Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Sean Connery: Larger Than Life

Sean Connery (1930-2020) in Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

Everyone knows that Sean Connery, who died on Halloween at the age of ninety, became a movie star the moment he stepped before the camera as James Bond, Ian Fleming’s Agent 007, in Dr. No in 1963. And for most of us who saw the early Bond pictures in the theatre as they appeared – I was thirteen when I was initiated, with the second of the series, From Russia with Love – all the subsequent Bonds, at least until Daniel Craig stepped up in 2006, always seemed like pretenders to a throne Connery had abdicated after the 1971 Diamonds Are Forever. Not that you could blame the guy. Very few of his fans took him seriously as an actor until he’d freed himself from the shackles of the leading role in the most beloved (and longest-lasting) series in movie history. He gave splendid performances as the life-embracing poet who can’t be slowed down even by a lobotomy in the 1966 comedy A Fine Madness and as the émigré Irish miner who leads a crew of violent rebels against the Pennsylvania coal barons in 1970’s The Molly Maguires – both fine movies but audiences failed to show up for them. (On the other hand, neither Woman of Straw with Gina Lollobrigida nor Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, both released in 1964, the same year as Goldfinger, did much for him. Marnie contains one of his rare bad performances – he looks befuddled, which seems like a fair response to what’s going on around him.)

Audiences who fell in love with Connery’s Bond didn’t realize that he was a classically trained actor of the British school, blessed with a superb vocal instrument that his buttered-rum Scottish brogue only enhanced. You can hear how he applies this oracular skills to Shakespeare in a heavily abridged, otherwise uninspired 1961 television production of Macbeth (available on YouTube), where he plays opposite Zoe Caldwell. The casting is ideal, and unsurprisingly Connery brings a muscular, macho quality to the character that makes his falling apart in the wake of Duncan’s murder and again when he’s besieged by Banquo’s ghost most unsettling. What you don’t expect is the way the actor builds his performance on the language more than on physical choices, dwelling in the verse as Macbeth’s imagination, both his ambition and his paranoia, go to work after he acquires the crown. The same year, also on British TV, he played Count Vronsky to Claire Bloom’s Anna in an adaptation of Anna Karenina. The writer, Donald Bull (working from a stage play by Marcelle Maurette), and the director, Rudolph Cartier, reduce Tolstoy’s great love story to a second-rate romantic melodrama, but the two stars are superb. Connery shows us how Vronsky falls in love with Anna but also how limited he is by his easy, aristocratic elegance and his worldly ennui: his feelings for her come out of a kind of romantic restlessness, and his fervor as he pursues her and pulls her away from her unhappy marriage isn’t, as she learns to her dismay, the same as depth, which is a quality she possesses. He falls back on formality, pride, proprietary impulses, peacock flourishes.

Even before Dr. No there was a disjunction between the kind of work Connery got to do on television (he played Hotspur in the Henry IV sections of the series An Age of Kings and appeared in major roles in The Crucible, Riders to the Sea, Requiem for a Heavyweight, Anna Christie and Anouilh’s Colombe) and his movie career. It’s clear that he was cast in Another Time, Another Place in 1958 as Lana Turner’s doomed war-correspondent lover because of his looks and his charm, and he isn’t right for it because something in him resists the reductive nature of melodrama and he seems rather stiff. The following year he’s one of the bad guys in the entertaining John Guillermin picture Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure, but the role wastes his resources.

