The quest for the Grail: Sean Connery – RIP

Rivaling the late Max Von Sydow as the oldest youngest man in Hollywood, Thomas Sean Connery of Edinburgh looked as if he’d lived several lives onscreen. Cary Grant thirty years earlier figured out the essential component of screen stardom: withhold; keep your secrets. Connery’s reticence made him an ideal James Bond for the JFK generation: courtly, at ease with malevolence, patronizing. He had a way of sizing up others in rooms, whether the doomed Shirley Eaton in Goldfinger, Jill St. John in Diamonds are Forever, and dull, dumb Kevin Costner in The Untouchables; he recognized their value better than they. Supreme among this kind of Connery performance was his son of a bitch widower in Marnie, where Alfred Hitchcock encouraged the actor to be as cruel as possible; he regards Tippi Hedren with the interest of a hawk seconds before lunging at a rabbit.

In the same way he defined James Bond he defined how to make a career beyond Bond. I’ll skip the most popular successes, although I’ll note that he proved a delight as Indiana Jones’ dad in …The Last Crusade (1989) and probably deserved a Supporting Actor nomination. In the too little seen The Molly Maguires (1970), Connery played opposite Richard Harris as a Pennsylvanian coal miner radicalized by atrocious working conditions; like Norma Rae later in the decade, it adduced Martin Ritt’s eye and ear for the worries of the American proletariat. Connery also showed an estimable penchant for playing numbskulls, most notably in John Huston’s adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King, a pawn in Michael Caine’s machinations. Seek Five Days One Summer (1982). Juxtaposing severe, mist-covered mountain wastes against a fraught would-be affair between Connery and Betsy Brantley, old pro Fred Zinneman teases out fresh nuances from wtf material (Brantley’s character has loved Connery since she was a girl, oy).

An actor with a preternatural sense of himself as product, Connery made a few flops no one remembers because the hits were so big and Connery proved adamantine in rarely having flops held against him. Please watch Zardoz, a peepful of how a John Boorman-directed Lord of the Rings might’ve played: gonzo, grand, ridiculous beyond human imaginings. Look at the future Sir Sean Connery — were Boorman and his costume designers going after the Burt Reynolds cheese market? Still, besides its visual sumptuousness, Zardoz functioned into peak post-sixties het male psychosis: projecting 007 into a future run by immortal women, Boorman can’t decide whether to interrogate his he-man or let him run roughshod. In life Connery kept his ambivalences, insofar as they existed, to himself. The man who given the chance to retract a comment before the High Court of Barbara Walters about his willingness to slap women instead chose to explain his reasons.

But Connery’s richest latter-day work takes place in The Russia House (1990). Treating his audience like adults, Fred Schepisi’s unhurried gloss on John Le Carré’s novel cast Connery as a publisher in glasnost-era Soviet Russia who romances Michelle Pfeiffer (credibly Russian) and feels tortured about the bad faith into which his position plunges him. Think of a less sour variant on Richard Burton’s tortured mole in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. With a voice as thick and warm as aged port, Connery brings a range of middle-aged emotion in a picture released when Hollywood considered the over-thirty cohort part of its target audience.

He kept on keepin’ on in First Knight (1995), Just Cause (1995), The Rock (1996) and dreck like Rising Sun in which his ponytail proved the least offensive element of Philip Kaufman’s adaptation of Michael Crichton’s dreadful xenophobic novel (when menaced by a Japanese villain with the line, “I know karate,” Connery, crinkling, says, “I know you do, dear”). Playing a Salinger-esque recluse in Finding Forrester, he dispensed writing advice like he did survival tips to Eliot Ness thirteen years earlier. I try and fail to think of a way in which casting directors would let, say, the seventy-year-old Jessica Lange appear as the onscreen lover of Chris Prine or Chris Pratt; that’s how old Connery was when he co-starred in Entrapment (1999) with Catherine Zeta-Jones. If Connery deserves no direct blame for Hollywood’s terror of older women, his continued success showed how few in the biz minded awarding laurels to septuagenarian men. Connery’s ideal — idea of — masculinity was the beautiful fiction that keeps bullshit factories running at all times.

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