Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Speculations in the Bond Market

So, who's your favorite actor who has played James Bond (if, in fact, you even give a rip about the series)?  It depends on a lot of factors, and a lot of it depends on the time factor.  There are some who say the first Bond you encounter is your favorite (this is not true for me, as my first Bond experience was On Her Majesty's Secret Service!), and I know a lot of Brits who prefer Roger Moore's Bond to all others, which seems odd to me.  I've also read that as you get older, the first James Bond younger than you has a hard time being accepted (Again, that's not true for me).

Then there's the Bond you're talking about; are you a fancier of Ian Fleming's "book" character or of the one portrayed in the movies?  They differ.  The book Bond is a bit of a stick-in-the-mud professional with a penchant for fast and easy living, owing to his inevitable expiration date.  The movie Bond knows-all, tells-all, is a gourmand, a sartorial snob, and quips...a lot.  He has no expiration date.  The book Bond had a fussy housekeeper.  The movie Bond is the fussy house-keeper.  The book Bond not only smoked and heavily imbibed, but was known to have a benzedrine habit before going out "in the field."  The movie Bond has dropped all but the watery vodka martini's.

Do you see Bond as the cruel-mouthed, scarred resembler of Hoagy Carmichael (right), or is your Bond so male-model-fresh that you can't imagine ever having his perfect nose broken in a scrap?

The Broccoli kids at Eon Productions, Bond's film maker, have maintained their father's code that it's not the actor that audiences come to see, it's Bond (this was useful in salary negotiations).  And one need only look at the track record of each actor's non-Bond films to bear that out.  But in their time in the gun-harness, they had the world's attention, whether they wanted it or not. 

Everyone has their favorite Bond, if they have one.  I thought I'd do my own personal ranking of the actors and their interpretations of the characters,* as factored in today (tomorrow may be different).  Everytime such a list, and my reasons, have appeared in various places, they've generated controversy. 

This one will be no different.

From least to best:

George Lazenby: There are some who consider Lazenby's one film, On Her Majesty's Secret Service the best Bond film.  Especially "shippers." I might agree. But the one thing that keeps it from being a classic (and fronting Bond retrospectives rather than being an after-thought) is the black hole in the center sucking the thing. George Lazenby is a bit of a stiff as Bond, going through Connery's motions, trying to look casual. And God knows, director Peter Hunt uses all his editing wizardry and over-dubbing to try to improve his performance. But, he might have taken the "blunt instrument" description too literally by playing Bond as a block of wood. He has two really good scenes: the "those girls" confrontation with Blofeld (Telly Savalas) and the post ski-chase confrontation with his boss, "M" (Bernard Lee). But, the rest of the time he's lost at sea, looking unsure or overly confident. The man shouldn't have been put in the position—he'd never acted before, while "the other feller" had done Shakespeare and already made his embarrassing moves in ten years of supporting film-roles. Lazenby's were front and center and bathed in neon for all the world to see. It was like he was set up to fail. 

Roger Moore: Moore never believed in Bond, but he loved the pay-check. He saw Connery's humorous take on the character and took it even further. In fact, when Moore roughs up a woman it seems really distasteful—he was much better at seducing (which was always a little too "instant" in the Moore Bonds, his era being marked by the producers relying on a "bond-formula" short-hand in the scripts). But, he was cool, collected, looked great in suits—even in India, extending the sartorial jokes, despite the age of bell-bottom tuxedos—hit his marks and smirked winningly. He's actually much better than he's been given credit for. He was the class "A" Brit, maintaining the Colonial Attitude even after the Empire had turned to dust and blown away. That seemed to be part of the joke, too—Moore walked around with an air of superiority through some of the world's dustiest hell-holes, looking elegant. A fine satiric point for an age cynical about spies and subterfuge...and Empire. But Moore's Bond was never Fleming's secret agent. Not when played for laughs.

Pierce Brosnan: If Brosnan had taken over after Moore, he might have continued in the same vein, cut by Remington Steele. But Tim Dalton buffered Moore and Brosnan with a more serious, more respectable Bond, and Brosnan, wisely, built on it, throwing in more elements of humor (which he could pull off with aplomb), while also turning Bond into a round-firing machine. Despite his male model looks, Brosnan did extraordinarily well, winning back Bond's popularity, and there are moments in each of his Bonds where he does something uniquely his own that I admire. But, he had a tendency to over-dramatize, and his insistence on making Bond more of a romantic weakened the character. A Bond made up of elements of his predecessors, ultimately Brosnan's Bond is a little dull and unmemorable, and...generic, his first film, Goldeneye, containing his best performance.  Want to see him at his best as an actor? The Tailor of Panama or The Ghost Writer.