Connery made six Bond pictures between 1963 and 1971: Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, You Only Live Twice and – after a break when he was replaced by the dim George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret ServiceDiamonds Are Forever. The first time we see him as 007, he’s playing baccarat and winning, while he flirts with a beautiful woman whose luck isn’t as good as his; he’s almost implausibly handsome, with the wry amusement of a man who knows how fabulous he looks but the affability of one who isn’t turned on by his own body. His Bond is a hedonist, not a narcissist, and his appreciation of women – and of the game of seduction – is genuine. Connery’s come-on scenes are purest high comedy, even if the actresses who partner him are seldom up to his skills; perhaps the only one who really matches him is Lois Maxwell as Moneypenny, indispensable secretary to Bond’s boss, M (Bernard Lee). That’s why the sexiest scene in Dr. No is their flirtation, where he insinuates himself into her office chair and kisses the air that separates them. With M, he has a muted edge of anti-establishment bravado – he resists M’s insistence that he trade in his trusted Beretta for a safer firearm and tries to get away without handing in his old weapon. The films, directed by Terence Young (three), Guy Hamilton (two) and Lewis Gilbert (one), aren’t equally good. From Russia with Love and Goldfinger are better than Dr. No and Thunderball, and the clunky, desperate-for-laughs Diamonds Are Forever, which has two dreadful actresses (Jill St. John and Lana Wood), is a big letdown after the elegantly made, light-handed You Only Live Twice. (And, I’d say, after On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, which, Lazenby aside, is a first-rate entertainment. All it’s missing is Connery.) But Connery gets better as the series goes along. His deadpan delivery of those morbid puns after various enemies make sometimes baroque exits becomes sleeker and dryer, tossed off with increasing panache, and he finds ways to humanize a character that was initially conceived as a sexy cardboard cut-out. He gets to do his first real piece of acting in the part in the scene in the third picture where he discovers that the nefarious Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) has avenged himself on Jill (Shirley Eaton), whom James has slept with and drawn over to the good side, by killing her grotesquely. (She’s the one who is suffocated by being painted gold.) It’s the first murder Bond takes personally – enough so that M threatens to replace him. One imagines how movingly Connery would have played one of the two most affecting scenes in any Bond movie, the death of Diana Rigg’s Tracy, the only woman ever to wed him, in the final fade-out of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (For the record the other devastating scene is Judi Dench’s death as M in Skyfall – as if you needed to be told.)

After Diamonds Are Forever Connery swore he’d never return as Bond, but he made an exception when, in 1983, he reunited with his A Fine Madness director, the gifted and undervalued Irvin Kershner, for the aptly titled Never Say Never Again. This isn’t a regular entry in the series, and it’s leisurely and laid-back, without the sci-fi/fantasy component that had taken over the plotting – sort of a vacation for Bond aficionados. In Lorenzo Semple, Jr.’s script, M (now played by Edward Fox) decides that James’s taste for rich food and drink has softened him, so he sends him to a health clinic to exercise and lose weight. That’s where he discovers that Blofeld (now Max von Sydow, tossing off his lines with sly humor while he strokes that eternal Persian feline) is still at his evil deeds. The health-spa idea is a good gag, especially when you see how great Connery looks, but the fact that he’s now a dozen years older than he was the last he played the part gives the movie a fresh kick. When a thug tries to off James in the weight room, for the first time we see him calculate the threat because he knows he’s now a middle-aged man taking on a professional killer, and we see sparks of emotion that barely operated before in the action sequences, like surprise and pain. (The sequence has a nifty punch line: the thug is incapacitated when James throws his own urine sample in his face, which disorients him enough that he winds up being impaled on a syringe.) The movie is better in the first half than in the second, but it has a tip-top supporting cast headed by Klaus Maria Brandauer as a truly original psychotic villain, and Douglas Slocombe’s cinematography has a soft dazzle. And Kershner takes advantage of the fact that the movie is an outlier by letting Marjory Cornelius design more outré costumes (especially for Barbara Carrera as the secondary nutcake baddie) and more colorful outfits for Bond than Connery ever got to display before. I admit to lusting after one cream-colored suit with a sky-blue shirt and a silvery-blue tie with blue pinstripes.

Sean Connery and Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975).

