe that the title of “The Rock” (1996) refers to the island of Alcatraz? Please.

There’s a scene in that film in which Connery—in the role of the only inmate of Alcatraz ever to have escaped—slips his minders and meets with his daughter, whom he barely knows, in a public park. As they sit on a stone bench and talk, the wail of sirens fills the air, and a fleet of police cars rolls into view. “Is this about you?” the daughter asks, and he nods. That’s the way it is. He’s not complaining, and we, too, think it only natural that the forces of the state should be mobilized for his sake. Up comes Nicolas Cage, as an F.B.I. man, with a ranting rebuke. “Whaddya say we cut the chit-chat, A-hole?” he cries, and Connery stands there, keeping his counsel. We can see him looking at Cage and thinking, “Why are you trying so hard? Can’t you be calmer? What do you need to prove?”

Such is the sign of a star. As he or she holds steady and glows, the orbits of other performers are governed by the gravitational pull. Even Ed Harris, no soft touch, seems genuinely baffled, in “The Rock,” by how impossible it is to daunt or to dismay Connery, let alone to divert him from his course. The briefest glimpse can be enough to establish who’s who; in “Rising Sun,” from 1993, observe Connery walking down a street with Wesley Snipes, who strolls as casually as he can, and Steve Buscemi, who gabbles and gestures as he goes. Your eye is drawn helplessly to the big man, and to his famous loping tread—neither rushing nor dawdling but somehow measuring the world at his own purposeful pace. Was it a spirit of adventure that made him press ahead like that, or was he mapping out territory that he already owned and ruled? He was six feet two but always appeared taller, and no one has ever ducked through doorways with more aplomb. The notion that he might bump his head was unimaginable, like Cary Grant in jeans. Too often, you could argue, Connery went through the motions, in films that were unworthy of his talent, but, dear God, just look at the motions.

Look, for instance, at the finale of “You Only Live Twice,” from 1967, Connery’s fifth outing as James Bond. (Volcano, ninjas, rocket launch, white pussycat: you know the deal.) Swords are flourished, impaling the foe, and nicely resheathed; gunshots ring out, causing stuntmen to clutch their chests and fall from a satisfying height; fireballs bloom at the toss of a grenade. It’s a great party. But 007, saddled with the dreary task of saving the planet, needs to reach the control room, which is sealed. He spots a secret staircase, at the back of the underground cavern, and heads in that direction under covering fire. Now watch him ascend the stair—a few leaps, a couple of effortless bounds, wholly unfazed by the conflagration around him. He takes his time on his hop to the top, and it’s his time, and nobody else’s. That level of self-possession, stretching far beyond the languor of mere cool, and carving out a private space and tempo for one’s own pleasure, is laughably rare, and, when you do come across it, it’s as likely to be on the dance floor, or the sports field, as on a movie screen. The only mover who could have kept up with Connery, inside the volcano, was Ginger Rogers.

What was the root of that grace? Well, we know that he was a bonny baby, young Thomas Connery. (Sean was his middle name). “Big Tam,” he used to be called, as a teen-ager. We know that he left school a month before turning fourteen; got a job delivering milk, around Edinburgh, on a horse and cart; joined the Royal Navy and left prematurely with a stomach ulcer; and took a course in—wait for it—French polishing. Cinema’s gain was a huge loss to walnut sideboards everywhere.

In case you’ve mislaid your copy of Health and Strength magazine, from March, 1953, allow me to remind you of one delightful photograph to be found within its pages. A young stud kneels, one foot cocked against the floor. His right hand covers his left wrist, as if he were checking his own pulse. He is adorned with underpants, plus a pert stare over his left shoulder, and, by my estimate, two gallons of oil, spread cross the hills and vales of his tremendous person. A caption reads: “Tom Connery. Well-muscled member of the Dunedin Weightlifting Club, Edinburgh.” You can just about picture him barging into the movie business, though a side door, and earning his keep as a heavy or a hunk. But nothing more.

One of the provoking themes in Christopher Bray’s 2010 biography of Connery, which is much smarter and sharper than most profiles of movie stars, is that of the self-improver. Beefcake is one thing, but how do you inspect yourself, not merely in the mirror, and balance the raw against the cooked? Some folks, left with half an education, are all the hungrier to make up the difference, and the youthful Connery, in Bray’s account, would quiz more knowledgeable friends, go to a library, and read his way through recommended books—“enough to know I didn’t know enough,” as he recalled. Equally transformative, we learn, were his sessions with a Swedish fellow named Yat Malmgren, who, having retired as a dancer, schooled others in the fine art of movement, and in its psychological groundings. Post-Connery, Malmgren was one of the founders of the Drama Centre, in London, whose later pupils include Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy. Dimly, we discern a pattern here: flecks of violence against a background of stillness, all the more ominous for being held so long.

