The image of Sean Connery, who was born working-class parents in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 25, 1930 and whose death was confirmed at age 90 today, was long encased in amber, with a career spanning over five decades. Policeman, con man, manipulator, lover, the image of Connery effectively surpassed his moving and corporeal form. And while his varied body of work certainly shaped our understanding of his career and intricacies as a performer, it was one role in particular that granted him a status that nearly transcends stardom. But his creation and performance of James Bond, first appearing in Dr. No, and his history as an abusive partner are, rather than isolated from one another, uncomfortably inextricable.
James Bond himself, making his debut in 1954 in Casino Royale, has always been burdened by the distinctly post-war politics of its creator: as M (Judi Dench) declared bluntly in 1995’s GoldenEye (to a Bond who was in transition, no less), he is a “sexist, misogynist dinosaur, a relic of the Cold War.” Bond’s author, Ian Fleming, too, was infected with a rigid sense of machismo and nationalism, which extended into the abuse of his lover, Edith Morpurgo. So, too, would that kind of misogyny spread like unwashable ink into the character he would write: harsh, unfeeling, coarse. The iconography of James Bond went into tailspin when Connery entered the role, but Fleming sought for his readers to have a bit more ambivalence and distance from the spy’s uneasy combination of charm and fury.
Both Connery’s portrayal of Bond and his personal history are crucial to understand precisely because of the strange, almost pleasurably parasitic relationship that existed between James Bond and a cultural conception of masculinity. In conjunction with the source material (though Connery was never Fleming’s first choice), the Scottish actor designed a rubric through which an evolving Cold War body of male being could be legible and understood. In Dr. No and From Russia with Love down into his later career turns as 007 in Diamonds Are Forever and even the Thunderball re-adaptation of Never Say Never Again, Connery’s James Bond is captured in daguerreotype, unchanging in its aggressive appeal, physicality and archness. He smolders, a recently put-out cigarette from a nicked, worn case, whose wear is what is alluring, not because it’s naturally so, but because his stance, the weight he distributes between his feet when he leans, and the look in his eye where you remain unsure if he’ll have you in cuffs for good or for bad are both original and innate charisma, and also the amalgam of previous screen stars (say, Cary Grant or even Clark Gable, but more violent). But the way he peered at Ursula Andress walking from the water? That was him.
Sean Connery’s James Bond was smoke and fire, unfurling inconspicuously over a game of Baccarat one moment and using a woman’s bra like a garrote wire the next, slinking into someone’s bathroom and sheepishly saying, “Look, no hands!” here and throwing a more Aryan villain up against the wall of the Orient Express there. The history of James Bond, of Connery’s performance, is mired in anxious attraction and repulsion, a complicated and disturbed and, until relatively recently in the franchise, unquestioned suggestion that our superhero and settler of all geopolitical scores and rivalries just does that kind of thing. Connery—whose ex-wife Diane Cilento spoke of his alleged abuse in 2005 and with whom he had been since 1962, the year Dr. No premiered—has practically embedded this abusive behavior in his career, his attitude about it as disconcertingly cool as that of the fictional character would probably have been, saying once in Playboy in 1965, “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman … although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man. An openhanded slap is justified…” (He hedged around his views with Barbara Walters in 1987.) That kind of abuse certainly would go on to shape the character, with Roger Moore twisting Maud Adams’ arm in The Man with the Golden Gun in 1974.
But Connery’s formation of James Bond began, fairly rapidly and despite the fact that the Bond films were and always have been to varying degrees in conversation or in reaction to the socio-cultural landscape around them, to look weary—like an idea of manhood, or of gender more broadly, being gradually displaced or at least dissonant with its contemporary peers. Gloria Steinam’s Ms. Magazine launched in December 1971, an indicator of the attention being shown to gender inequity. Diamonds Are Forever, Connery’s last official Bond film, also premiered in December 1971. Though he had lived through, and barely acknowledged the American Civil Rights Movement, the snail’s pace of gender equality would only incrementally force a version of the character, that had necessarily become the groundwork on which all ideas are built, to confront the ramifications of those actions. (Moore’s performance provides a bit of a strange whiplash, inheriting the worst of Connery’s savagery in The Man with the Golden Gun and then seeming to mostly shed it in the next film, 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and onward.) Could the meta-text of Connery’s star persona be found in other performances, too, like Hitchcock’s Marnie and Murder on the Orient Express?
If James Bond, the character in the book, still (in essence) borne of and marred by an understanding of masculinity that not only permitted but basically encouraged abuse toward women, was supposed to be a character of more dubious matter, the confluence of star-making and Connery’s own tendencies and ability to burn up the screen, the James Bond we know now is a figure that is always reconciling with or shaking off the ghosts of his past. True, this was the James Bond I fell in love with when I begged my mother to buy me Dr. No on DVD in 2000, whose effortless pulchritude and glamor ushered me into a lifelong fascination with the character and franchise and its melange of social and political implications. (Admittedly, it’s frustrating to have such complicated feelings about one of the only celebrity deaths I’ll care about. Or rather, it sucks that Connery was a cruel person.) But, what might be useful as a framework through which to understand Sean Connery, male stardom and James Bond, is to question our attraction to such figures. Writer Nicole Cliffe wrote on Twitter a while back that it’s more useful to think of “charm” not as an adjective, but as a verb. James Bond, who is stained by the legacy of British Imperialism and colonialism, misogyny, racism, etc., is not charming, adjective. James Bond is trying to charm you, verb. So was Sean Connery.