Friday, 11 September 2015

007 Sean Connery Part Two: Never Say Bond Again

Last week, I examined Sean Connery's first four James Bond films and how they were kinda sorta rape-y but his captivatingly suave voice and rugged debonair masculinity is so charming, you sorta kinda not-really excuse it. I also discussed the problem Connery had with misogyny, the problem being that he's all for it.

Not wanting to rehash what I've already said, let's move on. This article is gonna focus on the last three Bond films Connery made, 1967's You Only Live Twice, his return in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, and yes, the bastard prodigal son, 1983's Never Say Never Again.

"I can't believe you would do that."

I actually enjoyed Never Say Never Again, well, at least parts of it but we'll get to that and its illegitimate family-member-we-never-talk-about status in a bit. Let's first provide some backstory for the theme of this article, which is Sean Connery hated James Bond.

Now, obviously he appreciated the fame and financial security the character brought him, seemed to have some admiration for Ian Flemming, and even seemed to enjoy the early films bringing a real freshness to his performances. And that's the thing, it's the first films he did that he enjoyed, not the later ones.

In 1971, as part of the press for Diamonds Are Forever, a Dutch reporter asked Connery which was his favourite of his Bond films so far and Connery answers without any hesitation, From Russia With Love. And hearing his reasons, it makes it clear why he grew disparaging of the character as the films went on:

It had a credibility in the story and was interesting, and the places, and the characters, and the, uh, whole feel of the film, I think. I haven't seen them. I've only seem them all once, so it's a long time now.

I can see what he means. The fire behind him in You Only Live Twice just doesn't seem credible enough to me.

You should hopefully see where this is going, or else I'm terrible at foreshadowing: Connery liked the earlier Bond films since they were 'credible' and didn't require the higher suspension of belief or cartoonish elements that the later films, especially during Roger Moore's run, would have. It's essentially the old "realism vs escapism" argument you often see in discussions about film.

Connery seems to be putting forth the idea that he preferred the 'grit' of his early films to the more elaborate and increasing ridiculousness of the later films, since any film with a character called Pussy Galore can only be taken with the utmost sincerity and credibility.

"Just as credible as my hairpiece."

However, the real crux of Connery's distaste and growing disinterest in the Bond franchise was, at least partially if not largely, due to an issue with negotiation, namely that he never was able to renegotiate his contract. That means he was still getting paid the same fee for Thunderball as he was for Dr. No, despite the fact Thunderball made all the money when it was released in 1965.

Remember this was for the most profitable franchise at the time, with each movie progressively making more and more money than the last. Yet Connery had signed a six movie contract and wasn't allowed to renegotiate his contract for successive films even though the producers continually updated their own contracts accordingly with the growing financial success of the series.

Just imagine a similar scenario today. What if Marvel didn't renegotiate their contract with Robert Downey Jr. for the Iron Man sequels and Avengers films? He would have left after the first film, right? I mean, why wouldn't he? He is the biggest draw in those movies, the star everyone is coming to see. His personality and popularity are central to the success of those films, films which have made so much money that they had to come with new adjectives to describe how much money they made. A goddamnshitonne is one.

"Awww, that's adorable. They think they'll have a franchise without me."

Connery was in Downey's position back in the 1960s but instead of having any leverage or ability to dictate the terms of his contract as the series went on, Connery was forced to accept the same pay regardless of how well the films did. Conversely, Downey is one of the highest, if not the highest, paid actors in Hollywood right now precisely because he has been able to renegotiate.

So obviously this contract and not making the money owed to him thing seems to have made Connery a bit bitter about his experience with Bond and that bitterness filters through in his performances. With each subsequent film, he displays less and less interest in being there until he's barely hiding his near contempt and disinterest by the time we get to Diamonds Are Forever.

And we'll get there but first let's talk about You Only Live Twice, the last film in Connery's initial five film run before George Lazenby's turn in On Her Majesty's Secret Service and his return in Diamonds. Connery isn't bored yet but he does seem a little complacent, possibly since this is a role he's played so many times before that he can't invest in the character any more.

