One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 22
By Laurence Lerman
Even as we’ve been barraged by coverage of the election over the past few weeks, abetted by the executive branch and the Grand Old (read: senile) Party’s certifiable behavior regarding the election’s certification, the month’s second most reported story—a close second—has been on the life, career and passing of Sean Connery at the age of 90 on October 31. As a years-long fan of the actor, Reel Streaming is proud to add to that still-growing collection of tributes and appraisals!
Sean Connery’s signature role as superspy James Bond in seven films produced over a 20-year period—17 hours of celluloid, in toto—proved to be the ultimate trick-or-treat for the legendary movie star who died on Halloween. Through the alchemy of his looks, talent, attitude, brio and unstoppable physicality, Connery created a wholly fictional “secret agent” persona that the whole world believed in or, at the very least, wanted to be real. If only the real-life intelligence community yielded such genuine specimens as Connery’s James Bond, the world would be a smoother, sexier and, yes, safer place.
Following 1971’s Diamonds are Forever, his sixth Bond outing, Connery embarked on the trickiest decade of what was to be an active 50-year acting career. It just wasn’t happening for Sean in the Seventies—more on that later—but he definitely returned to stylish form in the early Eighties. But it took him just about a decade, a dozen hit-or-miss and often forgettable projects and Terry Gilliam’s 1981 fantasy adventure Time Bandits to get there.
As the story goes, director Gilliam and co-screenwriter Michael Palin’s Time Bandits script actually states in the scene where Agamemnon defeats a Minotaur in battle that the king then pulls off his visored helmet and “reveals himself to be none other than Sean Connery or an actor of equal or cheaper stature."
As the pages circulated around the filmmaking community, word of his exalted stature in the script (which Gilliam only recently claims to have been a joke) made it back to Connery’s people. And several months later, Connery was on location at the Time Bandits set in Morocco, regally crafting the role of King Agamemnon. It was the then 50-year-old Connery’s performance of the steadfast and true Greek king of antiquity--at that time and in that film—that launched the subsequent two decades of his career as a mythologized cinema statesman, which bestowed upon him the status, respect and, most importantly, acting opportunities he had worked toward since the dawn of his career in the mid-1950s. From that point on, truly, he was frequently regarded by critics and audiences as being bigger than the movies he appeared in.
The Eighties yielded Connery such successes as The Name of the Rose (1986), Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade (1989) and 1987’s The Untouchables, for which he won his sole Academy Award. The Nineties found him equally triumphant and box office-worthy in The Hunt for Red October (1990), The Russia House (1990), Rising Sun (1993), The Rock (1996) and Entrapment (1999).
(An aside: Though not a box office smash, 1981’s well-regarded Outland helmed by Peter Hyams—a reworking of High Noon in outer space with Connery’s marshal getting into a showdown at a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moon—is an integral and criminally underappreciated chapter in Connery’s post-Seventies resurgence.)
For me, it was those other roles Connery wangled between Bond films during his rise to superstardom in the Sixties and immediately thereafter in the Seventies that were the most curious. Those were the ones that revealed Connery was not content to coast through middle age on 007’s fumes (at least, not until the price was right for his return as Bond in 1983’s Never Say Never Again). The 1975 John Huston-directed Rudyard Kipling adaptation The Man Who Would Be King, with Connery playing opposite Michael Caine, the middle-aged Robin Hood tale Robin and Marion (1976) co-starring Audrey Hepburn and Michael Crichton’s 1978 period heist movie The Great Train Robbery are finest of the finest of these efforts. But there are others…
First, it’s worth noting that Connery had amassed a couple of dozen credits as a supporting player in the years running up to his 1962 Bond debut in Dr. No. And there were some larger parts, as well, beginning with the 1959 Irish fantasy Darby O’Gill and the Little People. That fun was followed by a couple of Shakespeare adaptations for British TV—getting fired up as Hotspur in Henry IV (1960) and then taking on Macbeth in a 1961 production of “The Scottish Play” opposite the great Zoe Caldwell. (There’s a nice symmetry to the notion of the world’s most famous Scotsman portraying the theater’s most infamous Scotsman, isn’t there?)
