My mother isn’t the type to gush about other men. Ours wasn’t a family in which either she or my dad would talk about actors they thought were hot. The one exception was Sean Connery. My mom turned 13 around the time that Goldfinger — the preeminent James Bond movie, the one lots of people still consider the best of the series — came out, and the experience changed her. “He was the first man I considered sexy,” she told me this morning. “I don’t know if it was the accent or what.”
My mother was surely not alone in that assessment: For a generation of women and men, Connery (who died Saturday at the age of 90) represented pure sex appeal — and, in the process, gave moviegoers a vision of suave, rugged masculinity in the form of James Bond, a character he portrayed for almost a decade from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. Every actor who’s played 007 since has had to contend with Connery’s fingerprints on the role. It is hard to separate the actor from the character, just as it’s hard to wrest James Bond away from the Swinging Sixties vibe that became his trademark. But as we spend today mourning Connery’s passing and reflecting on his filmography, it’s hard also not to think about what was problematic about his brand of macho — and, by extension, Bond’s. Grant that Connery was a powerfully charismatic onscreen figure — compelling but also witty — and then acknowledge that the persona he brought to James Bond is, in some ways, as outdated as the attitude he evinced off camera.
Connery already had a film and theater career before signing up to play Ian Fleming’s famous spy. (“He was a damn good actor by then,” Terence Young, who directed Connery in some of the early Bond pictures, said in 1983. “He’d had stage success; he’d appeared in Macbeth, and he’d been brilliant in a Jean Giraudoux play called Judith, which played in the West End for about six months.”) But starting with 1962’s Dr. No, Connery became synonymous with the role, appearing in From Russia With Love and Goldfinger over the next two years. “The first two or three were fun,” Connery said years later. “The cast made it fun. Jumping out of planes was entertaining, although it was tough on my hair piece.” But just like nearly every actor who took on 007 afterward, he eventually tired of being associated with the martini-swigging, babe-bagging secret agent. “It became too dominant in everything I was doing,” he continued. “There was no way to compete with it and try to get any justifiable balance.”
Any proper obituary of Connery will mention his other film highlights, which include the terrific 1975 adventure picture The Man Who Would Be King with Micheal Caine, his Oscar-winning turn in The Untouchables, his sly comedic touch in blockbusters like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and The Rock, and his old-school movie-star elegance in smart thrillers such as The Hunt for Red October. It’s a formidable body of work.
But Bond will always be his greatest legacy, the actor locating the self-mocking humor in a character who was presented to audiences as God’s gift to women. Connery was more than capable of conveying 007’s swaggering, grownup sex appeal — his irresistible package of laidback cool and worldly smarts — but he also understood that there was something preposterous and unattainable about James Bond. The character was an idealized — more accurately, exaggerated — view of the womanizing sophisticate, the kind of guy who always had a quip and looked good in a suit. The movies made Bond perfect, and Connery understood that perfection wasn’t interesting, so he let us be in on the joke. “I am not James Bond,” he had to remind the press, but in the annals of iconic cinematic characters, he’s as important in crafting the DNA of an action hero — the very essence of what we think of a fictional human being — as any actor you can name.
I wish that was all there was to say. But in the wake of Connery’s passing, it’s been uncomfortable (but important) to remember the actor’s own views on women, which unfortunately dovetail with the less-appealing aspects of the James Bond mythos. In 1965, Connery gave a now-infamous interview to Playboy in which he was asked, “How do you feel about roughing up a woman, as Bond sometimes has to do?” As reprinted by Conduit Cut, this was his response. (Periods of ellipses are from the source):
“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 … if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it. I think a man has to be slightly advanced, ahead of the woman. I really do … by virtue of the way a man is built, if nothing else. But I wouldn’t call myself sadistic. I think one of the appeals that Bond has for women, however, is that he is decisive, cruel even. By their nature women aren’t decisive … ‘Shall I wear this? Shall I wear that?’ … and along comes a man who is absolutely sure of everything and he’s a godsend. And, of course, Bond is never in love with a girl and that helps. He always does what he wants, and women like that. It explains why so many women are crazy about men who don’t give a rap for them.”
