Tom Jolliffe looks at the career and lasting legacy of the late Sean Connery, one of the most charismatic screen presences in cinema history…
Cinema mourns the passing of another icon. For many this one will pack a weighty punch. Sean Connery was the man who became the first major face of a franchise we’re still talking about daily, some 58 years later. As James Bond who personified cool and effortless magnetism. Anyone with a passing interest in James Bond, particularly in the UK, will have their favourite Bond. I’ve always been in the Connery camp. Not just because he was the first (because in actuality, his first films were before my time), but because no one was quite as nonchalantly badass as Sean. I’ll add too, that there hasn’t been a Bond I didn’t like, but Connery had almost everything.
As the iconic spy, Connery was launched as a major star having been something of a journeyman for the first decade of his career. The beefy Scot certainly had presence, that went beyond an impressive physique and rugged looks. He just had screen charisma to burn, but in playing Bond he found the perfect vehicle to develop that magnetism further. Whether deathly intense, or devilishly wry, Connery’s winning charm worked perfectly. It would be a formula he’d carry throughout his career with great skill, but in addition, he consistently proved himself to be a fine actor. He was of course almost unshakably ‘Connery’ throughout too. Whether he played a King in Ancient Greece, or an Immortal Egyptian/Spaniard, or an Irish gangster, he never quite shook the iconic voice or accent, but with a flash of steely eyes and wry smirk, nobody doubted the validity of any character.
It wasn’t merely Bond for me as a film fan growing up (his first three are probably still 3 of the top 5 in canon), it was Connery in pretty much everything he appeared in. Whether he was the centrepiece, or playing support to a more rising star in his latter career, Connery just had the kind of effortless, badass swagger that meant he would magnetise the gaze of the audience to him, no matter who was opposite. I struggle to name a scene that was ever taken from Connery. A scene in any of his films I’ve seen, that he didn’t own. Some have hit par, like Robert Shaw and Michael Caine, but even someone as uniquely cool (with his own effortless charm) like Harrison Ford gets overshadowed by Connery in Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. It’s no sleight on Ford either, it’s just Connery’s God given, and honed gifts. In a film as loaded with stellar names as The Untouchables for example, it’s Connery who has the most lasting impact (even against the near perfect prospect of De Niro playing Al Capone). The fact is, he was not only perfectly adept to play leading men, even as the hair greyed and the wrinkles deepened, he slipped into the supporting roles with ease, and became a reliable bastion of gravitas in films like Highlander.
In Highlander, a childhood staple for me, he was in a film that was inherently silly and you know Connery knew it was silly. He leaps into the film some way in, steals his scenes, makes the ridiculous look and sound cool, then departs after a run in with the chief villain. Connery was never adverse to what some actors of his standing might have deemed too ridiculous. He did after all, star in Zardoz with one of the most ludicrous costumes in cinema history. If anyone could ever get even close to pulling it off, it was Connery. In Time Bandits there’s another example of a cameo that brings with it a great sense of cool. Again, Connery merely has to appear, not make any great motions to chew scenery, he just has to be atypically charismatic and it works. In almost a rarity Time Bandits was a rare example where a cameo by John Cleese and the barn storming villainy of David Warner are equally brilliant, but required more theatricality. Nobody could saunter away with a scene like Connery, that’s for sure.
For someone deemed a physical actor, or in more modern terms, an action actor, he was never short of critical praise among his more universally appealing works. In 1987, in The Untouchables, he’d win an Oscar. It was only recently I re-watched the film, after the passing of Ennio Morricone, that I remembered just how good he is in the film. We’ll put aside the accent, because he’s just all consuming as a presence. Maybe he had the choice lines, or maybe Connery just made them sound extra specially great, as he had a wont to do. Not quite as majestic a film, but one I’ve always found vastly underrated, was Rising Sun, where Connery once again carried with him masses of (seemingly) effortless gravitas. He’s commanding and he made every line count. It came during a period of Connery playing the commanding senior to a more up and coming star.
Going into the 90’s, in his 60’s, his appeal as a cinematic presence still remained strong. He would begin working more intermittently, perhaps becoming a touch more selective (though still had no qualms in doing B movie material, or comic book based films). Entrapment proved popular, pitting Connery, nearing 70, opposite Catherine Zeta Jones, around 30 and playing off the chemistry between the pair. With other actors that much advanced in years over their leading lady it might have looked silly. With Connery, it didn’t (and they sensibly never overplayed it). Probably his choice role of the 90’s was in Michael Bay’s crowning achievement, The Rock. Nic Cage, on something of a renaissance right now, was about to hit the peak of his box office powers then. His gift for dialling up the theatrics and chewing scenery were evident (though only about a 7/10 by his standards on the gonzo front) but Connery provided a suitably stern (and yet debonair) counterpoint that worked perfectly as a tag team. In fact the presence of Connery, to be unshakable in his own gifts and not submitting to the Bay theatrics and melodrama, is part of why The Rock remains the finest example of Bayhem by a distance.
Connery called time on his film career after the disappointment of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman (that has actually been more favourably accepted in time). Up until the sad news of his passing, I, like many fans had hoped we might have seen a return to screens from Connery, even in his latter years (particularly with Clint Eastwood still making appearances in front of camera). Alas, it was not to be, but Connery leaves behind not just an enviable CV of quality (with The Untouchables, The Man Who Would Be King, A Bridge Too Far and more), but absolute swathes of it, lavished in cult fandom, whether it’s Bond, Highlander, Time Bandits, Outland, The Last Crusade, or The Rock.
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), War of The Worlds: The Attack and the star studded action films, Renegades (Lee Majors, Billy Murray) and Crackdown. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.