Sean Connery – cool, sexy and unflappable

Watching Connery – who was handsome but also projected qualities that made him so much more than just a pretty face – on the big screen was one of the purest joys of moviegoing.

Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1960s. (photo credit: PA WIRE / ZUMA PRESS)
Sean Connery as James Bond in the 1960s.
(photo credit: PA WIRE / ZUMA PRESS)
There have been a lot of movie spies over the years, but there is only one James Bond, and that’s because Sean Connery made him an icon, and, in the process, became one himself.
The world mourned with the Connery family as the legendary Scottish actor’s death was announced on Saturday, because so many of us enjoyed spending time with his on-screen persona, both when he portrayed Agent 007 or in his other roles. He was cool, sexy, debonair, unflappable and incredibly brave, with a sense of humor that made every line funnier than what was written in the script. We wanted to be him, or be with him.
Watching Connery – who was handsome but also projected qualities that made him so much more than just a pretty face – on the big screen was one of the purest joys of moviegoing.
When I was in college, the film society always showed a James Bond movie right before exam week, when we were most in need of diversion, and the movies always drew a crowd. Of course, the lovely scenery, gorgeous women, sleek cars, over-the-top villains and goofy gadgets were part of the fun, but lots of movies featured those elements. It was Connery’s presence that kept us coming back. His look of mild disdain for the most heinous bad guys, his relaxed, amused air as women threw themselves at him – and why wouldn’t they? – and his laser-sharp focus when he had to spring into action made him riveting on screen.
While, judged by today’s standards, the James Bond movies are politically incorrect on so many levels, Connery’s playfulness makes his Bond transcend the conventions of any one era. His Bond knew that he was breaking rules and knew that we wanted to break many of those rules ourselves, but couldn’t, so he drew us into a little conspiracy with him, as few movie stars have ever been able to do so successfully.
He clearly had a love-hate relationship with this character who shaped his career, leaving the franchise and returning to it twice. In his other roles, he displayed the same charisma but showed that he could truly act. The fact that his career blossomed in the years since he aged out of 007 proves that he could play characters who were three-dimensional in a way that Bond was never meant to be.
He won a Best Supporting Oscar at the age of 57 – the only time he was ever nominated – for playing a ruthless cop who helps Eliot Ness in The Untouchables. The role, like many of those he played throughout his career, required him to be tough, a fighter. But no matter how much action Connery took part in, what we remember of him isn’t him shooting a gun but how his face looked and what his eyes showed about how he felt about pulling the trigger.
He received only the one nomination because he often played in the kinds of unpretentious movies for which no one gets Oscars, and his acting skill was often underrated because of that.
His most famous non-Bond role was probably as Indiana Jones’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade in 1989, and he was also known for playing the lead in Alfred Hitchcocks’s Marnie, in which he portrayed a character with Bond’s cruel edge but without the charm.
Several of his finest non-Bond roles, although they won him accolades when they were first released, are not as well known today as they should be, and fans who manage to track down these movies will find some of his best work.
In John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King (1975), an adaptation of a Rudyard Kipling story, he played Danny Dravot, a veteran of the English army in India, who travels with his best friend, Peachy (Michael Caine), into the remote wilds of the mythical kingdom of Kafiristan, to make a fortune leading native armies into battle against each other.
There has never been a more engaging bromance put on film than the one between Danny and Peachy here, but there’s a deeper side of the movie, as Danny struggles with the inner demons that are brought to the surface in this wild landscape where he was given too much power.
A year later, he played the lead in Richard Lester’s Robin and Marian opposite Audrey Hepburn. In this film, Robin Hood comes back to England disillusioned after years of fighting in the Crusades and longs for his lost love, who has found refuge in a convent. The scenes of the no-longer-young lovers are touching and more memorable than anything else in the movie.
In Willard Carroll’s 1998 Playing by Heart, a movie that tells intersecting stories of four couples and is one of Connery’s few movies that is pure drama with no action, he portrays a man trying to win back his wife (Gena Rowlands) after she discovers he had a love affair. Connery brings great depth to a part that would have bordered on cliché without his light touch.
But he will always be most identified as the first, and for many, the best, James Bond. In Israel, perhaps the clearest indication of James Bond’s hold on our imagination is that the term for a fancy leather briefcase is “tik James Bond.” A Google search for a tik James Bond in English or Hebrew yields rows and rows of elegant, classic briefcases.
Jason Connery, the actor/director who is Sean’s son, visited the Haifa International Film Festival with his movie Tommy’s Honour in 2016, and was amused but not surprised when I told him that.
Perhaps in the future, Israeli kids will think to ask “Who’s James Bond?” when they see one of those briefcases and get interested in seeing Connery in action.