While others have pointed out Connery’s comments about violence against women, the full quote is more illuminating because it speaks to a curdled masculine mindset of the era: You shouldn’t hit women but, y’know, they’re the weaker sex and sometimes they need a man to help sort them out. Also, women really love that sort of thing.
One can try to be somewhat forgiving — hey, it was a different time and, listen, Connery was most certainly not the only guy who felt this way — but because he connects his attitude to that of Bond’s, his quote articulates what’s always been inherently troublesome about the 007 movies. Sure, Connery had a light touch as Bond, but the character treats women as props and playthings. Even in a film as great as Goldfinger, it’s clear that the damsels have to get out of his way. They’re debased for punchlines — they’re sexual conquests that are the reward for a job well done. As Connery pointed out, Bond doesn’t really ever love any of the so-called Bond girls. “He always does what he wants, and women like that”: That might as well be the playbook for so many insecure young guys when they’re first trying to date. (Treat ‘em like shit and they’ll come back for more.) This attitude wasn’t considered abhorrent — it was popularized by a sexy man driving an awesome car in hit movies. If anything, it was considered the height of gentlemanly sophistication.
Unfortunately, it appears that Connery’s comment wasn’t merely theoretical. His wife at the time, Diane Cilento, later accused him of being physically abusive. “There was physical contact, but it is important to see it in context,” she said in 2005. “You have got to remember he was probably twice my weight.” And although he denied those accusations, he was unapologetic when Barbara Walters confronted him on camera in 1987 about his Playboy remarks. “I haven’t changed my opinion,” he said, and then proceeded to dig a bigger hole for himself when he tried to rationalize his beliefs:
In 2006, Connery officially reversed his viewpoint, suggesting he never supported the idea of hitting a woman. And, for the record, he married his second wife, Micheline Roquebrune, in 1975, their relationship only ending because of his death. We’ve all heard enough stories about bad men abusing women that we no longer should be shocked that some of our most beloved movie stars faced such accusations. And it’s still possible to love Connery’s work, admiring how he gave the world a one-of-a-kind superspy that remains deeply embedded in the culture.
But consider how James Bond himself has been rethought in recent years with Daniel Craig in the role. 007 still beds plenty of women, still has all the gadgets and the swagger. But, in small ways, James Bond has tried to evolve, becoming less of a glib misogynist and, if not quite a feminist, at least a guy who respects women. The Craig films have replaced the sexy, subservient secretary Miss Moneypenny with an assertive field operative played by Naomie Harris, whom Bond values for her brains as much as anything else. (They still flirt like crazy, but you sense that Moneypenny is now on equal footing with her colleague.) And when, in the 2015 film Spectre, in which Bond seduces Monica Bellucci’s character, someone on the press tour noted that the spy was “succumbing to the charms of an older woman,” Craig took umbrage. “I think you mean the charms of a woman his own age,” he said. “We’re talking about Monica Bellucci, for heaven’s sake. When someone like that wants to be a Bond girl, you just count yourself lucky!”
Again, no one should hand out trophies to the Bond franchise for its slightly more enlightened viewpoint of late. But it does suggest that even the gatekeepers of this franchise — which has long championed a cavalier womanizer — understand that Bond runs the risk of being a cultural relic if he’s not rethought.
Lots of boys grow up watching James Bond, looking to him for guidance on being successful with the ladies. (And lots of women grow up thinking of him as the ideal man.) Eventually, most of us realize that all the accoutrements and attitudes are badly outdated, but that sustaining idea of what 007 means — what he represents as a modern man — stubbornly remains. The guy was always a fantasy, but those early films now reveal that the fantasy was also sexist and a bit gross. Times change and attitudes evolve. You see it happening with James Bond. My hope is that was the case with Sean Connery, too.