Not that Ian Fleming saw it that way. “That fucking truck driver,” he called Connery, appalled that a low-born Scottish lout should be called upon to incarnate the 007 of the books, with his education at Eton and his all-English bearing. And what had Connery done to deserve the job? He had sung and danced, poorly, in the back row of a touring production of “South Pacific.” In a telling replacement, he had taken a part meant for Jack Palance, in a British TV remake of an American teleplay. He had made “Another Time, Another Place” (1958), with Lana Turner, and, it is said, got into a real-life scrap with her unlovely beau, Johnny Stompanato, who was later stabbed to death by Turner’s daughter. None of which aided the movie, or Connery’s cause. True, he had been Vronsky, opposite Claire Bloom’s Anna Karenina, on the BBC. But still: James Bond?

There is a case for saying that Bond—all of him, everything we crave and need—is there in the introduction. With a gun to my head, I would agree to lose the rest of “Dr No,” (1962), and indeed the remaining twenty-four movies, complete with their resident Bonds, for a chance to stick with the opening scene at Le Cercle, in London, where the myth is made. Note the sequence of images, at the gamblers’ table. First, we see a pair of hands, flipping over cards, scooting one or two across the baize, and opening a silver case. Only then does the camera deign to reveal the man to whom the hands belong. “Bond. James Bond,” Connery says, with a cigarette in his mouth, already indulging the first of a thousand vices. And where have we seen this sequence before, with the same exquisite visual suspense? You must remember this. Hands in closeup, playing not chemin de fer but chess. And then the face. Another smoker. Another tuxedo, not black, like Connery’s, but white. We are in a balmier clime, and that is how we first behold Humphrey Bogart, in “Casablanca.”

In one respect, Connery was lucky. He, and 007, timed their entrance to coincide with one of the most enduring, and least embarrassing, phases in modern style. If he drove an Aston Martin DB5, in “Goldfinger,” in 1964, it was because the car was a recent model, whereas by the time that Daniel Craig drove it, in “Skyfall,” in 2012, it could only be a lovely vintage twist. And those single-breasted suits with the slim lapels, the white or pale blue shirt, and the black knitted tie: what better armor with which to turn the truck driver into a knight on the town? So fabulous a fit, such apparel, that we see it again, in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Marnie” (1964), the film that Connery made, if you please, before “Goldfinger” and after “From Russia with Love” (1963). It took the beady and cruelty-cherishing eye of Hitchcock, of course, to gaze upon Connery’s Bond, and to understand what this ravening male of the species might be capable of. The Bond films were described by one of the producers as “sadism for the family.” Hitchcock sent the children out of the room.

“Marnie” is a pathological work of art: at once an exercise in rapture, gorgeously designed, and not a pretty sight. Connery plays the aptly named Mark Rutland, a publisher who wanted to be a zoologist, and he identifies the heroine, Marnie (Tippi Hedren), whose distinguishing features include kleptomania and a dread of the color red, as a promising specimen. “I’ve tracked you and caught you, and, by God, I’m going to keep you,” he tells her. All the strong reservations that some people have about Connery—doubts that were all too firmly reinforced, later in his career, by remarks that he made about hitting women (“It depends entirely on the circumstances,” he said to Barbara Walters)—are anticipated, and explored, in Hitchcock’s film. What makes it such uncomfortable viewing is that the incipient nastiness in Mark is woven so tightly into his allure; try as we might, we cannot tease them apart. There is charm in the depths of his misanthropy: “Oh, yes, people. A thoroughly bad lot,” he remarks. When Marnie is first interviewed for a post at his family firm, he lounges at one side of the room, watching her with a smile; he’s fairly sure that he’s met her before, he suspects her of being a crook, and he’s looking forward to the fun that lies in store. And, damn it, the smile wins.

Fans of Connery, predicting his prospects after “Diamonds are Forever” (1971), would have hedged their bets, and rightly so. It was evident that he was bored of 007, but how could he shrug off so bulky and so burdensome a mantle, and forge ahead? Well, it took a while, and there were many faltering steps, but he made it. If the latter half of his career became one of the most solid and most enjoyable second acts in the history of movies, it may be because, to all appearances, and despite a reputation for grumpiness, he enjoyed himself along the way.

The revels began, I reckon, with John Huston’s “The Man Who Would be King” (1975), a roistering fable, adapted from Rudyard Kipling. Connery plays a former British Army sergeant, Danny Dravot, who, after venturing with a colleague (Michael Caine), into the distant land of Kafiristan, is mistaken for a god by the local people. “Well, they’re not that wrong,” I thought to myself, sitting in the dark, and casting my mind back to the immortal status of Bond, who, on more than one occasion, seemed to die at the start of a film and to be resurrected afresh. The irony is that Danny does die, and, what’s more, that he goes to his death with good cheer, striding across a rope bridge, over a deep ravine. Bond had cheated death, so many times, and with such ludicrously narrow squeaks, but who wants to be a cheat—at cards, at love, or at anything else? Singing lustily, not squeaking, Danny plunges to his fate.

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Newsrust: The Undeniable Sean Connery | The New Yorker
The Undeniable Sean Connery | The New Yorker
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