1964: Actor Sean Connery poses as James Bond next to his Aston Martin DB5 in a scene from the United Artists release 'Goldfinger' in 1964 (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
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Sean Connery: the man beyond Bond

Who was the “real” Sean Connery?

When the death of Sir Sean Connery, at the age of 90, was announced last weekend, the reactions were generally unanimous. He had been the greatest of all the actors to play James Bond, a credit to Scotland and one of the finest film actors of the 20th century. The Sun announced that he had ascended to “double o heaven”, and the Mail on Sunday described Connery as “the world’s greatest Scotsman”. Even Donald Trump weighed in with his own tribute, (inaccurately) claiming that Connery had offered his personal support for his Scottish golf course.

Just as swift as the veneration came the opprobrium, revolving around Connery’s alleged wife-beating. One journalist of my acquaintance wrote, “I understand that people are multifaceted and shouldn’t be reduced to their flaws, and I don’t buy into cancel culture or deny that he was an exceptional icon, but this feels like a major and irredeemable character flaw rather than [a] blot on a life.” So, who was the “real” Sean Connery? The last of the great cinematic icons, a nasty piece of work whose fame blinded his fans to his flaws, or something else altogether?

Connery embodied the role of 007 with enormous machismo and charisma

He will be remembered, of course, for having been the first 007. The stories about how he won the role have passed into legend, and have been repeated elsewhere, but it was interesting that Connery, a young working-class Scot without many films to his name, only took the role after the older and statelier likes of Cary Grant and Rex Harrison had passed on it. It’s also telling that the actor who would have made the most interesting Bond in 1962, Dirk Bogarde, was not even approached. But Connery embodied the role with enormous machismo and charisma. It was not for nothing, three decades later, that the character of Sick Boy in Trainspotting, obsessed by all things Sean, says admiringly and accurately of him that, “in those days, he was a muscular actor, in every sense, with all the presence of someone like Cooper or Lancaster, but combined with a sly wit to make him a formidable romantic lead, closer in that respect to Cary Grant.”

Sick Boy was not wrong. Connery’s skill as an actor was to make Bond seem a dangerous and virile presence, close to Fleming’s description of him as a “thug in a Savile Row suit”, and one who seemed to genuinely relish the fighting and beatings that he indulged in, just as much as his love scenes with endless beautiful women or his flirtation with Miss Moneypenny. Of the Bond films that he made, two were amongst the greatest in the canon (From Russia with Love and Goldfinger), three were accomplished and witty adventures (Dr No, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice), and only his last two appearances in the role, Diamonds Are Forever and the non-canonical spin-off Never Say Never Again felt like an actor going through the motions. But his reputation and bankability were assured from very early on, and he used this fame to pursue other, riskier projects, both in art and life.

It comes as a surprise to realise that Connery’s most consistent collaborator was the energetic New York director Sidney Lumet, with whom he made five films over his career. These ranged from the ephemeral (1989’s comedy Family Business) to the essential. Lumet was the first major director to realise that Connery’s brutish, glowering presence could be subverted, and the 1965 film The Hill, following the fortunes of convicts in a tough military prison, was one of the actor’s own favourites. Although it was underrated on release (one critic called it “a James Bond film with no women in it”, which was one of the first indications that its star would struggle to escape his typecasting), it has come to be regarded as a classic.

Lumet was enamoured of Connery, saying of him that “he is real and tough and not at all smooth and nice”. He would tap into this toughness most successfully in the little-known 1973 film The Offence, in which Connery, perhaps drawing on rumoured trouble in his personal life, played a mentally unstable police officer who brutally assaults a suspected paedophile while confronting his own fantasies of violence and rape. It was only made because Connery insisted on its production as a condition of his return to the Bond role in Diamonds are Forever, and it failed to recoup its low budget for years.

The science fiction film ‘Zardoz’ (1974), directed by John Boorman, starred Connery as ‘Zed’. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

Like many of his earlier roles, The Offence seemed to indicate that Connery was easily bored as an actor and wanted to be challenged. He worked with auteur directors like Hitchcock, John Boorman and John Huston, sometimes to memorable effect (as in Huston’s legendary The Man Who Would Be King, his sole collaboration with his friend Michael Caine) and sometimes disastrously. The image of him moustachioed, pony tailed and clad in a red posing pouch meant that the provocative philosophical ideas of Boorman’s Zardoz were obscured by the camp value of its leading man’s appearance.

