By Jonah Goldberg
Look, everyone loves Sean Connery, particularly Sean Connery. That’s why he plays Sean Connery in every movie he’s in. People love that Scottish brogue so much, they don’t mind that he has it when he plays Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez, an immortal Spaniard in Highlander. The guy even won an Oscar for playing an Irish cop with a Scottish accent. Talk about sexist double standards: Meryl Streep has to master foreign dialects to get her golden statuettes. Connery just has to show up on time.
In economics you devalue a currency by printing too much of it. In film you devalue a role by reprising it over and over again. If JFK had lived, his historical standing today might put him in the Rutherford B. Hayes category. But he died, and the mythmaking began. If Sean Connery had died after filming 1967’s You Only Live Twice, his name would be written into the firmament as the greatest Bond of all time.
The posters for You Only Live Twice read “Sean Connery IS James Bond” to differentiate it from the Bond parody Casino Royale, released about the same time. You Only Live Twice was to be his last Bond movie. Never again, Connery vowed, would he BE Bond. That is, until he came back to do the aptly titled Never Say Never Again.
I bring all of this up because any case for Daniel Craig as the best James Bond must make the case against Sean Connery as the best Bond. Connery made his name as an invincible badass lothario British agent and has since been an invincible badass lothario everything else: an invincible badass lothario professor of literature (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), an IBL thief (Entrapment), an IBL adventurer (League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), an IBL medical researcher (Medicine Man), and so on. Sure, the posters had it right at the time: Sean Connery IS James Bond. But because Connery so Schwarzeneggerified himself—same guy, different role in every film—it’s hard to re-watch his old movies and not think “this James Bond is JUST Sean Connery.” His stint in Her Majesty’s secret service was simply the first of many opportunities to play himself.
Take Sean Connery out of the running and there is no running. It’s Daniel Craig by a mile. Roger Moore had his strengths, but he rode the franchise into its campiest and most formulaic craptacularity. Pierce Brosnan and Timothy Dalton tried valiantly to pull the franchise out of the pits of cliché, but the climb was too steep for their talents. (Though Brosnan, happily, improved his mountaineering while summiting the mediocre heights of Dante’s Peak.)
Craig, meanwhile, is a real actor. Watching Craig in Road to Perdition or Munich—or, I gather, on stage—you don’t see James Bond; you see an artist realizing the potential of the role. As a result, Daniel Craig’s reboot of 007 is vastly more believable. Yes, Craig is still portraying Bond, with all the implausibility that includes, but he gives the viewer enough to suspend belief. It’s the difference between Christian Bale’s Dark Knight and George Clooney’s Guy in a Batman Suit.
The Dark Knight example is important for another reason. These days superhero movies—and let’s be honest, James Bond is a superhero—are a dime a dozen. A franchise like James Bond must either step up its game or go out of business. Daniel Craig steps up.
Craig’s Bond is a tortured soul whose demons are never far from the surface. In Casino Royale, he is at once eager to become a professional killer and clearly tormented by his own eagerness. For Connery loyalists, this may seem a great betrayal. To humanize Bond is to ruin him. But I think this wrongheaded. In an era of Bourne movies where the good guy is the guy who turns on his evil government handlers, it is refreshing—I would argue obligatory—to make a man who kills for God and Country more plausible.
In the movie business, conventional wisdom has it that in order to succeed at the box office, a film must include profanity, obscenity, blood, gore, blaspheme and, of course, lots of sex. There’s just one little problem with this theory: Empirical data illustrates that the opposite is true. Clean, wholesome, family affairs generally do much better at the till. Yet violence without motive and crime committed at random continue to be the order of the day. That awful Quentin Tarantino leads the pack among the talentless directors now forming our culture. His dialogue is mostly mindless, he makes no distinction between right and wrong, and most of his characters wallow in brutality. His point is slaughter for slaughter’s sake, and in slow motion to boot, lest we miss any of flying globules of blood.
