Obituaries are strangely reductive things. An entire life can be boiled down to a snapshot, an unrepresentative excerpt from a lengthy body of work, all in service of an eye grabbing headline. Consider someone like, say, Leslie Phillips, whose career spanned nearly 80 years, yet whose accomplishments were captured in numerous references of him as just a ‘Harry Potter actor’, even though his contribution to the series was a voiceover and, in all fairness, relatively slight.
Yet there you are, all your endeavours being summed up in a mention of something which happens not to be particularly representative. The plight must be even worse for someone whose entire output has been overshadowed by a role that, above all others, is inextricably linked to them, despite all their best efforts in trying to distance themselves from it. Typecasting by the industry is bad enough, but typecasting in the eyes of the public can be far worse: no matter what you may do, you will always carry one part around your neck like a millstone, or the Ancient Mariner’s albatross.
For somebody who defined a character, setting a benchmark against which all others will forever be measured, that must truly be amplified to almost the Nth degree. Such then, was the arguably inevitable fate of Edinburgh’s favourite son, a former milkman, lifeguard, artists’ model and bodybuilder, who would end up being inexorably tied to the world’s most famous spy, despite all of his attempts to put that far behind him. It would cast a long shadow over the oeuvre of the man in a way quite like nothing and nobody else. And his name? Connery. Sean Connery.
Yes, he would always be Sean ‘James Bond’ Connery. Look at the New York Times’ piece on his passing back in 2020: the headline said he was somebody “Who Embodied James Bond and More”, yet it almost feels like those last two words are an afterthought. Connery must have always known that when the book of all his days was finally closed, the bulk of his life’s toil in the acting profession would end up being summed up as little other than an “and More”. Fame can bring rewards, but also its misfortunes, and for Connery it would always be the latter for his close identification with 007.
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A.J. Black’s latest book, The Cinematic Connery: The Films Of Sir Sean Connery, looks back at Connery’s performances on the silver screen, from first to last, and it invites us to see him as more than just the tuxedo-clad purveyor of quips and wielder of gadgets that his death notices would be so keen to generically use in their leads. This work is not a biography of Connery the man; goodness knows there are plenty of those already out there as it is. Instead, this is a study of Connery the actor, and drawing our attention to how rich and varied his catalogue of roles actually was, perhaps far more than he was ever given credit for in life.
There will, of course, be some biographical elements which will crop up, as it would be difficult to do a comprehensive analysis of Connery’s career without touching on things in his personal life which may have shaped or influenced certain decisions he made. While Black certainly does not shy away from the more controversial aspects of Connery’s character, this is not some exercise in muckraking or excoriation: Black comes not to bury Connery, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind about his reputation, being mindful that an analysis or critique of Connery’s person is not at all the point of the exercise here.
Instead, the book works to help us separate the art from the artist, and to leave aside some of those contentious parts of Connery’s private life, by looking at his professional life. The most significant thing about The Cinematic Connery is that it helps put into perspective the actor’s extensive catalogue of movies, and makes us realise that the legend of Connery has over the decades become fact, leading to so many people having printed the legend. It really is quite the eye opener to be confronted with the stark reality that Connery was not in fact always the unassailable box office draw we now assume or take for granted as being the case.
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Black makes us realise that there were points – post-Bond, pre-The Untouchables – when Connery’s career was in the doldrums, and so many features which starred him were not guaranteed to draw in an audience, with his name alone not being any assurance of a hit. It really is refreshing to see such an honest, unflinching appraisal here, rather than trying to lionise Connery at all costs and subtly massage the truth to fit a false narrative of an actor whose trajectory was always in the ascendant. Just because his career saw a marked uplift during the latter part, it ill behoves us to try and pretend that it was consistently on a high throughout.
Perhaps one other thing to take away from this is the sense of a man whose love of the craft and constant striving to try and expand his range ended up seeing his perceived failures (purely in terms of just dollars and cents, rather than by any measure of artistic merit) leading him to more commercial – yet, sadly, far less creatively adventurous – fare. In much the same way that Connery defined the character of Bond, yet became trapped and railroaded by it, you can see a parallel with George Lucas, creating modern ‘blockbuster’ cinema, while also becoming hemmed-in by his accomplishments, and having to abandon any hope of a far more varied career path, as a victim of his own success.
Another revelation is just how many of Connery’s films have either slipped into relative obscurity, or – at the very least – been overshadowed by the showier, more obviously crowd pleasing flicks. A totally welcome by-product of reading The Cinematic Connery is the lingering desire to want to see so many of these hidden gems, and let us view Connery in an entirely new light, away from the glare of so many of those big hitters which tend to pull focus. There really is a treasure trove out there, and Black does an admirable job of bringing so much of this into the light.
It would have been easy for The Cinematic Connery to be a cold and clinical exercise, yet Black’s clear enthusiasm and drive is not only clear for all to see, but also highly infectious. The Cinematic Connery is a lovingly-crafted, thoughtful – as well as thought-provoking – read, giving real depth and context to the canon of such an enduring icon, and a worthy addition to any collection.
The Cinematic Connery: The Films of Sir Sean Connery is out now from Polaris Publishing.