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Saluting Sir Sean Connery, putting Scotland on the global stage

24-Aug-2010 • Actor News

As the actor turns 80, Herald Scotland looks at how he redefined masculinity – and put Scotland on the global stage.

When The New Yorker magazine’s distinguished critic Pauline Kael was reviewing Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade she mentioned “a friend … who’s in his early fifties … who says that when he grows up he wants to be Sean Connery.” Him and every other guy born in the past half century or so.

From the moment I first set eyes on Connery, in a clip from Diamonds Are Forever on the BBC children’s movie quiz Screen Test in late 1971, my fate as a dreamer was sealed. Whoever this man was (“He’s a has-been,” my father told me over dinner), he had shown me a vision of the man I wanted to be.

As Philip Kaufman, who directed Connery in Rising Sun, once said: “People are very attracted by the way Sean behaves … They would like to feel that they have his qualities, his grace under pressure.”

I know I do. I like watching Sean Connery. I like watching him move through and around a room. I especially like watching him open and close doors. I like the idea of a big, big man being so light on his feet. Part of the reason I like it is because I wish the same could be said about me – average height, clumsy, heavy-footed. Oh, sure, as my wife is forever telling me, another part of the reason is that I – like every other man she knows – fantasise about being a jetsetting secret agent. But not just any jetsetting secret agent. If part of wanting to be Connery is wanting to be James Bond, the whole of wanting to be Bond is wanting to be Connery. Nobody ever fancied themselves the new Roger Moore.

Not that Connery ever fancied himself as James Bond. Nothing in his training – largely classical theatre and romantic melodrama – let alone his background had prepared him for playing a part that Michael Caine remembers everyone thinking would go to Rex Harrison. Nor did Connery help matters when he turned up to audition for the part of Ian Fleming’s gentleman spy wearing a lumber jacket and torn jeans. “You take me as I am or not at all,” he told the producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli, but though they were eventually won over by what Broccoli called “the most arrogant son of a gun you’ve ever seen”, Fleming himself remained unconvinced. Not until the Bond movies were earning him far more money than his books ever had would he stop referring to Connery as “that f***ing truck driver”.

In point of fact, Connery was the son of a truck driver – born into the poverty of a two-roomed, cold-water tenement flat in Edinburgh’s Fountainbridge 80 years ago this week. Not, it should be said, that Connery has ever bigged up his origins. As he has several times sagely pointed out, you don’t know you’re poor when everyone you around you is poor, too. And anyway, judging by the childhood photographs Connery used to illustrate Being A Scot (his idiosyncratic history of his homeland), he was by some measure the most smartly turned-out kid on the block – hair combed and parted, tie neatly knotted. Still, though he won a scholarship place at Boroughmuir High School, he elected to attend the rather more downmarket Darroch – so he could play football rather than the rugby Boroughmuir insisted upon.

In fact, Connery could have become famous for football rather than acting. In his early twenties, he was spotted by a talent scout for Manchester United’s then manager Matt Busby and offered a trial at Old Trafford. Happily for movie history, Connery chose to stick it out in the chorus line of the touring production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Subsequently, he won a few speaking parts on the London stage, before lucking out big time when Jack Palance dropped out of a BBC Sunday Night Theatre production of Requiem For A Heavyweight. The director, Alvin Rakoff, knew Connery well through a poker group they both played in, but he never thought to use him as a replacement for Palance’s punch-drunk fighter until his wife told him “the ladies would like it”.

And not only the ladies. The next morning the phone at Connery’s agent’s office didn’t stop ringing as one studio after another bid on the man they saw as the next big thing. Soon enough, the 26-year-old Connery had signed a seven-year contract with Twentieth Century Fox worth around £6,000 a year (more than £100,000 today). Six months later he was chosen – by the lady herself – to star opposite Lana Turner. Alas, Another Time, Another Place turned out a stinker, and there would be another five years of thankless slog before Connery scored the part that made him.

He made the part, too, of course. Had Rex Harrison actually been cast as James Bond in Dr No (or Dirk Bogarde or David Niven or Richard Todd – all of whom were on Saltzman and Broccoli’s wish-list) there would have been no From Russia With Love, let alone any Daniel Craig. “Sean Connery IS James Bond” screamed the posters for Thunderball and You Only Live Twice, and more than four decades later 007 aficionados are agreed that no-one else has ever held a candle to the original.

How did the low-born Connery come to be the living embodiment of Fleming’s clubland snob? Partly by playing the role for laughs – Bond’s cynical wisecracks were Connery’s idea – and partly by emblematising the meritocratic spirit of sixties Britain – the voice Connery found for Bond was as east-coast American as it was Edinburgh.