As his career wore on, the boredom seemed to increase

And as his career wore on, the boredom seemed to increase. He often seemed more interested in roles that played on his iconic status than those allowed him to interpret a part, and seldom if ever bothered to alter his Scottish accent, meaning that Russian, Saudi Arabian and Spanish characters were all portrayed with the same Edinburgh burr. His most interesting later films were either those, as in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade or The Rock, that allowed him to display a welcome sense of humour and a hint of self-parody, or the ones that successfully channelled his charisma into a dynamic part. He deservedly won an Oscar for his role as the incorruptible cop Jim Malone in The Untouchables, spitting out some of the best lines in David Mamet’s script with relish, even if his accent was a long way distant from Irish-American: “You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.”

He remained steadfast in his support for Scotland, despite not having lived in the country since the Seventies. He was a considerable financial donor to the SNP until legislation was passed in 2001 to outlaw funding of political parties from foreign sources. Connery remained a vital presence at the Edinburgh Film Festival for many years, and fully supported Scotland’s attempts to obtain independence in 2014, even if he was prevented from campaigning in person by both his advancing age and his perennial status as a tax exile. Famously, he had a tattoo on his right shoulder saying “Scotland Forever”, and it seemed to be a perennial news story that Connery was on the verge of leaving his Bahamas estate and returning home to spend his final days as a laird of some grand mansion. Unsurprisingly, this did not come to pass.

From the Nineties onwards, he seemed more interested in his political activities and golf than the films he made, which often felt as if they had been dashed off to make him a few million here and there. Few would watch Just Case, Rising Sun or Entrapment and believe that this was the work of a great actor. On the occasions that he did attempt to play against type, as in his portrayal of a reclusive Salinger-esque writer in Gus van Sant’s Finding Forrester, his growling machismo would often dominate both the role and his co-stars, who seemed overawed when on screen with him. The final film in which he appeared, 2003’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, was particularly poor and led to his retirement from acting. It was nonetheless remarkable that, well into his seventies, he was still considered a bankable leading man, while most of his peers had long since retreated into cameos and supporting work.

Connery was a more complex and flawed man than his admirers would be comfortable admitting

And this bankability survived consistent rumours about his wife-beating, which has been regarded, correctly, as a major flaw rather than a regrettable peccadillo. His first wife Diane Cilento wrote in her autobiography that Connery used to attack her, on one occasion hitting her so viciously that she was thrown to the floor. He denied the allegations, calling them “a crock of shit” and her “an insane woman”. Nonetheless, he was quoted by Playboy in 1965 as saying “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” and that “If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.” He continued to justify these opinions two decades later, saying to the interviewer Barbara Walters that “I don’t think it’s that bad. I think it depends entirely on the circumstances and if it merits it.” By 2006, he had publicly rejected these views, letting it be known that “I don’t believe that any level of abuse of women is ever justified under any circumstances”. The damage had been done to his reputation, even if none other than Alex Salmond tried to defend him, calling it a “40-year old misquotation” and that he had behaved impeccably throughout his life and career.

As Connery was never charged with or convicted of domestic abuse, the rumours and accusations remain hearsay, even if his own offhand attitude towards discussing his actions made it hard for even the most committed of his admirers to defend him unequivocally. Yet just as Kirk Douglas’s death earlier this year led to an outpouring of posthumous abuse for his alleged sexual assault of Natalie Wood, so Connery will now always be regarded as a problematic and violent man, perhaps with some justification.

His strengths as an actor, not least as James Bond, revolved around his characters’ capacity for sudden, unequivocal and often brutal action, and his charisma and charm could not obscure the seething rage beneath the well-cut suits. If it was the case that this was as much a facet of his life as his art, then it would not be entirely surprising. Connery, for all of his iconic and legendary status, was a more complex and flawed man than his admirers would be comfortable admitting. Some of the more laudatory tributes could have done with acknowledging this dark side, and accepting its place in his life and work, rather than glossing over it with bad puns.

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