Posted in: Actors, by Kathleen Murphy, Essays

Sean Connery: The Man Who Would Be King

Originally published in Film Comment in 1997

Just back from the Crusades after twenty years, Sean Connery’s Robin Hood peers up at an abbey window to espy his onetime Maid Marian (Audrey Hepburn) decked out in nun’s habit. “What,” demands her scruffy swain, “are you doing in that costume?” “Living it,” she retorts. In Robin and Marian, Richard Lester’s superb deconstruction of sustaining, fatal legend, Robin is a player past his prime, so taken by his own heroic mask he would choose to die under its weight. In fashioning one of his finest performances, Sean Connery must have called upon something of his own struggle with a devouring fiction, the near-loss of his own face to a single fixed expression of heroism.

In forty years of filmmaking, Sean Connery has climbed into a remarkable variety of cinematic costume: suits from Savile Row, uniforms of every stripe, American West gear, exotic regalia from loincloth to kilt to Spanish grandee’s piratical splendor, the robes of a Benedictine monk, the sturdy tweeds of an elderly British archaeologist, and the slightly seedy duds of a boozy publisher. He’s been spy, soldier, scientist, submarine captain, cop, poet, miner, thief, messiah, sheikh, fertility god, and dragon. No matter the clothes, period, or genre, Connery displays the sangfroid of an instinctively naturalized citizen, at home from Sekandergul to Oz.

In the business of wearing fictions, projecting assumed identities, Connery has been more creatively calculating than most about the masks he tries on. Willing, with uncommon pleasure, to expose himself body and soul, but simultaneously conserving, he keeps some core of self away from the light. Almost from the beginning, he’s taken a strong hand in shaping the way his often exotic personae look, move, and speak. (On location for Shalako, an early Euro-Western, Connery was observed editing his part, literally tearing out dialogue he didn’t need to flesh his character.) Offering himself to the consuming, carnal gaze of the camera, this extraordinarily centered star has quietly chosen to live costumes on his own terms. The off-screen Connery is adamantly reticent, opting for self-possession and privacy. He refuses to reveal his soul to complete strangers—or to “screw in public”—past metaphors for unhappy relations with the press.

There’s room for mystery here: it lies between mask and man, between this actor’s gift for generous, though carefully curated, exhibitionism and the guarded ground where Connery lives as privately and mundanely as can be. He applies to the dangerously seductive art of movie masquerade Jimmy Malone’s first rule of law enforcement in The Untouchables: “When your shift is over, make sure you go home alive.” After his shift, Sean Connery, near-casualty of Bondmania in his 30s and People magazine’s “sexiest man alive” at 60, shuts up shop and goes home—to longtime monogamy and the serious game of golf.

Sean Connery and Kevin Costner in ‘The Untouchables.’ Photo credit: Paramount

Alec Baldwin, his costar in Hunt for Red October, calls Connery “the most physically beautiful man to stand in front of a camera.” Pauline Kael remarked his absolute “confidence in himself as a man…. I don’t know any man since Cary Grant that men have wanted to be so much.” Snapshots of the 22-year-old Scot as nearly nude art model and cocksure Mr. Universe contestant show the kind of easy, arrogant physicality few men can muster, even movie stars B.A. (Before Androgyny). In early films such as Time Lock, Action of the Tiger, Hell Drivers, and, yes, even Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People, Connery is a heated presence, oozing testosterone. As the drunken sailor who assaults Martine Carol in Action of the Tiger (1957) and a truck driver in chunky turtleneck who literally snatches up a passing woman for a dance in Hell Drivers (1958), he’s all thick, dark machismo, a Caliban on the way up. (Carol suggested he should have replaced washed-out wimp Van Johnson in Action as tough-guy lead.)

That excess of unfocussed energy is a bit much for the frame to hold; you fear Connery might bust out all over. Discovered singing “My darling Irish girl” and scything in Darby O’Gill‘s magical outdoors, our Celtic Pan levels one grand, unthreatening grin after another at his pretty colleen. But as she skips prettily away with a parting sally, his “Aren’t you a clever girl?” has the germ of something hard and dangerous in it. Unrepressed, that tone would grow into the grating, edged nasality with which James Bond, Connery’s civilized savage, aimed his hardball double-entendres.

