Sean Connery has carried the torch for masculinity in cinema like no one since Gary Cooper or Henry Fonda. He is the man without neurosisby Mark Cousins / September 24, 2006 / Leave a comment
Most people know—or think they know—who Sean Connery is. Baby boomers remember his sharky, “black Irish” masculinity in Dr No and the other Bond movies, his grace at the chemin de fer table, the way he filled a Turnbull & Asser shirt and drove an Aston Martin, the way he looked at Ursula Andress coming out of the sea.
In 1960s France, intellectuals at first found him old-fashioned, a symbol of the ancien régime, but then they looked again and saw a stoicism, a latter-day Bogie or Gary Cooper, Sartre in a tux. In China he is “Seen Connollee,” adored by young women. In Iran, men love his 1996 film The Rock, in which he plays John Mason, banged up on Alcatraz since 1963. In Britain, too, his celebrity seems to have been updated. Teens and pre-teens today are big fans because of peak-time reruns of Bond movies. In Connery’s native Scotland, where he recently opened the 60th Edinburgh international film festival and received a Bafta award, the tabloids have made their own photofit image of him—a tetchy, nationalist, anti-feminist, tax-exile.
But when you meet the real Connery, what you notice is his directness. Two years ago, a bunch of us were in an Edinburgh restaurant and the food was late. I moaned a bit and did nothing. Connery got up, walked into the kitchen and said “the food is late.” It arrived in haste. Ask him why he made a certain decision and he’ll answer “to get the thing done.” It’s a phrase he uses quite a bit, and it reveals an approach to life, I think. Perhaps this is unsurprising in a person with such clout, though it’s an eye-opener to see how many celebs seem paralysed by the challenge of making decisions, or agree to one thing then tell their assistant to get them out of it, pronto.
A more intriguing characteristic of Connery is his interest in ideas. He read James Joyce in his youth—he even had a go at Finnegans Wake. He is a bibliophile and, if you look carefully, you can see this in his movies. In The Rock, John Mason’s cell is full of books. This was not in the original script; Connery had it inserted. His character Professor Henry Jones in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is a bookworm and unworldly with it. Connery’s own new book, which he is co-writing with Murray Grigor, isn’t so much an autobiography as a series of ideas-led chapters on Scotland and his relationship to it.
Connery’s film Finding Forrester, in which he plays a Salinger-like reclusive writer, dramatises one of his core beliefs—that education can lift people out of disadvantage. In this case his character helps a black kid from the Bronx with a gift for words. The film is a key to understanding Connery because it maps some of the problems of his native Scotland—privilege and poverty—on to America. Connery came from working-class Edinburgh; his anger at undeserved privilege made him a meritocrat.
I first met Connery when I was director of the Edinburgh film festival and he was patron. When I left the festival, I started a television show called Scene by Scene, on which I would interview film people about their craft. Connery hadn’t given a full career interview on television for years and hasn’t since, but he agreed to do one for me. Perhaps our similar class background had something to do with it, a shared sense of being self-taught in cinema. As we talked in that interview, it became clear that, next to his belief in education, Connery’s distrust of the military was another driving force. He joined the navy aged 16 and had to leave because of a stomach ulcer, but the privilege he saw there, the unfair treatment, seems to have marked him. The Hill, which he made for Sidney Lumet for almost no fee in 1965, was about the absurdity of punishment meted out to ordinary second world war soldiers by staff sergeants in Libya. Even the plot of The Rock, made three decades later, turns on a general’s anger at seeing soldiers and their families maltreated.
But there’s something else about Connery that’s harder to pin down. Queer studies theorists use the phrase “the performed self” to describe the way that gay and transgender people “pass” in the heterosexual world. I like the phrase because it is true to the fact that many people—not just queer ones—present surfaces. Working-class people, for example, when they migrate into middle-class worlds. Connery migrated in this way, from the working class into showbusiness, the ultimate industry of the performed self. Yet he seems to have no performed self. There is no sense when you talk to him that he has modes of table talk, routines to deal with autograph hunters, or manufactured personas to deal with the fear or emptiness that international celebrity must surely bring. This explains why on screen there’s no flicker in him between confidence and doubt—the way there is in, for example, Marilyn Monroe.
Connery’s contemporaries, Steve McQueen and James Coburn, didn’t flicker either, but they weren’t icons on the scale of Connery. His solidity on screen from the 1960s to the 1990s, his lack of neurosis, was like a rock against which more unravelled actors such as Robert De Niro and Al Pacino lashed. He drew from more archetypal men like Henry Fonda and Gary Cooper and was the continuity candidate. That’s why movies seemed to fit around him, rather than vice versa.