Maybe it was the yellow-face because we are gonna talk about the yellow-face.

Now before we go any further, we have to talk about the yellow-face in the film since Connery turns Japanese in order to go undercover in a small Japanese island village so he won't be noticed by the locals or somethings and has to get married to a Japanese girl as well, because reasons.

Let's recall that Sean Connery is a 6 foot 2 Scotsman who is so obviously a 6 foot 2 Scotsman that he can only ever be a 6 foot 2 Scotsman. He was even a 6 foot 2 Scotsman when he played a Spaniard in Highlander and a Russian in The Hunt for Red October. He was still a 6 foot 2 Scotsman when he voiced dragon in Dragonheart. The man cannot be anything other than what he is.

Which is a 6 foot 2 Scotsman.

Pictured: Sean Connery. Seen here being 6 foot 2 and Scottish.

Suffice to say that even after his Japanese make-over, which really just consists of some eye make up, a chest waxing, thicker eyebrows, and a new bowl cut hair piece, nobody is ever going to confuse this 6 foot 2 Scotsman for a Japanese villager.

No matter how desperately Connery hunches his back to appear shorter, he's still a good head taller than everyone else and so transparently foreign, it makes this part of the plot seem completely superfluous since there is no way anyone's supension of disbelief would be able to believe that anyone in the village will look at yellow-face Bond and go, "why that stranger is so Japanese he must be from the inland which is why I don't recognise him, so Japanese is he".

And I know that is a film with a villain lair inside a hollow volcano so they are stretching the realms of what is believable but this is about what could conceivably exist or happen in the fictional and there is no way anyone could possibly fall for Bond's yellow-face 'disguise'.

Plus it's yellow-face. I don't want to dwell on race in the film since I think the Bond's first lines in the film accurately highlight how well the movie handles Asian culture. With the utmost respect and sensitivity, of course.


However, what I want to focus on is how Connery just sort of mumbles his lines without much conviction, with little of the zest he initially gave the character in Dr. No or especially From Russia with Love. There no much vitality here, perhaps a severe cause of senioritis.

This doesn't mean it is a terrible performance by any means, Connery is still as charming as ever, how could he not be with a voice so suave it comes served with a martini, but he is on cruise control here. Just rewatch that video up there. Whereas in previous films there would be a twinkle in his eye as he delivered that 'flirtatious' dialogue, here's he's nonchalant as hell.

But that voice though. Even when he's on autopilot, it's such a smooth ride, it almost doesn't matter. With such syrupy chocolate for your ears and rare manbeef for your eyes, it's kinda okay that he's not really trying. Because he's really not. He's been here before, got the t-shirt, wore the t-shirt a few times before the print faded in the wash, and now just kept wearing it even though the fabric's getting worn through.

"I do die in this one only to come back so maybe it's fitting my performance feels like a disengaged zombie."

But it's in Diamonds Are Forever where Connery's autopilot turns into complete disinterest. He couldn't be less there if he tried. He is so disengaged from what is going on around him that he barely emotes anything besides what I assume is apathy for having to wear such a terrible toupee. On Connery's performance, The Guardian's Xan Brooks notes,
Connery clearly does not want to be there. He shuffles through the motions like some ageing heavyweight showboater, flirting with disaster, his toupee slipping.
Perhaps I and Brooks are being a little harsh (and are somewhat fixated on his awful toupee), but Connery does sorta kinda totally sleepwalk through most of his performance in the film. That is, aside from the moments of violence, that he seems all for, particularly in the opening scene when he strangles a woman for information - with her own bikini top...

No, I'm serious. He literally says the words, "there's something I want you to get off your chest", rips off her bikini top and proceeds to strangle her with it, all the while interrogating her for the whereabouts of the big bad, Ernst Starvo Blofeld.

