Film discussion

James Bond – The Road to Bond 25, Part Seven: Becoming Bond (2017)

A brief step-forward in time in this edition, as we take the opportunity to follow George Lazenby’s single turn in the role of James Bond with a look at the 2017 docu-drama Becoming Bond – a look at his life from birth through to his adventure with the Bond series.  Directed by documentarian Josh Greenbaum, the film is a mix of Lazenby being interviewed direct to camera, and dramatisation of the events he is describing.  Josh Lawson, from Showtime sitcom House of Lies, portrays the adult George.

Early trailers of the film left audiences unsure what to expect.  Lawson looks nothing at all like Lazenby, and in short, out of context sequences his take looked overly broad.  There was an early sense that this would be a cheap cash-in exploiting an actor who didn’t quite have the career he might have expected, as a former James Bond.

In the event, the film is a surprisingly rounded experience.  Employing a chapter-based structure, the experience plays like a series of capers, with Lazenby being an engaging story-teller.  Rather than try to cash-in purely on the Bond stories, the film doesn’t even get to events around the James Bond series until chapter eight, of the 12 in total.  George’s approach to life has always seemed to be about taking pleasure where he can find it.  In learning that he was born with only half of a single kidney – with the expectation that he would not survive much beyond around 12 years of age – it is clear that he was racing against time in order to get in a full life’s experience.  With what amounts, effectively, to a series of chronological vignettes, we get very entertaining stories of George playing practical jokes at school; being the only person in his class to fail to graduate; his losing of his virginity; his lousy early attempts at selling cars; then his falling in love with a woman, Belinda, perceived to be of a higher social class than George (her family being friends with the Prime Minister of Australia).

Having mastered the art of salesmanship, George sails to England in pursuit of his love.  Having found he has lost her to a student at Oxford University, George embarks on a quest to win her back that will see him become a car salesman in Mayfair, then one of the top models in Europe and, finally, force his way into contention for the biggest role in world cinema: James Bond.

These stories are told entertainingly and are, on occasion, very touching, with George crying at the memory of losing the woman he loves, first to his own infidelity and then, having won her back, through having to abandon her in a foreign country in order to return to England to be announced as the new Bond.  Dramatisation of some of the funnier stories of lore really bring them to life.  In an era pre-IMDb, George convinced Harry Saltzman (played here by Jeff Garlin, best known for Curb Your Enthusiasm) that he had an extensive career acting in a number of motion pictures in Italy.  His bluffing of Saltzman, and refusal even to sit down to address Harry, is played, successfully, for laughs by the engagingly cheeky Lawson.

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Some elements of the story may be fictionalised, simply because there have been multiple versions of the tales told here over the years.  Originally, there was a story of Lazenby preparing to convince Bond Producers by buying a suit that had been tailored for Sean Connery, then never collected by the previous Bond.  In this version of the story, Lazenby simply steals this suit, once told that it is for Mr Connery.  That said, the main beats fit exactly with the tales that fans have now been able to read for many years.  In general terms, it seems a straight and reasonably accurate staging of Lazenby’s life, and of his memories.

As for his leaving of the role of James Bond, we don’t really learn anything that new.  Fans have long since known that his agent, Ronan O’Rahilly, had been instrumental in turning down the seven-film contract that was on the table for George to play James Bond for at least a decade to come, post-Majesty’s.  The familiar tale of Lazenby being told that films such as Easy Rider would be the new direction for motion pictures, with stuffy James Bond being a thing of the past, is recounted here by George.  The rumours of this being merely a negotiating tactic – with there being stories out there that O’Rahilly was demanding $2 million per film for George’s continuing participation – are bypassed.  This is appropriate, as, despite the film’s title, this is a story about George, from his perspective: what was going on with the Bond Producers is less relevant than his engagement with, and memories of, what happened.  We learn little new, but what we do see is brought to life.

At the end of the tale, he expresses no real regrets at the life he has led.  His body language does betray some sadness at the circumstances around the loss of Belinda, and there is no doubt that he feels at least one extra performance in the role of James Bond may have set-up a better, more rewarding acting career than the one he got.  What we are left with, however, is a portrait of a man who is determined to find a way to enjoy life on the terms with which it is presented to him.  Hence, he enjoys being a car salesman at least as much as he enjoyed being James Bond – though his assertion he actually preferred it doesn’t really ring true.

The film is well worth a look.  Docu-dramas usually fail on both elements of that deal.  The documentary bit tends to be weak, as it falls prey to constant interruption from dramatisation: that dramatisation tends to be second-rate, as it is too much of a hybrid to attract the top talent, and the filmmakers are often not familiar with story-telling conventions and standards.  With Becoming Bond those issues are there at the superficial level: a lot of average performances (including a small role, by the way, for Live and Let Die‘s Jane Seymour) from actors who look nothing like the people they are portraying, and a definite frothiness in tone.  In this case, though, it suits the story-telling style of Lazenby, and is anchored by regular returns to George, talking direct to camera to add context.

Contrary to widespread belief, George Lazenby did have an acting career after the James Bond role left his life.  He has 63 credits on IMDb, with that varying from appearances in the Emmanuelle series, to voice-work for Batman Beyond, to a turn as Jor-El in the 1980s Superboy television series.  He remains a friendly presence at Bond-related events around the world, and rarely admits to any real regrets over his departure from the role of James Bond.  At most – and repeated during Becoming Bond – he will allow that he should have done perhaps one more.  This seems to be more from the perspective of his marketability, post-Bond, as it took him some years to find meaningful work after the dust had settled.  The film finishes with an emphasis more on his other post-Bond activities, such as real estate investment, and motorcycle racing, than those acting gigs, however.  He does concede that his name became something of a punchline.  In summary, though, Lazenby’s measure of his own success seems to be about being able to have lived his life on his own terms: something he can argue that he has been able to do.

With that, we return, next time out, to 1971, as the Bond series turns again to Sean Connery, to see if he could help them stop the bleeding away of success for the series at the box office.

The Road to Bond 25 will return with Diamonds Are Forever (1971).

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