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Sean Connery - The man who has spent his career escaping 007

23-Aug-2010 • Actor News

This week Sean Connery will celebrate his 80th birthday and according to his biographer he has spent most of his life rejecting the heroic image that he invented so memorably, writes Christoper Bray in The Daily Express.

At the last count Sir Sean Connery was worth about £80million – a cool million pounds for each year he’s been on the planet.

Not bad for the son of an itinerant labourer who was born into a tworoom, toilet-free tenement flat in Edinburgh in the dog days of 1930.

Connery has never boasted about the days of his poverty-stricken youth. As he has said, you don’t know you’re poor when everyone around you is in the same boat. And for all the toil and effort this unschooled nohoper put into teaching himself to become an actor he has always acknowledged that good fortune is what counts most in life.

“Luck only knocks once,” he once said, “and when it knocks you have to grab it, then hang on tight.” Connery uttered those words of wisdom around the time the fourth 007 film, Thunderball, was breaking boxoffice records at cinemas around the globe. If he wasn’t yet the best-paid actor in the world he was well on the way to being so – and top of the Motion Picture Herald’s survey of America’s favourite stars to boot.

Yet for all that, there is a case for saying that fortunate as Connery was to get the part, he was quite as much a victim of Ian Fleming’s secret agent with the licence to kill as Ernst Stavro Blofeld or Auric Goldfinger. The Bond films made Connery but they maimed him, too. “Fame, money and beautiful women.” Such, Sigmund Freud wrote, are the goals of an artist’s life. And indeed, Bond made Connery rich and famous and adored by women (and men) all over the world.

The only problem was that nobody took Connery for an artist. They took him for secret agent 007. Like the sell-line on a million movie posters, people really did believe that “Sean Connery is James Bond”. “All I did,” Connery said recently, “was add a sense of humour that was lacking [in Fleming’s novels] and a quality of effortlessness. Which doesn’t mean it wasn’t hard work to achieve that appearance of ease.”

Alas for Connery he worked so hard at making everything Bond did look effortless that it came to seem as if the part and the actor were one and the same. Not that he helped matters any by angrily reminding interviewers that “it riles me when people call me Bond off the set” and that he was not 007 but merely an actor.

Anger aside, Connery’s reaction to the fans’ conflation of him and Bond was to seek out roles that were diametrically opposed to the glamorous spy. Throughout the Sixties he was engaged on an ungainly slalom between the films that brought him fame and the more ambitious dramas he hoped would sustain it. But though Connery did good work while off the 007 beat, fans just weren’t willing to accept him as anything other than the sleek superstud they adored.

He gave a fine performance for Alfred Hitchcock, for instance, in Marnie, but audiences stayed away in droves, making it Hitchcock’s first flop in more than a decade. To be sure, there are problems aplenty with this movie, starting with the lacklustre performance of Tippi Hedren. But as far as Connery worshippers were concerned Marnie’s big drawback was it seemed like a critique on all that he stood for – remodelling 007’s charmer into a cold-blooded control freak, transforming a ladykiller into a rapist pure and simple.

Three years later, in 1967, Connery quit the Bond series. It hadn’t helped that during the filming of You Only Live Twice Japan’s over-zealous photographers had followed their prey into the loo but Connery had always said he would stick to the contract he had signed with Cubby Broccoli and make only five 007 pictures.

Alas, he proved unable to parlay his now worldwide fame into career independent of the part audiences continued to identify him with. Over the next four years he would make four very different pictures – a western, a working-class drama, a New York heist action comedy and a fi tionalised account of the first expedition to the North Pole – and although he acquitted himself well none of them sold particularly well.

So it shouldn’t have been the surprise it was when in 1971 it was announced that after a one-picture absence – the rather wonderful On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby – Connery was returning as Bond in Diamonds Are Forever. Nor that a decade or so later, he donned Bond’s tuxedo one more time for the disastrous Never Say Never Again.

Indeed though he hasn’t played Bond since 1983, he has been in several movies – The Rock, Entrapment – that are awfully Bond-like in their construction . Lurking somewhere in the Connery subconscious is a desire to outdo the Bond movies that have carried on very well without him. Alan Moore, writer on the Bondian The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen, said: “It’s in his contract that he has to have a bigger explosion with every fi lm he’s in. In The Rock he’d blown up an island and he was demanding in The League that he blow up Venice”.

Moore is joking , although there is no denying that after the failure in 1973 of The Offence, a fi ne character study of a policeman cracking up under pressure, Connery has put on hold any idea of tackling more ambitious dramas.

Throughout the Sixties he was forever telling people he was at work on a screenplay for a film version of Macbeth, with himself in the lead role. But since October 1973, when he and first wife Diane Cilento were divorced, he has talked no more of playing Shakespeare’s hero goaded into action by a n ambitious woman.

Ever since Connery was first cast as Bond in Dr No, their relationship had been tumultuous. Partly this was down to the intolerable strain of a marriage in which one half was the most famous man in the world. “It was around the same time as the Beatles,” Connery said recently. “The difference was that they had four of them to kick around and blame each other.”

The only thing Connery had to kick around was Cilento and according to her he did, something he vehemntly denies. Julie Hamilton, Connery’s first London girlfriend, is adamant that she has “never been able to believe the stories I’ve heard about him after he became famous. I can’t believe he’s at all violent. During the time we were together he was incredibly gentle.”

IT IS perhaps safest to conclude that what did it for the Cilento/Connery marriage was the sheer pressure of fame , a pressure that must have been all the harder for Cilento to live with when you consider that at the time she met Connery she was an established theatrical star and rising movie actress and he was a struggling bitpart boy.

A few years later he was the biggest star in the world. However, since divorcing Cilento it should be pointed out that Connery has been married to just one other woman – Micheline Roquebrune, an amateur painter whom he met at a golf tournament where each won their respective competitions.

If it is true to say that Connery’s actorly ambitions have largely been put on hold since he and Roquebrune settled down, it is also true that he has seemed a less restless, more contented soul than he did during the years of his fi rst marriage.

Years ago he claimed that all he really wanted from life was “to be an old man with a good face. Like Hitchcock or Picasso.” So when we wish Sean Connery a very happy 80th birthday this week, I think we can agree he got what he wanted.

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