Mostly, though, it was Connery’s sheer animal grace that wowed audiences. Looked at in the abstract, Dr No is little more than “the grade-B Charlie Chan mystery” Joseph Wiseman (who played the titular villain) labelled it. All that really counts about this otherwise rather dull film is the silky mobility of its leading man. Witness Connery’s Bond padding around his hotel room – stretching upwards from the balls of his feet to peer out of a window like a dancer at full height, dipping swan’s neck style down to his knees to booby-trap a door. The men who had worshipped Fleming’s Bond hadn’t really wanted much more than to know their way round a wine list. Connery’s Bond mocked such social-climbing antics while appealing to the instinct for elegance that men had hitherto been able to allow themselves – and even then only surreptitiously – at fights and football matches.

So it is that for almost 50 years, men around the world have been measuring themselves against a masculinity Connery’s Bond defined. Indeed, over recent years he has made movies about that very subject. Since the mid eighties, when he returned to Scotland for Highlander, Connery has played variants on what we might call his mentor figure. The Name Of The Rose, The Untouchables, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, The Hunt For Red October – in all these and more Connery plays a man younger men look up to and want to be. What better definition of movie stardom is there?

“I have no illusions,” Connery told an interviewer, “that anything I’m going to do will give me this completeness that you’re implying I’m in search of.” But we are all in search of such completeness – and at least occasionally and momentarily we find it by gazing at the secular saints of the cinema. For the essential function of the movie star is to body forth to the world a (doubtless chimerical) vision of a unified self on to which can be projected a million and one atomised fantasies. Not since the days of Bogart and Cary Grant, of Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, has anyone fulfilled that function as frequently and as potently as Sean Connery. Maybe he really does have no illusions. We should be thankful, though, that for almost half a century now he has granted us so many of our own.

Seven Connery Classics

Dr No 1962

The first of seven Bonds for Sean Connery, and the one that established the audience-wowing formula. It’s all here: exotic location, theme tune, gadgets, quips, provocatively named female sidekick, crazed villain and a pining Miss Moneypenny.

From Russia With Love 1963

By now, the whole “would Cary Grant have made a better 007?” debate was dead in the shark-infested waters. Connery was in, and in this Cold War tale, reportedly his favourite Bond, he’s having the time of his 33-year-old life.

Marnie 1964

Hitchcock looked for ice in his blondes and fire in his male leads. Connery sizzled as Mark Rutland, the suave publisher who marries a kleptomaniac. Too bleak for audiences of the time, but Connery had shown there was more to him than muscle.

Goldfinger 1964

Guy Hamilton’s actioner upped the glam factor in the Bond series, and in its despatch of Shirley Eaton as Jill Masterson, the franchise added an element of steeliness to the mix.

The Man Who Would Be King 1975

Connery has given the Edinburgh International Film Festival much needed star wattage over the years. This year, as a thank you, schedulers screened John Huston’s epic adventure, starring Connery as the squaddie with ambition.

The Untouchables 1987

“You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way!” Connery’s straight arrow Irish cop won him his only Oscar.

Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade 1989

One of the century’s most beloved action figures needs a father figure. Who else was Spielberg gonna call? Harrison Ford, Connery’s screen son, led the tributes when daddy cool was given the American Film Institute’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006. Alison Rowat, Herald Film Critic

The underside of Connery’s charisma

It is one of life’s small injustices that women are presumed to lose their looks as the years roll on while men of a certain age are said to acquire the patina of suave distinction. Enter Sean Connery, who from the moment of ditching the toupee he wore for all the Bond films found permanent residence in the pantheon of Scots with sex appeal.

Connery is now the pin-up pensioner with the enduringly prosperous aura: tanned, exquisitely tailored, the beard turned to silver, the gravelled voice a blend of urban Scottishness and well-travelled inflexions. Indeed senior citizenship for the emeritus James Bond has become the third age of conquest. Other Bonds may come and go but, fixed in the universal psyche, Connery’s 007 is peerless.

But there is a dark side to Connery, a glowering machismo which studio publicists like to call his “smouldering Scottish allure”, but the phrase does little to ameliorate an aggressive churlishness towards women which is perceived as a national characteristic out of order and out of time. According to a recent survey led by Dr Lisa DeBruine of the University of Aberdeen, six out of 10 women in Britain prefer more sensitive-looking men to those of the “manly” stereotype. In DeBruine’s view this could account for why today’s stars such as Johnny Depp and Orlando Bloom are popular while the likes of Connery and Clark Gable are regarded as cliched period pieces. Seen in those terms Connery, a bodybuilder in his youth, is not that far removed from Tarzan narcissism; a pumped-up masculinity untroubled by culture, civilisation or women.

Not that women were missing from the picture, but no matter how glamorous they were, the women on screen were merely accompaniments to illustrate men’s control over them. Hence in Connery’s Bond adventures there was often a shiver of violence in the air when a yet-to-be-tamed beauty was in the frame. Which leads us back to the tricky underside of Connery’s charisma. While on the set of Thunderball, he told Playboy magazine in 1965 there wasn’t “anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman”. Was this life imitating film scripts? If he meant it, our hero must have known he wasn’t alone. In sixties Scotland “zero tolerance” of domestic violence wasn’t even articulated by the judiciary, police or victims themselves. The ugliness of such fury ran right through society: men hit women because women were asking for it. Tackled further about this impulse, he said: “If a woman is a bitch or hysterical or bloody-minded continually, I’d do it.” No sign of remorse there, then, and in 1987 he told America’s doyenne interviewer Barbara Walters that “it would be acceptable for a man to hit a woman with an open hand if she continued to provoke him after he had conceded an argument to her”.

