Remembering Sean Connery: Our critics discuss his finest roles and that infamous Playboy interview
Sean Connery, the magnetic Scottish actor who originated the role of James Bond, won an Oscar for “The Untouchables” and appeared in numerous other movies over more than five decades, died Saturday at the age of 90. Our critics Mary McNamara and Justin Chang sat down to discuss their favorite Connery roles and films, the lesser-known gems in his filmography and the implications, on-screen and off, of his infamous 1965 remarks about violence against women.
JUSTIN CHANG: Who’s your favorite James Bond? The answers could vary; Roger Moore and Daniel Craig in particular have their partisans. But really, whenever the question has arisen, in a Twitter spat or an internet poll, the truest answer still always seems to be: Connery, Sean Connery. From the moment he first appeared in 1962’s “Dr. No,” Connery gave Bond his ice-cold wit, panther-like elegance and sexual charisma. He also gave him qualities that seem uniquely those of his own persona: a hint of the working-class rough and an underlying, dispassionate ruthlessness — something you surely needed to dispatch all those thugs with such easy efficiency. Connery shaped Bond so indelibly that every one of his successors, even the good ones, have felt in some ways like a reaction to and sometimes against him.
In taking stock of an enormous career that was defined by Bond but hardly limited to him, the more fitting question to ask now may be: Who’s your favorite Sean Connery? It was a role he always seemed to be playing, with an infinite number of variations. For many that favorite Connery is and always will be 007. The generation that grew up with “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” may gravitate toward Henry Jones Sr., who infused that action-adventure series with fresh notes of wily mischief but also new depths of elder-statesman gravity. Still others might gravitate toward Jim Malone, the lone scrupulous veteran cop who so memorably articulated “the Chicago way” in “The Untouchables” — the role that earned Connery his Oscar, as much for his body of work as for that standout performance.
The possibilities are endless. I don’t know if it’s my favorite Connery, Mary, but I know that your inner Agatha Christie fan will find a sympathetic ear: I’m particularly fond of him in Sidney Lumet’s 1974 adaptation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” in which he plays Col. Arbuthnot, the stiffly chivalrous Brit desperate to protect his love and also to shield the truth of their relationship from prying eyes. It’s one of maybe two dozen roles in that dazzling all-star ensemble, and even still, Connery stands out — not obtrusively, but mesmerizingly. It’s also one of five roles that he played for the Lumet, starting with the 1965 military drama “The Hill,” which was sandwiched right between “Goldfinger” and “Thunderball” and allowed Connery to flex acting muscles that Bond, for all his greatness, never allowed him to flex.
MARY McNAMARA: Sean Connery is not my Bond. There, I said it, and let the wrath of the multitudes fall on my head. Not his fault; despite the best efforts of several cinephile former boyfriends, I didn’t take to the series until its most recent iteration. So while I can certainly appreciate the undeniable sexiness of his iconic 007 — is there a more famous line than “shaken not stirred”? — my favorite Connery (with the absolute exception of his rendition of “A Pretty Irish Girl” in “Darby O’Gill and the Little People”) is the version that emerged in the 1970s. “Murder on the Orient Express,” yes, but for me, the ultimate Connery is in “The Man Who Would Be King,” “Robin and Marian,” “The Great Train Robbery” and even, heaven help me, the highly politically incorrect “The Wind and the Lion” (with Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt!).
I also loved much of his later work — “The Name of the Rose,” “The Untouchables,” “The Hunt for Red October” and, of course, my beloved “Highlander” films, but to my mind “The Man Who Would Be King” and “Robin and Marian” are classic Connery, showcasing his gifts as both an alpha lead and a team player. Many were surprised when he co-starred in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”; Connery’s Professor Henry Jones serving as a humorous foil to his adventurous son (Harrison Ford) whom he insisted on calling “Junior,” seemed like an inside joke — one dashing adventure-lead handing the torch to the other. And it was, but it was also a reminder of just how well Connery played with others.
It was rather miraculous actually. We think of him as very much a strong, often larger-than-life leading man, always very much himself, with that unmistakable voice and accent and a face able to seem soulful, steely or mischievous around that inevitable granite jaw. But his best work was always shared, albeit with actors just as formidable and often more fluid than he. Butch and Sundance have nothing on Connery and Michael Caine as Danny Dravot and Peachy Carnehan in “The Man Who Would Be King” or Connery’s Robin Hood, Nicol Williamson’s Little John and Audrey Hepburn’s Marian in “Robin and Marian.”
When he decided to abandon the Bond films, many believed it would end his career, that he didn’t have the chops to be a “serious actor.” Which is pretty hilarious when you look at his subsequent credits. Or consider his ability to stand out, as you mention, in the star-studded cast of “Murder on the Orient Express.”
CHANG: That Connery did some of his best work in tandem with others shouldn’t really come as such a surprise. Movie-star charisma can create a vacuum, but great acting, the kind that could sustain a career like Connery’s, is often collaborative by nature; it’s the tricky, underappreciated art of connecting with your fellow actors on screen. And Connery, whatever the size of his off-screen ego, harmonized beautifully with others, which is one reason why he did some of his best work with Lumet, a master at marshaling large ensembles. To those ideal screen partners you mentioned, Mary — Hepburn in “Robin and Marian” and Caine in “The Man Who Would Be King” — I would unapologetically add Nicolas Cage in Michael Bay’s supremely ridiculous, supremely watchable “The Rock.” And in pictures like “The Untouchables” and “Last Crusade,” Connery’s mere presence, usually in the role of a rascally mentor or grizzled eminence, could strike a playfully valedictory note; he’s winking at us, and also at a screen persona he knew we’d come to know and love.