On a separate note, this is the only time we see him smile in the whole film.

This probably why the scene in which Connery has the most energy and actually seems to give a shit, is the elevator fight scene, one of the classic claustrophobic choreographed fight sequences in Bond films, following in the tradition set by the amazing train compartment fight in From Russia with Love.

At the end of the fight, Bond puts his wallet in the dead man's jacket so he will be mistaken for James Bond, which is actually an inspired piece of screenwriting as it seems like a real clever decision made in a split second that a spy like James Bond would do.

However, pay attention to how Connery responds after Tiffany Case declares he killed James Bond. With less conviction than a skunk trying to deny he dealt it, Connery responds, "Is that who he is?" as convincingly as that kid who did theatre but was always cast as a tree in the school play, even when there were no trees in the script.

In unrelated news, we get to see Connery's ripped spy bod.

Can we spare a moment here to discuss how Diamonds Are Forever is bonkers? Like really. The movie is all over the place, at times the score just drops out, there are so many great camp moments with utterly puzzling lines, mostly from Tiffany Case (notably, "Blow it up your pants"), and the plot is mindless in the best possible way.

However, it has two of the greatest henchmen characters in Bond history, Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint. Played by Putter Smith and Bruce "father of Crispin" Glover respectively, they are the ambiguously gay duo set out to assassinate people who are part of a diamond smuggling ring to cut any loose ends or something. It doesn't matter.

What does matter is they are amazing. Glover wildly overacts with delicious glee while Smith, not a professional actor by trade, struggles not to break character at points and underacts, creating a perfect yin yang of acting extremes that underscores their characters otherness. They're great.

"Being ambiguously gay while committing murder is tiring work, wouldn't you say, Mr. Kidd?"

And that brings us to Never Say Never Again, the unofficial Bond film Connery made in 1983, directed by Irvin Kersher, fresh off Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Now the story of Never Say Never Again is one of copyright, intellectual property, and lawsuits. To make a long story fit in a martini glass, back in the 1950s, Ian Flemming had worked with a man called Kevin McClory on the screenplay for what would eventually become Thunderball, which Flemming then turned into the novel.

Later when they wanted to turn into a movie they struck a deal with McClory, who had some intellectual property rights on various aspects of the story such as the secret terrorist organisation S.P.E.C.T.R.E, to be an executive producer on the film on the condition he wouldn't make his own film version of Thunderball for 10 years.

10 years passed and he wanted to make his own adaptation of the script. Legal battles ensued until a judged ruled that he could indeed make his own film version which became Never Say Never Again, which is one of the non-canonical entries of Bond on film. End of backstory.

It's so non-canonical Mr. Bean is in this one.

Despite the early eighties touches and illegitimate status, it's actually a rather fun movie and quite entertaining. In his fifties, Connery plays an aging Bond who has to prove he still is capable of being a spy in his advancing years. And honestly, he gives off a pretty good performance, showing why he is often consider the best Bond.

While he is overly comfortable in the role, he doesn't sleepwalk here like he did in Diamonds Are Forever and actually seems to be in better shape than he was back in You Only Live Twice, 16 years prior. He actually seems to have some twinkle in his eye when sprouting cringeworthy pun-laden one liners.

Also, the fact so much of the movie revolves around his age and whether he should still be a spy, adds to the performance I think since there's an element of the character mirroring the actor or visa versa. Although somehow his toupee is even worse in this film. I don't know why hair piece technology seemed to regressed in the 12 years since he last played Bond before this film, but it had.

It just had.

Stay tuned next week when we take on Pierce Brosnan's dashingly bland series of Bond films where I think he was a good James Bond tragically stuck in terrible Bond movies.


References:

Sean Connery Wikipedia page


Sean Connery on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1983 - The 007 Dossier



My favourite Bond film: Diamonds Are Forever - The Guardian

Sean Connery interview 1971 on James Bond & behind the scenes Diamonds Are Forever

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