Sean Connery: Yeah, yeah, I know. Sacrilege. Connery created the screen-Bond. He made Bond in his image and every actor has been chasing Connery's for years. But, I hew to Fleming's Bond, and as perfect as Connery is, he just ain't it. That was part of the humor that he and director Terence Young ("He should have played Bond" says Connery) brought to the role. The effete snob with the soft purr in the voice, and a lorry-driver's hooliganism combine to make Teflon-Bond, who may get a little dusty, a little smudged—only shaken, not stirred. Plus, the violence towards women grates, especially as it's played so jokily in Goldfinger and Thunderball, whirling women into the paths of black-jacks and bullets. The girls get slapped around in From Russia With Love and Diamonds Are Forever.  nd, really, isn't the barn-clinch from Goldfinger a rape (which...excuse me?..turns Pussy Galore "straight" and "good?"). Then, there's the sexual blackmail against the spa nurse in Thunderball. You could try to defend it as "the times," but the argument doesn't hold up against other acts of violence like, say, lynching.  Connery's Bond makes me cringe at times.  But, as someone wrote about him in "Total Film's" letters section, "There might be better Bonds, but he'll always be the alpha-wolf."  Just so. 

Timothy Dalton:  Maybe he's not as good as I remember him—there was some over-emoting on occasion, but you knew, when watching Dalton, that he'd read his Fleming, and made the huge actorly leap of making a 50's hero work in the 80's, even after 15 years of mocking the character through the "Less-is-Moore" years. I had worries about Dalton. Before Bond, he was king of the mini-series, the "male" lead, the chiseled pretty boy you couldn't believe had ever taken a blow to the face. But, Dalton roughed himself up for the role, threw out most of the one-liners, treated the character and the "out-there" situations as real—outlandish, but real (even his Bond can't believe some of them)—and added an element missing from Bond for many years: danger. Dalton's Bond worried you. At moments of stress, his Bond might go off the handle and pop a few innocents. His Bond got angry, could snap, and was a bit of a Byronic cad towards the ladies. Oh, he was civil, even romantic, but he'd lie like Connery's rug to get information. He was a stark contrast (and for me, a welcome change) from Moore, but, as it is apparent now, he was ahead of his time, and audiences couldn't make the transition. Brosnan would provide that, and from Dalton to Brosnan to Craig, the Bonds would build on each others' performances to strengthen the character.

Daniel Craig:  No, he doesn't look like Hoagy Carmichael...well, he does through the nose, but the face and hair are not Fleming's description. But, damn. Craig kind of nails it, right down to the dichotomy of Bond acting differently in front of his boss and then loosening up "in the field." Craig's "soccer-tough" of a Bond makes you believe in the foot-chases, the fast-thinking short-cuts, and the pit-bull-on-two-legs tenacity that has always made those extended chases probable. And, he's dangerous. He's the only Bond who kills the way the book Bond does, by strangling a man with his bare hands, gadgets be damned (one can imagine Craig in a "Q" scene, the way they used to be played, with an air of "What is this crap?"). His Bond is impetuous, diffident, an asshole at times, feeling his way through an investigation without trying to feel too much, drinking heavily (and actually suffering the effects), and keeping the sexual conquests to a manageable level. The squabbling bantering between Bond and Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) in Casino Royale was some of the best dialogue ever written for Bond, and certainly for the "Bond-girl," and reflected the book-Bond's annoyance with women "getting in the way" of the assignment. Craig's version is full of surprises, sometimes unpleasantly, and is the best thing in his movies, whether the script is good (Casino Royale) or bad (Quantum of Solace).  That's why I think he's the best Bond...today.

Who's your Bond? Take your shot.

* I've excluded the actors who've played Bond in the "non-canon" films outside of the Eon Productions Empire, those being the first Bonds of the first "Casino Royale" adaptations, Barry Nelson and David Niven, and Sean Connery's Bond in Never Say Never Again (although he's a bit closer to the book Bond's in it than his others—he drives a Bentley).

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