Critic's Appreciation: Sean Connery, "300 Years Old But Still a Stud"

Sean Connery, Shirley Eaton in 'Goldfinger' (1964)
United Artists

Sean Connery and Shirley Eaton in 'Goldfinger'

The legendary Scottish actor and definitive James Bond, who died last night at 90, was always in on the joke of his heroic masculinity and seductive charm.

There's a long list of once commonplace fame labels that have slipped into obsolescence as outmoded forms of physical objectification have been struck from the lexicon. "Sex symbol" must surely rank up high, especially so for a holder of that dubious distinction celebrated for his brawny masculinity. But Sean Connery was a sex symbol. Deal with it.

In The First Wives Club, when Goldie Hawn's fading Hollywood star Elise Elliot drunkenly absorbs the indignity of being offered the role not of beautiful, young protagonist Monique but of her mother, she observes that Connery would likely play Monique's boyfriend: "Three-hundred years old but he's still a stud."

Connery, who died last night at 90, was the punchline of endless jokes over the decades about his beefy pulchritude, his luxuriant carpet of chest hair and that aged malt whisky rumble of a voice. Any comedian just had to pronounce the name "Moneypenny" with a basso Scottish accent to get a laugh on a seduction gag. But what distinguished Connery was the extent to which he was always in on the joke. Without breaking the fourth wall he seemed to be winking at us from behind the camera, with a smile that was complicit, never smug.

His screen magnetism was unlike that of most of the pack of Hollywood he-men. He brought warmth, playful self-irony, lightness of touch and a uniquely relaxed vitality, seeming to derive sheer joy from his masculinity in a way that implied the giving as much as the taking of pleasure. To watch Sean Connery onscreen in his prime, or even what for most actors would be well beyond, was to desire, admire or envy him.

From the first moment he introduced himself in 1962's Dr. No in the role that would define him and lay the foundations for one of the most enduring franchises in movie history — "The name's Bond. James Bond" — the 6-foot-2 Connery embodied a man physically imposing, culturally cosmopolitan, unintimidated by power or evil, unapologetic in his appetite for beautiful women and very particular about his martinis.

He played novelist Ian Fleming's British Secret Service master spy over seven features, including the handful of 1960s classics — Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball and You Only Live Twice — that formed a blueprint which has been shaken, not stirred, in various incarnations with different actors in the role of agent 007 in the five decades since.

Charges of misogyny and sexism that have been lobbed at the Bond films over the years are at least partly defused by the infectious enjoyment Connery brought to the role. He subtly invited us in on the thrills rather than striding around like a self-satisfied peacock — something that later Bonds like Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan didn't always avoid.

As much as Fleming, original producer Albert R. Broccoli or early directors Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert, it was Connery who built the mold for a nattily dressed, effortlessly witty, unflappable man of action endlessly imitated but never equaled, zooming along in his gleaming silver Aston Martin with the world's glamor capitals spread out at his feet.

Would we have the dynamic 21st century Daniel Craig reinvigoration of the franchise without Connery's indestructible template? Debatable. Or the cheeky homage of the Kingsman films? Unlikely.

After George Lazenby had stepped into the Bond series in 1969 with On Her Majesty's Secret Service, the Australian actor then abruptly bowed out, saying that he found the Savile Row straitjacket of the role too constricting.

I was a movie-mad preteen when Connery returned with much fanfare to 007 in 1971 with Diamonds Are Forever. I can still recall the palpable excitement at a Saturday matinee as the film got underway and the hero appeared, silhouetted in the stylized graphic of a gun barrel over the dramatic "dum di-di dum dum" electric guitar opening of Monty Norman's signature theme.

The cheers and yelps and whistles that tore through the audience were exhilarating. This was a larger-than-life figure that made many of us back then in those more innocent times feel just a little bit grownup, a little bit racy, a little bit bold and brave. It was an inseparable fusion of character and interpreter that fueled a million childhood adventure fantasies — of taking down bad guys, saving imperiled nations and tasting the still unknown pleasures of that mysterious thing called sex.

Pauline Kael once wrote admiringly in The New Yorker of Connery as a "broad" actor: "Not an actor who lacks finer shades… but, rather, an actor with heroic presence, a man's man, an actor with male authority." Such a definition might sit awkwardly in this age of closer scrutiny at the offenses of toxic masculinity, if not for the approachable ease and good humor with which Connery wore his swagger throughout his career.

Those unforced qualities carried over into Connery's long and distinguished filmography beyond Bond, allowing him, for instance, to dilute the off-putting British imperialistic superiority embedded in the very title of John Huston's 1976 adventure, The Man Who Would Be King.

His screen persona shuffled derring-do with romance, intelligence with wry humor, courage with integrity, traits he managed to reshape across a range of genres. He had the knack of simultaneously blending in and standing out in ensemble casts in films like A Bridge Too Far and Murder on the Orient Express. But Connery's megawatt charisma made him a natural leading man.

Among his more memorable roles was the savvy businessman in Hitchcock's Marnie; the principled military officer brutalized in a desert prison in The Hill; the Berber insurrectionist leader (cultural authenticity wasn't a priority in 1975) in The Wind and the Lion; the dashing folk hero of Sherwood Forest opposite Audrey Hepburn in Robin and Marian; the federal marshal in Peter Hyams' under-appreciated retelling of High Noon in space, Outland; and the monk detective in The Name of the Rose.

The film that elevated him back to the front ranks more than a quarter-century into his screen career was Brian De Palma's The Untouchables in 1987. Connery won a richly deserved supporting actor Oscar for his role as hard-nosed Irish-American cop Jimmy Malone, who lends his seasoned wisdom and affable irascibility to the squad formed by Kevin Costner's Elliot Ness to take down Al Capone in Prohibition-era Chicago. The killer's P.O.V. camerawork in the virtuoso sequence where Malone is lured outside his apartment to face a shower of tommy-gun bullets made the audience hold its breath, eventually escaping in a collective gasp in one of the great movie death scenes.

Connery's gravitas continued to impress on screen into his 60s, notably as the Soviet submarine commander in The Hunt for Red October. And he repeatedly proved Elise Elliot right about the gender disparity in Hollywood's view of sexual vitality, cooking up convincing romantic chemistry opposite gorgeous, significantly younger women like Michelle Pfeiffer in The Russia House and Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment.

One of his more amusing later appearances was also one of Steven Spielberg's cleverest casting strokes — Connery played the archeologist title character's father in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, illustrating that Harrison Ford's iconic screen adventurer was a chip off the old block.

But Bond, James Bond, will remain Connery's undying legacy, never more delectably than when he was savoring the outrageously blatant innuendo of those infamous "Bond Girl" names. His first encounter with Honor Blackman's character in Goldfinger ("My name is Pussy Galore." "I must be dreaming.") now sounds like something only an Austin Powers-like satire could get away with. But Connery's mellow masculine charms let him get away with just about anything.