“[He succeeded] on-screen because of the promise of force behind the smile—that’s what made the smile knowing. As a young man, especially without the “wink” of his mustache, he had a hard, menacing quality. He was like Jack Dempsey in a tuxedo—his integrity as natural and quick as the grin.” Writer-critic David Thomson catches Sean—boy and man—to a T … except he’s actually pegging Clark Gable, the former “King of Hollywood” whom Connery most recalls. Particularly as young men, the two share a signature expression: Amused, they cock heavy, dark brows, accents ague and grave respectively, to up the ante of the eyes’ level, suggestive gaze. Deep furrows—vertical dimples—bracket a sensualist’s smile, variously cruel and charming. Blue-collar boys, both parlayed every kind of silver-screen roguery into gold, though Gable had only John Huston’s The Misfits to crown his later years, while even mediocre movies fail to tarnish Connery’s ever-increasing majesty.

If Huston had gotten Gable, as he had hoped, for Danny Dravot in The Man Who Would Be King, the actor might have dispensed—as deftly as Connery—the sweet charm of a confidence man taken in by his own grift. But would he have caught Danny’s deep, natural nobility as a former British soldier and scam-artist aspiring to “civilize” Kafiristan? Connery, master of bodily signature, makes us literally see gravity weight his lighthearted “Tommy” into a second Alexander, possessed by dreams of empire and justice. And it’s hard to imagine that Gable could have achieved the brave boyishness with which Connery endows his big man’s final moments: his fears of losing the affections of his brother-in-arms (Michael Caine) allayed, another Huston player whose reach has exceeded his grasp sings his way to death, gaily cashing in his chips.

But check out 30-year-old Gable’s hardcase chauffeur—sans mustache—in William Wellman’ Night Nurse; beating up on Barbara Stanwyck, he conjures a blacker, low-class James Bond, whose license to kill is not yet sheathed in elegance. Similarly, in his sociopathic charm, brutality, and dissociation, Bond is like a great sleek wolf who’s slipped into a perfectly tailored Homo sapiens suit. But the predator’s mouth and aimed gaze give away the game. The thinner upper lip may signal good taste and control, but the lower pushes outward in sensual, animal appetite. Bond’s smirk of superiority—targeting men and women alike—can expand into a killer grin, white teeth bared, lips as avid as the skinned-back gums of a hungry beast. During his hi-tech hunts, 007’s sense of humor runs to estranging sarcasm and innuendo, private puns that mark out prey—for sex and/or death. It is the antithesis of Connery’s later twinkling wit and irony. A matter of private pleasure and public service, his seasoned smile enlarges and enlivens community.

***

The role that created Sean Connery as a star bid fair to consume him—on and off screen—before he entered his 40s. He was determined to divest himself of Bond’s gold-plated Kabuki mask, that caricature of exaggerated virility, before it took permanent root in the flesh that owned the franchise, letting nothing in or out alive. Against the backdrop of today’s amoral addiction to any form of 15-minute, break-the-bank fame, it’s all the more impressive that 32-year-old Connery could call on such a sure sense of self that he relentlessly pursued costumes he could live with and through—even if his sometimes outlandish disguises were worlds away from the simplistic heroics and perpetual hedonism of the redoubtable Bond.

Under Hitchcock’s tutelage in Marnie (1964), Connery channeled Bond’s suave savagery into one of the most perversely misogynistic performances ever. Hitchcockian scholars have enumerated the animal imagery that pervades every aspect of this surreal Beauty and the Beast; what is most striking is the almost Buñuelian relish with which Connery’s dark hunter manipulates his captive white rabbit (Tippi Hedren). As wealthy Mark Rutland (the name reeks of sexual license), Connery blackmails Hedren’s frigid, compulsive thief into marriage—deliberately trapping and raping, body and mind, a woman psychosexually arrested at about the age of 7. While Marnie runs through cover stories like a fast-action chameleon, Rutland’s eyes are never still, as swift to catch camouflaged flight as any predator. His quarry in psychological extremis, her mate’s face smoothes out into a mask of ruthless expectation—like a director who refuses to call “Cut!” as an actress goes off the deep end. Again and again, when another kind of hero would leap protectively to a woman’s side, Marnie’s “lover” remains adamantly still, watching, letting the rabbit play out its panic. It’s not so much voyeurism, although that’s there, too; rather, his gaze is as alien and as avid as a cat diverted by its food. Connery makes Rutland’s voice so grating, so hard, that it’s like a cruel whip, breaking a crazy, self-sufficient virgin down into a dependent, molested child who gives up self with her last words: “I’d rather stay with you.”