And often, that wink would lead straight back to Bond. One of the actor’s richest, smartest performances can be found in Fred Schepisi’s underseen John Le Carré adaptation, “The Russia House” (1990), in which Connery stars as a charmingly reluctant spy with the cumbersome (and most un-Bondian) name of Bartholomew Scott Blair, or Barley for short. He’s a British publisher who gets drawn into a twisty espionage plot and falls in love with a beautiful Russian go-between played by Michelle Pfeiffer, who at one point describes Barley, wonderfully, as “Santa Claus in beautiful tweed clothes.” Connery could be that bloke, too: rumpled and tweedy rather than immaculate, notably ill at ease pursuing a secret assignation or wearing a wire, and yet still as instinctively defiant of authority — and as lethal with a one-liner — as Bond ever was.
His signature charm didn’t tell the whole story, of course, as charm rarely does. Amid the outpouring of tributes this weekend, more than a few have mentioned the infamous, loathsome remarks that he made in a 1965 Playboy interview — and effectively reiterated in a 1987 sit-down with Barbara Walters — in which he said, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman. … If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.” Whether or not he applied that loathsome philosophy in his personal life — and he’s long denied allegations that he did — it’s hard not to hear them echo in your head when you watch him in, say, Alfred Hitchcock’s 1964 psychological thriller, “Marnie.”
That movie’s marital rape scene pushed the limits of what was acceptable to depict in Hollywood and tested the limits of Connery’s own seemingly boundless charisma. And it’s no surprise that it was Hitchcock — a great filmmaker with an even more legendary streak of misogyny — was the one who recognized, early on, the sheer complexity of that charisma. There’s always been a steely, sinister edge to Connery’s screen presence, a hint of sadism beneath all his beauty, wit and physical grace. Not enough filmmakers tapped into that darkness over the years, though Lumet was, again, an exception: In 1973’s “The Offence,” Connery played a detective who brutally confronts a child predator for reasons that become ever more disturbingly murky in one of the actor’s darkest, most frightening performances. It’s not too many people’s favorite Sean Connery, I imagine, but it’s one that deserves to be remembered.
McNAMARA: Well that’s a nice can of worms you just opened there, Justin. There is no denying that many of the characters Connery played were often rough on women — in addition to “Marnie” and the Bond women who provoked the question in the Playboy interview, he knocks Marian out in “Robin and Marian” and takes her to Sherwood Forest against her expressed wishes. One of the reasons I never warmed to the original Bond movies was the kind of casual misogyny of the character — “My name is Pussy Galore,” she says. “I must be dreaming,” he smirks — which, if we’re being honest, was part of what made the character so beloved. As our obituary notes, Pauline Kael said in 1989 that Connery “looks absolutely confident in himself as a man. Women want to meet him, and men want to be him.” That same year (again cribbing from our obit), Steven Spielberg said, “There are only seven genuine movie stars in the world today and Sean is one of them.”
Connery may in fact be the last movie star who could be called a man’s man without the more modern subtext of thuggishness attached. Which is why his comments about hitting women were so shocking, if not in 1965 (when the Playboy interview ran) then certainly in later interviews. He denied ever hitting a woman himself, but he made it clear that, in some circumstances, certain women needed a smack, which certainly made a case for toxic masculinity.
Obviously, comments like these could be a career-ender these days, especially for a relatively young actor as Connery was in 1965. One could even imagine them ending the franchise, as closely entwined as Bond was with its then-star. I won’t say that would have been a tragedy — I personally would sacrifice any number of my favorite films to live in a world where domestic violence was not tolerated — but I do think it’s important to remember that Connery did not write or direct any of the films. The horrors of “Marnie” cannot be laid at Connery’s door, nor can the continual objectification of women that was a Bond signature — one that Connery always played quite cheekily; beneath it all, you sensed that his 007 really did like women.
Certainly Connery was always, and quite clearly, an alpha male, with all that entails, and he achieved this with a remarkable lack of brutality, either emotional or physical. His characters were almost always warm rather than cold — you couldn’t see him saying “that’s a honey of an ankle bracelet” à la Fred MacMurray in “Double Indemnity.” His characters often ran roughshod over everyone, and it was that charm you mentioned that allowed them to be seen as rascals rather than villains. The accent no doubt helped, which is why even years after his retirement, Connery was such a strong “character” in “The Trip,” a highlight of which was Steve Coogan’s and Rob Brydon’s competing Connery impressions.
That kind of male charm doesn’t exist so much any more, in part because we question it more than we once did. Daniel Craig’s Bond is far more layered, and troubled, than Connery’s, because that is what we demand of our characters now. (And if he hits a woman, she is inevitably more than equipped to fight back, which is something we also demand.) I could say Sean Connery was the last of his kind, but really there was never anyone quite like him. Even the timing of his death, sad is it is, has a bit of a twinkle. For some reason, “The Man Who Would Be King,” about a man who cons a society into believing he is a God until they realize he is not, certainly feels like a perfect viewing choice for this weekend.
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