By 2006 his first wife, Diane Cilento, was claiming in her autobiography that Connery had beaten her on several occasions, charges he vehemently denied. Her allegations did little to erode her ex-husband’s fan base. Connery’s 2008 memoir, Being A Scot, avoids mention of these marital battles, a shrewd tactic which implies Cilento’s book is opportunist.

Should any of this be regarded as something other than the film world’s squalid brawling? Well, yes. Connery may have mellowed, but the credo he revealed in his heyday did nothing to send misogyny packing. In the minds of certain men it reaffirmed it. Connery and Cilento were divorced in 1973 and two years later he married artist Micheline Roquebrune. “I met my wife through playing golf,” he said. “She’s French and couldn’t speak a word of English, and I couldn’t speak French so there was little chance of us getting involved in boring conversation – that’s why we got married really quickly.” A further remark, in which Connery declared he liked women but didn’t understand them, revealed a shift from outright machismo.

Today there is no modern Scottish equivalent because that brand of conspicuous manhood is out of favour. Yet something of the stardust remains. Now, when he appears beneath the arc lights, photographers still swarm and, for a moment, Sean Connery reminds us of that screen god once so accustomed to having women draped around him like votive offerings. Anne Simpson

What Connery means to Scotland

Here’s the question. Where would Scotland be without Sean Connery? Put aside his patriotic utterances (I’ll come back to them later) and don’t worry about Sir Sean the benefactor of various charities. Concentrate, instead, not on what he has done, but on what he represents. Because isn’t there an argument to be made that for many people, particularly those who don’t live on this little parcel of land, Sean Connery is Scotland? That he embodies the nation, or at least a particular vision of the nation. And, further, that Scotland and Scottishness, or at least a modern Scotland and Scottishness, begins with him.

It doesn’t end with him but that’s only because he blew the doors off, ensuring others could follow him through. Would actors such as Dougray Scott, Ewan McGregor, maybe even Gerard Butler, have the careers they have now if Connery hadn’t paved the way for them, hadn’t proved to the world – first as James Bond and then in a whole variety of roles in which he was usually first and foremost himself – that stardom could come with a Scottish accent?

That’s what film stars do, of course. They don’t act. That’s not the point of stardom. It’s about being oneself, always. It’s about embodying an image, refining it through different character types. When he came to prominence playing Bond, Connery embodied a version of Scottishness – a tough, clean-lined, straightforward masculinity very much of its time, that time being the early sixties. It happened to chime with the emerging declasse nature of celebrity. Connery was Stanley Baker mark two – the international version of the hard man, able to wear fitted suits and finesse high-born women. Connery as Bond represented the sixties vision of modern man – a playboy, a traveller at home in the casino, the bedroom and battle. Connery took Scottishness out into the world, made it something attractive, desirable, made it something hip. It’s significant that when Irvine Welsh was writing Trainspotting he used Connery as a totem in Sick Boy’s head.

It’s a very sixties modernity, all the same, one that has now inevitably aged. When author Christopher Bray says he grew up wanting to be Connery it’s not something I – another fortysomething – recognise. Connery seemed too much like my father’s generation. While I loved my father I never wanted to be him.

When I came to Scotland there were other models of masculinity – the highbrow dandyism of Edwyn Collins, the heart-bruised romanticism of Roddy Frame, the gawkiness of John Gordon Sinclair in which I could (all too unfortunately in the case of Sinclair) recognise myself, or perhaps see something I might want to aspire to. Connery felt old school. At least he was true to that old school. For all those Bond one-liners he never succumbed to parodying himself for the new lad generation.

The same could be said about his nationality. “Scotland Forever” reads the tattoo on his arm. He means it, too, and has put his money where his mouth is to fund the SNP. Yet Connery gets grief for voicing his opinions. There’s a Facebook page called Sean Connery Is An Arse, moaning about the man’s contradictions – happy enough to voice his opinions about how the country should be governed, but not happy enough to live and pay tax here etc. McGregor has said much the same thing about Connery once or twice. And yet it’s a ridiculous notion. As if we can only have opinions about places we actually live in.

The danger here is that we’re dealing with a particularly Caledonian version of the tall poppy syndrome. Connery is – or was – the international vision of Scottishness, but it’s his internationalism that for some seems to be the problem. Yet the fact he no longer lives in Fountainbridge shouldn’t be held against him. What a mean, crabby vision of human possibility that would represent. You can, of course, take issue with a nationalist who is happy to accept a knighthood from a Labour government , but in the end it’s the icon not the man who resonates. The icon is the embodiment of the idea that Scots can go out in the world and be someone. Someone with a capital S. And isn’t that the Scottish story throughout history?

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