Connery made many movies both during and after his Bond years – he retired nearly twenty years ago – and he didn’t always choose his projects wisely, even after people began to notice what a terrific actor he was. (I’d say that occurred in the mid-seventies, when he played Rudyard Kipling’s Danny Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King and Robin Hood in Robin and Marian back to back.) Perhaps he shouldn’t have made five movies for Sidney Lumet, since all of them – The Hill, The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, Murder on the Orient Express and Family Business – are crummy, though except for The Offence, an overheated melodrama where he plays a cop who assaults a suspected child molester, he’s not bad in them. But again and again, he gave marvelous, distinctive performances. Sometimes his work towers above the rest of the picture – in The Name of the Rose, as a fourteenth-century Sherlock Holmes in the form of a Franciscan monk who solves a series of murders in a Benedictine abbey; in The Hunt for Red October, where he’s a Russian submarine captain pursuing a convoluted defection scenario; and certainly in Robin and Marian, whose loathsome James Goldman screenplay defeats his co-star, Audrey Hepburn. His understatement and grounded human presence elevate The Great Train Robbery, which is otherwise a perfectly enjoyable middle-grade period adventure, and the extended vaudeville routine he executes with Harrison Ford as his son in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade makes the movie, whose plot merely recycles Raiders of the Lost Ark, not just fun but memorable. They’re quite a pair: Connery’s chest-toned old-pro leisureliness sets off Ford’s ingratiating bristling and grousing, and Ford tunes his grimaces to the twinkle in Connery’s eyes. The joke in Connery’s performance is that we think he’s playing an old fuddy-duddy professor, a lovable eccentric, but it turns out that Indy has inherited not just his papa’s scholarly brain but also his warrior’s strength and strategies.

He may have been the only screen actor who could match the precise comic ironies of an Alec Guinness or a Ralph Richardson with a robust, earthy presence Clark Gable couldn’t have improved on. You went out to see a Connery picture because he wrapped himself around the characters he played, because he combined wit and sensuality, and because he took such an obvious delight in the craft of acting. He had proven early on, in The Molly Maguires, that he could make inverted characteristics – patience, calm, watchfulness, the process of keeping one’s own counsel – powerfully dramatic; the entire performance veers quietly but inevitably toward the moment when his Jack Kehoe explodes, at the wake of an old miner (Brendan Heflin) whose spirit, in Jack’s view, was stripped from him along with all the other indignities he was forced to endure. (It’s one hell of a scene.) But by the eighties, Connery’s finesse had acquired an incandescent quality – a layer of flamboyance that somehow managed to stay within the confines of the character but that offered, time and again, a lesson in how an actor at the top of his game does it as well as a definition of star power.

None of his performances pulls off this master-classiness more expertly than the one for which he was awarded the 1987 Oscar for Best Supporting Actor: his Jim Malone, the tough, no-bullshit Chicago-Irish beat cop who becomes the driving force of Eliot Ness’s band in Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables. Robert De Niro’s portrayal of Al Capone is flashy and obvious; Connery, by contrast, never plays for the crowd (though it’s a deeply crowd-pleasing piece of acting) and never reads a line the way you think he’s going to. And charismatic as he is, it’s also a high point in the history of character acting in the movies, equal to the finest work of Walter Brennan or Jack Carson. I enjoyed his John Connor in Philip Kaufman’s Rising Sun in much the same way. Connor is also a cop, this time the Special Liaison Officer in the LAPD who teams up with Wesley Snipes’s Web Smith, as senpai (senior) to Web’s reluctant kohai (junior), to solve a murder in the Japanese corporate community. Connery is so deft and light that he practically dances through the movie. Yet at the same time he’s a study in contradiction: he has a silken aggressiveness and even when he seems to show his hand, he’s usually showing something else entirely. The movie is a visually and viscerally exciting thriller about the tension between what we only think we see, what we’re made to see, and what’s hidden, and Connery’s depiction of John Connor is at the heart of that exploration.