Following his underappreciated appearance in Hitchcock’s tricky but reappraisal-worthy Marnie (1964), Connery’s strangest attempt at De-Bonding his brand was 1966’s shaggy rom-com-drama A Fine Madness. It finds Connery hitting Manhattan as Samson Shillitoe, an angry, womanizing Greenwich Village poet plagued with writer’s block who sees a psychiatrist to work out his problems, but ends up getting his relief from said shrink’s wife. (And as she’s portrayed by Jean Seberg, who could blame him?)
Co-starring Joanne Woodward as Rhoda, Samson’s long-suffering spouse, and such familiar-faced character players as John Fiedler, Sorrell Booke and Jackie Coogan, it’s exuberantly directed by Irwin Kershner with an eye for good NYC location work. Connery, putting aside his brogue for a not-quite New York accent, doesn’t really click as the poet, but he acquits himself comfortably when it comes to the anger and womanizing.
In the not-bad 1971 heist flick The Anderson Tapes, Connery is an ex-con (ex-Connery?) who attempts to engineer the robbery of an entire apartment complex, not knowing that his every move is under video and audio surveillance. Again, there’s a solid supporting cast on hand, including Dyan Cannon, Ralph Meeker, Alan King, Margaret Hamilton and a young Christopher Walken.
The Anderson Tapes is one of five collaborations Connery had with director Sidney Lumet over a 25-year period. There was also The Hill (1965) and The Offence (1973), two tough-as-nails dramas based on plays—the first about a British military detention camp in the Libyan desert, the second concerning an embittered police inspector conducting a brutal interrogation of a rape suspect. The other two, both considerably lighter, were the glittery 1974 Agatha Christie whodunit Murder on the Orient Express and the surprisingly boring crime comedy Family Business, which starred Connery, Dustin Hoffman and Matthew Broderick as three generations of thieves.
Then there are the other other films, the ones that aren’t discussed all that often—ones like Cuba, Richard Lester’s atmospheric but pointless 1979 melodrama about the weeks leading up the 1958 Cuban revolution, with Connery sweating bullets as a British mercenary taking the cash to train Battista’s troops to resist Castro’s revolt; 1974’s cheap-looking thriller The Terrorists, which finds Connery as a Scandinavian security chief (!) combating a group of hijackers in the fictional country of “Scandinavia;” Connery playing an idealistic Saudi American diplomat (!!) who gets behind the recognition of the State of Israel in the ridiculous 1976 political thriller The Next Man (which finished third the week it opened theatrically, behind the Charlton Heston football thriller Two Minute Warning and the raucous comedy Car Wash); Ronald Neame’s godawful 1979 all-star disaster film Meteor, featuring a scene where Connery’s frustrated American scientist snarls, “Why don’t you stick a broom up my ass? I can sweep the carpet on the way out.”
Oh, and then there’s Zardoz.
One of the first films Connery starred in following his second “official” departure from the Bond series, John Boorman’s 1974 sci-fi fantasy is set in a dystopian world of tomorrow. The futuristic landscape is populated by a group of immortals, The Eternals, who live in splendor, while another group, the rifle-toting Brutals, violently scrape by in a barren wasteland. Travelling between the two is a flying, oversized stone god known as “Zardoz,” who prophetically makes proclamations like, “The gun is good! The penis is evil!”
Zardoz is a real out-there, baffling-bordering-on-incoherent film with a kind of bizarre internal logic that’s helped to generate an impressive cult following over the years, along with Connery’s dedicated star turn as a Brutal named Zed. Clad in a blood-red loin cloth, thigh-high boots and a yard-long pony tail, Zed’s get-up has inspired plenty of fringe Halloween costumes over the years, while his coupling with sexy co-star Charlotte Rampling tapped into just as many reveries.
It’s strange to think that immediately after Connery hung up his tuxedo, he leapt as far outside the box as he could, locking and loading and screwing into a futuristic diaper. Perhaps for him it marked the kind of rebirth he had been seeking when he put Bond to bed. Or maybe, like the fleeting nature of making movies or Bond itself, it was just another way of taking something totally fictional and bringing it to vivid and sometimes startling life.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.