As the actor
turns 80, we look at how he redefined masculinity – and put
Scotland on the global stage.
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
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
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.
Name Of The Rose, The
Untouchables, Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade,
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?