Let me suggest two pairs of Connery performances that are linked in unexpected ways. In A Fine Madness his Samson Shillitoe is a poet of primal gifts who is also physically and sexually overpowering. He protests against the banality of the world with a mix of comic irony and impassioned commitment; he’s a scamp and a con artist, but he’s also tuned into the life force. He strides through New York City as if he owned it – as if he owned the whole damn world. The running gag of the movie is that everyone is turned on by Shillitoe: even the shrink (Patrick O’Neal) Samson’s wife (Joanne Woodward) pays to put him on the couch is thrilled to be able to psychoanalyze someone who isn’t boring like his other patients, and the doc with an obsession with lobotomies (played by Clive Revill as a gleeful variation on the mad scientists from the old Universal horror pictures) can’t wait to get his hands on Samson. Two decades later, as Brother William in The Name of the Rose, he draws us in by turning the idea of the character on its head. The monk is supposed to be emotionally detached and immune to sexual passion; when the young novice (Christian Slater) asks him if he’s ever fallen in love, his reply is yes – with Aristotle, with Ovid, with Virgil. Connery makes us understand that line literally: intellectual discovery gives the old man a hard-on.

Robin and Marian (1975) is a resolutely anti-heroic sequel to the Robin Hood fable (and especially the wonderful 1938 movie The Adventures of Robin Hood, with Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland) that seems determined to give the unsuspecting audience as ugly and unpleasant a time as possible. But Connery breaks through by playing aging Robin’s undiminished love for aging Marian, whom he finds again after twenty years at the Crusades, with reinvigorated wonder. Fifteen years later, in Fred Schepisi’s spirited and glowingly intelligent film of the John le Carré novel The Russia House, set during glasnost and adapted by Tom Stoppard (improving on the source material), he plays Barley Blair, a left-wing British publisher who finds himself in the middle of a spy story. A clandestine Russian dissident (Klaus Maria Brandauer) who met Barley at a literary gathering in Moscow and sees him as a kindred spirit sends him a manuscript through an intermediary, a young divorcee named Katya Oliver (Michelle Pfeiffer). The British secret service sends Barley to Russia to make contact with the dissident. What they don’t anticipate is that Barley and Katya will fall in love. The Russia House is a romantic melodrama embedded in a spy narrative that subverts the conventions of both genres, and Connery delivers his most romantic performance.

Among so many treasures, my favorite Sean Connery performance is the one he gives in John Huston’s tall tale The Man Who Would Be King, set in British Colonial India in the late nineteenth century. Connery and Michael Caine play a pair of scoundrels – thieves, gun runners, blackmailers and con men – who get themselves to Kafiristan with the aim of putting one over on the natives and becoming kings. Caine’s Cockney Peachy Carnehan and Connery’s Irish Daniel Dravot are an exuberant, outsize comic duo, but though Peachy is more outrageous, Danny has a low-rent grandeur. When they break away from the caravan they’ve been traveling with, Connery (who has been wearing a green turban and fantastic long dreadlocks) executes a crazy dance like a carny performer, kicking up one foot and waving his cane in the air. Only one of the men can play the king’s role, and Danny is the obvious choice. Amazingly, it works, through a combination of chutzpah and unbelievable luck. What makes Connery’s portrayal so remarkable is that he shows us how Danny becomes the thing he’s impersonating, and the Indians, including the priests, actually start to believe he’s a god. The only comparable piece of acting I can think of is in Roberto Rossellini’s Il Generale Della Rovere, where Vittorio De Sica plays a swindler tapped by the Nazis during the Second World War to pretend he’s a Resistance figure they’ve killed; he’s supposed to garner information for them but he begins to embody the virtues of the dead man. Huston and Connery give Danny one of the most glorious demises in any adventure movie: exposed as a mortal, he’s sent to his death on a rope bridge over a canyon, and as his captors cut the rope he sings at the top of his voice the song we’ve associated with him since early in the film - an Irish ballad onto which Danny has transposed the lyrics of a Christian march. In the narrative, Peachy survives, but, quite mad, he continues to believe that Danny is, in some form, still with him. In life, after all, he was an immense and unforgettable presence.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

1 comment:

  1. Kudos, Prof Steve... for Your breathtaking , inspiring & edifying tour de force paean ...a thespian, the likes of which we will never see again...Sean Connery, the human stradivarius!? ManyThanks...cheers