This pattern of honoring ugliness is a recent phenomenon. The message seems to be that portrayals of cruelty and dementia deserve more serious consideration, more automatic respect, than any attempt to convey nobility or goodness. Over the past thirty years, the most influential leaders of the entertainment industry have demonstrated a powerful preference for the perverse. Even the stars have followed this pattern. During the golden era of Hollywood—the 1930s to the 1960s—stars were different from you and me. They looked, talked, and lived better, and had replaced the millionaire robber barons as the dream figures in the popular imagination. Now they look as grubby as the characters they portray on the screen, or, better yet, like homeless people. They talk like thugs, act like drug dealers, menace fans and waiters alike, and are mostly incapable of stringing a sentence together without repeating the word “like” ad nauseam.
Which brings me to the point of my story: I mostly live in Gstaad, Switzerland, an alpine village that turns ugly only during Christmas and the month of February. The rest of the time the extremely rich people who own chalets here are off screwing their fellow man elsewhere. Two men, both of whom I met and befriended in Gstaad, have been knighted by the Queen. Both played 007, and both are gentlemen of the old school. They are Sir Sean Connery and Sir Roger Moore, the latter a friend of long standing.
Let’s start with Sean, the first James Bond. The irony is that the producer, Cubby Broccoli, wanted Roger Moore to play Fleming’s hero, but Roger was unavailable and under contract playing another Bond-like G-man. So the unknown Connery was picked, and the rest you know all about. Sean Connery happens to be a very good actor. He played Bond with confidence and a sense of humor. He openly womanized and chased the fairer sex and ignored the outraged cries of hairy feminists who thought him a male chauvinist pig. “Proud of it,” he’d mumble. In Dr. No, the first Bond picture, the women swooned. He flirted with secretaries, bedded easy women, and ended up with Ursula Andress, a Swiss lassie who emerged from the sea and into his powerful arms. He played Bond like a man, never questioning himself, because he knew he was on God’s side. Connery, incidentally, told me a funny story about that particular movie. They were shooting in Jamaica, and the master himself, Noel Coward, a longtime resident of the island, came down for a look see. He introduced himself to Sean and asked if he could come to dinner that evening. Connery accepted with alacrity. Upon arrival, Sean noticed the dinner table was set for only two. He nevertheless sat down eager to get to know the legend that was Sir Noel. The first question from his host was, “Are you homosexual?” “Hell no,” said Sean, fully aware of Noel Coward’s proclivities. “But you were in the navy,” said Sir Noel. “It doesn’t mean a thing, I’m no homo and don’t plan to become one,” thundered the Scot.
“So the subject never came up again and the two of us became great friends and stayed great friends until he died,” Sean told me years later. He and his wife—a dynamo who is more politically incorrect than even this writer—only come to Gstaad in summer. What you get is what you see in the screen, a real man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
Sir Roger used to live in Gstaad but left for a nearby ski resort in order not to cause pain to his Italian wife and mother of his children once their divorce came through. (I am very close to his son Jeffrey and his family who live nearby me.) Moore introduced self-deprecation and lots of humor to the Bond role, and he ad-libbed most of the double entendres that he alone made famous. He was sardonic, more romantic, and less chauvinistic than Sean, and he wore a dinner jacket better. In real life Roger is simply wonderful. Full of stories and jokes, he is a true gent and has wonderful taste. When he and Jeffrey went to Florence recently, they got lost in one of those endless roundabouts leaving the historic city and stopped traffic as they were desperately looking for an exit sign. The cops soon arrived and whistled them off the road. An officer approached. When he saw Roger he did a double take and then yelled into his two-way radio to his partner: “Giovanni, es zero zero sette.” The cops then opened the way for them and with sirens wailing escorted the two Moores all the way to the highway. Noblesse oblige, as they say.
The tongue-in-cheek Moore Bond contrasted well with the thug-that-walked-like-a-cat Connery Bond. The two are good friends, incidentally. But like everything in life, both Bonds gave up the role as they aged, however gracefully. And like everything else, Bonds have not improved in these last thirty years. Timothy Dalton was sartorially off the peg and also too introspective. Pierce Brosnan was much too frothy, with not enough backbone or grit. Daniel Craig is a reflection of today. He looks like a London cabbie. And the scriptwriters have got away from the formula. The Bourne Identity syndrome, I call it, the hero who doesn’t know who he is. But as another hero once said to a pretty woman, we’ll always have Paris. And I say to you, dear readers, we’ll always have the video. Flip on the DVD and enjoy the two best Bonds—Connery and Moore—anytime you like.