Marnie‘s not fun to watch. For an American film, Hitchcock’s “revenge” play (the white rabbit had rejected him) hinges on the kind of uneuphemized class and gender (and species?) wars more at home on the foreign film circuit. If Marnie had starred Catherine Deneuve and Michel Piccoli, kudos might have been forthcoming. In any case, Connery’s unregenerate, male otherness was on view, post-Marnie, in further Bonds, A Fine Madness (1966, as a poet who rants in righteous hatred at a roomful of withered philistines and bacchantes), Shalako (1968, coaching sex advert Brigitte Bardot on a bachelor’s “angle of arrogance”), and Zardoz (1974; his great, hairy Zed lounges in a cage, suggestively licking the hand of the girlish fellow who confides, “I like you, you shy old monster”).

Sean Connery in ‘The Wind and the Lion.’ Photo credit: Warner Bros.

Connery has never been a conventionally wooing lover, given to fondlings, caresses, and clinches. His richest pairings have been with Candice Bergen in The Wind and the Lion (1975), Audrey Hepburn—preeminently—in Robin and Marian (1976), Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House (90), and Julia Ormond in First Knight (1995)—this last cited only as a brief grace note. These are physically spare, even delicate actresses who attempt, with varying degrees of success, to project enormous strength of character as consorts to larger-than-life heroes. Refreshingly at home in his own gender, Connery doesn’t stretch or contort himself to bridge the space between male and female. Glamorous or grufty, vigorous or weary, he gazes across the gender gulf with an egalitarian directness that can be delighted, puzzled, appreciative, brutally indifferent, or affectionate—but never diminished. There’s often something of the father in his loving; he gauges the character of his many matriculated “sons” (Christopher Lambert, Christian Slater, Kevin Costner, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick, Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Richard Gere, Dennis Quaid) with much the same repertory of expressions.

Chaste yet fulfilling intercourse, postcoitum triste, and thrilling memory set the rhythm for many a Connery romance. In The Wind and the Lion, El Raisuli and Eden Pedicaris, the American woman he kidnaps along with her children, never touch physically. Connery’s gorgeous swashbuckler, a truly potent Peter Pan, seduces his Wendy by way of her imagination, not her flesh. And his disillusioned Robin Hood isn’t so much carnally inclined as he is hot for meaning, something that won’t dissolve at the first firm touch of the mind. “You had the sweetest body,” remembers Marian as she mourns over his terrible scars. And Connery cradles Audrey Hepburn’s fine-boned head in his big hands with such aching tenderness, it’s as though he held a chalice from which he might drink their youth. But death is his aphrodisiac. When she bids him goodbye—she can’t stand to watch him throw his life away—Rob’s even then looking through her: “What?”  Similarly, already riding off into some valorous tale by Scheherazade, the ever-poetic El Raisuli throws an irresistible grin around the woman he leaves behind, promising, “I will see you again when we are both like golden clouds in the wind.” In Robin and Marian, it’s a woman left behind for twenty years who ensures the legend will never decay into impotent, real life, by giving her lover the death that passed him by on the battlefield.

Not much in the way of passionate lovemaking occurs in The Russia House, but we can feel Michelle Pfeiffer’s matter-of-fact affection shaping Connery’s careless drunk, a bit of a Bohemian blowhard, into a decent man—even a hero. Tossing down vodka with a tableful of writers at a Russian dacha, Connery’s Barley Blair sounds off brave political clichés; he makes us grasp his formidable charm and the way that barleycorn charm can ring false. Later, the book peddler–turned–spy somehow fills up Pfeiffer’s Moscow kitchen when he bursts in to announce with gauche sincerity: “I love you. All my failings were preparations for meeting you. It’s mature, absolute, thrilling love.” The style is stodgy. Connery’s alchemy makes the substance pure gold.

And there’s a moment of lesser but still magical connection in First Knight: Arthur keeps a careful, appraising eye on his Guinevere, as they ride into a rejoicing Camelot. Almost boyishly, the white-haired groom waits on his bride’s reaction before responding himself to the display. Ormond’s queenly girl flashes a delighted grin at Arthur, and the mismatched pair touch with such surprising warmth, the old story seems briefly new.

***

In the long gallery of Connery characters, one can, from the start, trace a unique, willed shape-shifting from animal magnetism to humane mindfulness, from isolato to sensei, from beefcake commoner to glamored king. Clean-shaven and toupéed as cocksman Bond, Connery took careful measure of his masculinity to grow mustache and goatee—texture that framed and tempered his satyr’s mouth—and let his skull go largely naked. An autodidact and, in many ways, a self-created man, Connery has quietly stuck by certain signifiers of his origins, even as he instigated his own physical and intellectual evolution. (Just one telling personal note: “Big Tam” converted the million-dollar-plus salary he earned for what he meant to be his last Bond outing into a Scottish International Education Trust, a fund that supports talented young Scots.) Connery continued to sport his Royal Navy tattoos—”Mum and Dad,” “Scotland Forever”—and happily, against advice, retained the ever more richly burred Scots brogue.

