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    Contemplating Connery

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    It’s been 14 years since today’s 87th birthday honoree Sean Connery has been seen in a live-action role but he abides and endures as a bona-fide movie legend since he first hit cinema screens 60 years ago as a supporting player to watch, five years later as an incarnation of James Bond for the ages, and the portrayer of such vivid characters as Danny Dravot (The Man Who Would Be King), Robin of Locksley (Robin and Marian), William of Baskerville (The Name of the Rose), Jimmy Malone (his Oscar®-winning The Untouchables) and many other action heroes and master criminals galore. Two particular projects provide offbeat and insightful comments on the knighted Scotsman’s undeniable charisma and dramatic power. Christopher Bray offers the following thoughts in his live 2011 Sean Connery: A Biography: “[Writer-producer-director John] Boorman seems to have conceived of Zardoz (1974) as a kind of sci-fi whimsy – a countrified take on Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange (1971). But the movie is so full of half-grasped ideas and half-baked confusions that the only real handle you can get on it is that at some level Boorman and Connery have turned it into an analysis of the post-Bond action hero. Connery plays Zed, a man who works as an Exterminator in Boorman’s dystopic vision of a future in which the Eternals (the autocratic types of 2293) disport themselves diaphanously around a hi-tech country house (the Vortex), while outside Zed and his colleagues (on the orders of the floating godhead Zardoz) go about preventing the Brutals (the wholly redundant lower orders) from procreating….Boorman himself thought the picture ‘an allegory of the haves and have-nots’ – a subject always ripe for debate, but in times as ripe as those of seventies Britain why bother with the allegory? There is a scene in which the Eternals, untroubled as they are by sexual desire, gape agog and aghast at Zed’s prodigious erectile function – not unlike the audience of picture houses the world over these past 12 years whenever Connery’s Bond had walked on screen. In this imaginary world of eternal, reproduction-free lives, men have been rendered pointless – and yet heir most fascinating specimen is embodied by the most potent symbol of masculinity the world has ever known. For above all, Zardoz is a study in the sheer physical beauty of its star – a star whose magnificent musculature is the centerpiece of pretty much every one of Geoffrey Unsworth’s symmetrically styled compositions. For all its designer impenetrable psych-babble, for all its labyrinthine ideating and poetic posturing, Zardoz was the movie responsible for discovering the magus figure in Sean Connery – the magus figure hitherto hidden by the glossy veneer of super-heroism, the magus figure he would come to play over and over again throughout the ’80s and ’90s. Looked at with the advantage of 35 years’ hindsight, Zardoz may just have been the movie that begun to turn round Connery’s career in the depths of its post-Bond doldrums.”

    Sixteen years later, Bray writes, “The Russia House (1990) may have been the best antidote to Bond that Connery has ever worked on. In terms of histrionic range, The Russia House was Connery’s most demanding picture since The Offence (1973). For an actor whose chief raison d’être had so often been exemplifying machismo norms, this was a radically satisfying departure. The story, true to the John le Carré novel on which it is based, can be occasionally hard to penetrate, but its gist is clear. Barley Blair (Connery) is a drunken, dissolute and louchely old-fashioned publisher who during a book conference in Moscow is approached by Katja (Michelle Pfeiffer) and surreptitiously offered the tell-all memoirs of a disillusioned scientist called Yakov (Klaus Maria Brandauer). In the proposed book, Yakov will blow apart the recent peace deal between America and Russia – by exposing the fact that the latter has no nuclear arsenal to call its own. Can it be true? Or is it part of some fiendish double-bluff? Soon enough MI5 and the CIA are involved, and Blair finds himself at the center of an international trade-off. Connery finds ever more ways of showing us a man amazed at this change of fortune and astonished by his newfound capacity for falling in love [with Katja]. The openhearted warmth of his performance never ceases to amaze. As Barley begins to register once more emotions and opportunities he had thought long departed from his life, Connery’s eyes look positively doe-like. Never having appeared more vulnerable, more wounded by the prospects of love, Connery makes of Barley Blair an utterly comprehensible everyman, a soul rumpled and roughened by the torments of time. A man redeemed by love, moreover, played by a man redeemed by the fact that he is playing a man redeemed by love. Not since Robin and Marian, 15 years earlier, had Connery been able to bring such and open-throated warmth to a performance, not since the Lester picture had his aged beauty seemed such a virtue. The Barley Blair of The Russia House [adapted by Tom Stoppard and directed by Fred Schepisi] was Connery’s most entrancing creation in years not just because he got into the part, but because the part got into him.” (Bray also mentions that a proposed remake of The Ghost and Mrs. Muir that would reteam Connery and Pfeiffer was set aside after The Russia House’s disappointing box-office grosses.) Celebrate the legacy of an incomparable, 87-years-young star with two distinctly different but equally dynamic performances in the fabulously fantastical fable Zardoz (found here: and the richly resonant autumnal romance of The Russia House on two finely crafted Twilight Time hi-def Blu-rays.