Guest Column by Dr. Kit Medjesky
Celebrated British actor Michael Caine once credited Golden Age movie star Cary Grant with ushering in a “generation of non-slobs.” It should be no surprise, then, that Grant was the original choice to play James Bond. Contract negotiations fell through, and Sean Connery was introduced to the world through a quotation the American Film Institute once ranked as the 22nd most famous quote of all time: “Bond. James Bond.” Connery, who according to his wife of 45 years Micheline Roquebrune died from complications of dementia at the age of 90 in his Nassau home in the Bahamas, may have not been as famous as Cary Grant at the time, but his debonaire and confident portrayal of Bond set expectations of masculinity that remain today.
Bond was not Connery’s first big screen movie role, that would belong to 1957’s No Road Back, but it was his introduction in the 1962 adaptation of Ian Fleming’s Dr. No that would change the course of film history. The follow-up the next year, From Russia With Love, would pay homage to Cary Grant with a helicopter chase that paralleled a similar scene staring Grant from Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. Connery would go on in 1964 to star in his own Hitchcock film, Marnie, the same year perhaps the most famous Bond film, Goldfinger, was released. Connery would go on to star in three more official Bond films including 1965’s Thunderball which was filmed in what would be his final home in Nassau. A complex rights lawsuit over ownership of the Thunderball story allowed for Connery to return to the Bond role in a remake of Thunderball, Never Say Never Again, in 1983 the same year Connery’s Bond replacement, Roger Moore, starred in the 13th official Bond movie, Octopussy.
Despite looking still reasonably young enough for the Bond role (Connery was actually younger than Moore), he never returned to the part and, instead, embarked on a career that tackled many famous dramas. He had a memorable turn in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express and played major roles in films such as Time Bandits, Highlander, and The Hunt for Red October.
It was, however, his performance in 1987’s The Untouchables, a crime story about Al Capone, that earned Connery his only Academy Award. That film, despite only four years difference between it and Never Say Never Again, introduced the world to an equally distinguished but noticeably older Connery. Two years later, Connery would take on the only role that could come close to matching the cultural significance of Bond in 1989’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this film, Connery’s performance as Indiana’s father, Dr. Henry Jones, presented the calm and controlled Connery that would dominate the remainder of Connery’s performances until his retirement in 2003. The role of Dr. Jones provided a bookend to Bond offering a form of masculinity devoid of the womanizing and violence found in the 1960s Bond.
Whether he intended it to or not, Connery’s legacy will forever be tied to masculinity. Much of the world’s conceptualization of masculinity stems from his portrayal of Bond, and the problematic aspects of that character should not be ignored upon viewing it. However, that does not mean that these films should be ignored. Dr. Henry Giroux’s theory of critical pedagogy urges us to take up such problematic films and use them to guide our understanding of the current moment. Taken in conjunction with how the Bond franchise has evolved, Connery’s later career offers an alternative masculinity that shines a light upon the problems of the earlier Bond films without losing much of their fun.
Strapped to a table with a laser of gold aimed at his genitals, Connery’s Bond asked the villain Auric Goldfinger, “Do you expect me to talk?” Goldfinger responded, “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die.” Unfortunately for Goldfinger, Bond lived on, and so will Connery in our culture, our history, and our performance of masculinity for decades to come.