The voice has aged into a Stradivarius of rich sibilants, breathy savorings, abrasive or velvety growls: “Words are like notes on a piano … you can change the meaning with a slight twist on a word, or even on a silence. Sometimes a look is the word. But all flows like music, and when it works it’s beautiful to hear.” Such music abounds in the Connery canon. Listen to the accelerating shriek in his outraged verbal assault on Harry Andrews’s hidebound military prison officer in The Hill (1965). As this good soldier’s voice skids toward madness, you can trace the downfall of Empire, and of faith in any order at all. Recall in The Man Who Would Be King (1975) the blank-verse lilt of Danny Dravot’s apology to Peachey Carnehan, as the two “detriments to the dignity of the Empire” make their last stand: “I am heartily sorry for getting you kilt on account of my being so bleedin’ high and bloody mighty instead of your going home a rich man like you deserved.”

Clearly, Connery enjoys the occasional indulgence in overripe delivery: sitting around a campfire in The Wind and the Lion, El Raisuli’s men and his American captives hang on every wonderfully un–Berber-like burr as he unravels the story of his youthful imprisonment by a disloyal brother. Teasing the rapt Mrs. Pedicaris, the consummate raconteur inquires, “Are you asleep?”

Just two years after Diamonds Are Forever (1971), in The Offence (1973), Connery played a cop—middle-aged, balding, shabby—infected by the urban horrors he’s witnessed. His weary, shamed “Come here!”—across an interrogation room—to a suspected child molester (Ian Bannen) signals awful consent to their “secret sharing.” Crushing the upright Bannen’s hand, pressing his great head into the slighter man’s chest, Connery touches each confessional phrase lightly, eerily without emphasis: “the thoughts in my head … help me if you can … please … if you know … my mind is full of things all the time … smooth white legs … thighs … breasts … blood … pain.” The Offence is a viscerally disturbing film, a nastily unresonant variation on Bergman’s Persona. One of his many antidotes to Bondage, it should have won Connery an Oscar: he, Vivien Merchant as his wife, Bannen, are perfectly married in sado-masochistic, mutual violations of flesh and soul.

Connery mostly plays Harrison Ford’s father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) for broad humor, creating a crotchety old fellow given to bullshit, distraction, and driving “Junior” into impotent rages. (It was Connery, however, who suggested dad be a sexual match for his boy.) But at the end of this rip-roaring boys’ adventure, Indy hangs by his father’s hand over a chasm, risking his life by reaching out for the grail that might give him immortality. Connery loads full-bore authority and father’s love into his hushed, carefully enunciated words: “Indiana. Let it go.” Not another line of dialogue is delivered with such dramatic force; it deserves a better, richer movie.

Paralleling the composition of vocal music is Connery’s careful search—a careerlong exercise—for the way his man might move: over 6 feet and heavily muscled, this former bodybuilder is remarkably precise, limber, in his choreography of character. Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman, the team who famously wagered on an unknown Connery for the first James Bond movie, worried he looked “like a bricklayer,” but couldn’t deny that their star “came alive” when he moved, “like a panther.” A decade later, in John Boorman’s mythic misfire Zardoz, Connery thrusts up out of a mound of grain like a phallic plant, costumed in a scant, red loincloth. All hirsute, brute physicality in a futureworld of androgynous immortals, Connery incarnates a fertility god with brains; he moves with such natural authority that his rampant, “incorrect” maleness works as mythic iconography, never degenerating into porn or caricature. I can’t think of another contemporary actor who could clothe such blatant exposure in such artless dignity.

Sean Connery and Michael Caine in ‘The Man Who Would Be King’ – Photo credit: Warner Bros.

In The Man Who Would Be King, the durable rapport between Danny Dravot and Peachey Carnehan is given form in the perfectly synchronized, noisy quickstep march with which the “brothers,” their arms swinging mightily, make a “vaudeville” entrance. Later, one can only marvel at massive Connery disguised as a turbaned dervish with braids, whirling about in long, belled skirts, as supple and lightfooted in dance as any woman.

Camping out with Robin and Marian‘s superannuated Merry Men, Connery’s Robin Hood rises stiffly from the ground in the misty morning, lifts his kilt so that the fire can warm up his cold buttocks, runs in place, then stands, spine stretched in a curve, with hands splayed back on hips. Just reaching up to scratch his balls, Robin catches sight of Marian and turns quickly away, as discombobulated as a boy. That’s a small dance that marks the weather of a certain age. In The Untouchables (1987), just before a fight on the Canadian border, Jimmy Malone and his G-men–sons wait it out, tensely, in a little cabin. Connery’s old cop moves easily, naturally around the room, passing out a few words or a pat, weaving rhythms of calm confidence—a little touch of Malone for every man. Finally he settles down to eat an apple in what has become the still, reliable center of the untouchables’ lives.

In the robes of Benedictine monk William of Baskerville for The Name of the Rose (1986), Connery raises a lantern to see his young novice Adso (Christian Slater) tossing in the throes of nightmare. When William reaches down to pat the boy’s head reassuringly, Adso grasps it as though his life depended on it. Awkwardly atilt, Connery considers for a moment, then relaxes massively against the stone wall—still holding the lantern—prepared to anchor his charge for the night. He’s a master of these gestures of paternal tenderness; another comes in First Knight, but it requires turning a blind eye to the unworthy “son” in the scene. Richard Gere’s Lancelot—having just snatched Guinevere from death—sits facing a fire and the camera, as a servant putters about behind him. We see new hands—Arthur’s—replace the servant’s, to wrap a shirt around the young man’s bare shoulders. Such largesse of affection is conveyed that it’s hard to believe only Connery’s hands have expressed it. “I can’t love in slices,” the king assures the bad boy (actor and role) he’s dignified with his embrace.

Few actors bring such noncompetitive, unthreatened authority to same-sex caresses. In The Offence there’s a truly stomach-turning moment when Connery’s kneeling cop begins feeling up the weak soul he believes has raped a little girl. All along, he chants the way he will “probe” his suspect’s mind, make him “feel pain like the little child did.” It’s the first of several ravishings the crazed policeman perpetrates in the arena of the interrogation room, as he tries to project his headful of horrors onto his scapegoat prisoner. More than a decade later, in Family Business (1989), Connery echoes that insistent fingering and fondling—for laughs. Seated face to face with Dustin Hoffman, who plays his son Vito, Connery puckishly lays a lascivious hand on Vito’s thigh—singing “What a day this has been!”—slides it around his waist—”It’s almost like being in love!”—and up his chest. A privileged moment in a relentlessly pedestrian movie.

In Highlander (1986)—all high romance in graying mane, a grandee’s pearl earring, velvet doublet, and flowing shirt—Connery’s 2,000-year-old Ramirez faces the camera, a little behind Christopher Lambert, to teach his protégé how to “feel” a stag. Taking ever larger draughts of air, Connery’s breathing slowly goes deeper, more resonant, as though unchambered from the barrel chest of a great deer. His eyes unfocus into an animal’s soulless gaze. The camera cuts to his bare foot pawing in the sand; then with a magnificent roar, Ramirez leaps away, bounding down the beach in purest joy. It’s a remarkable, exhilarating metamorphosis: Connery makes you see—and believe—him moving quicksilver-like from man to beast. Trouble is, the power of his personality and physical allure erases Lambert (“stupid haggis!”), as they do stolid Kevin Costner the following year in The Untouchables, and more recently, suety Richard Gere in First Knight (but not Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade—or Nicolas Cage in The Rock). Like the elder John Wayne, Connery is so large a presence that less charismatic co-stars run the danger of being “disappeared.”

***

Paying tribute to a lifetime of outstanding performances, we deliberately—and often legitimately—merge the dancer with the dance. For moviegoers, memories of so many big-screen avatars add mileage to a kind of mythic journey in which the actor seems to ride role after role toward his own brand of Grail, whether that’s Oscar or a crown of authentic, enduring character. Since early days, Sean Connery has insisted on separate frames for his public and private self-portraits, and he’s made it plain his screen personae are projections not only of self, but of hard work, skill and smarts. He’s shaped himself to the purple, coming to wear with rare wit and wisdom the movie mantles of Richard the Lion-hearted, King Arthur, Agamemnon, Kafiristan’s second Alexander the Great, and a host of other natural nobles.

This Prospero of so many brave new fictions has said that he’d “like to be remembered as an old man with a good face—like Picasso or Hitchcock.” With a slight alteration, this is the mask that fits like a second skin: Sean Connery, our old king with a good face.

Copyright ©1997 Kathleen Murphy

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