Saturday, August 28, 2010

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.  And to end this week of the 80th birthday of Sean "Big Tam" Connery, 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 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 imrove 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 were 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 tuxedoes—hit his lines 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.  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 Dalton buffered Moore and Brosnan with a more serious, more respectable Bond, and Brosnan built on it, throwing in more elements of humor, 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 a 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?  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 director Terence Young ("He should have played Bond" says Connery) and he 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.  And, 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, say, lynching, also an act of violence.   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 occassion, but you knew, 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 other's performances to strengthn 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 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

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)


Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

I have no feeling about Bond really. Sure, when they dangled the possibility of Jude Law or Ewan McGregor taking up the role I was all ears, but other than nothing. Timothy Dalton is good in it, but isn't he always?

Yojimbo_5 said...

Jude Law or Ewan McGregor? Ewwww!

And as far as Dalton, except for "Sextette," yes.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

Hey, what's wrong with Jude Law?

Scott said...

This is well written, and on the money. But, the thing is, I don't judge Lazenby as harshly as you do. As I read along, and agreed so enthusiastically with your other points, I began saying, "well, maybe I'M missing something."

Lazenby sounds like a bit of a jerk, who took the role with the intention of doing only one film and being catapulted to glory. Which obviously didn't work.

But his performance, I think, was fantastic. No block of wood, although, I can see the point. I thought he was feral and real. Great fight scenes. Lots of emotion creeps into that story and his relationship with Rigg.

I, too, despise the "other feller" line. But in general, of all the Bond movies, I rank OHMSS as number 2 or 3. And of the Bonds I CERTAINLY rank Lazenby above Moore.

Moore is the worst, hands down.

I don't think that Lazenby was set up to fail. I think that he was fighting an uphill battle (as was Craig) but made the situation worse instead of better. But his Bond, was sleek, sexy, tough, compassionate, rebellious, and funny.

I like him more than you.

Sorry to ramble, and no time to go back and rewrite.

Just wanna say, I follow your blog faithfully, and appreciate your work!


Yojimbo_5 said...

Andrew, my friend: Jude Law is a fine character actor, but I've yet to see him "carry" a movie—"Cold Mountain" is the closest he's come yet. And I thought he did good work in that sci-fi Corporate Organ movie this year. But Bond? Slight, male-model Law as James Bond? Ewwwwww!

Scotty: Much thanks for your faithful following, and your comment. Ramble away. God knows, I do!

But Lazenby? He's the BIG flaw in a fine film. He was given GREAT material and did passably with it (those scenes I mentioned notwithstanding), and when I say he was set up to fail, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt.

But I don't think you can use the fight scenes to defend him...Hunt (who'd previously given the Bonds their jagged edge editing style) shot them to be edited in hard-punching snippets, as opposed to the Young/Hamilton style of long shots-with coverage inserts. When all you've gotta do is throw one punch, then go on to the next set-up, you can make anybody look good..and athletic. I think Lazenby ruined the scene with Marc-Ange Draco, Tracy's father, and the man is just too glib throughout most of the movie. And Hunt (probably at the directive of Harry Saltzman who had problems with accents and was "dub-happy") created a lot of Lazenby's line-readings in the dubbing stage. And I've never bought Lazenby's final scene...sorry...never have. Should have had more shock, and Lazenby played as if he was "in shock." (Granted, the first take, where Lazenby actually produced tears might have been the better selection...we'll never know). I think the producers were trying to match Connery to relieve audience expectations, and in that, they might have cost Lazenby more of a chance to make Bond "his own." At any rate, Connery should have played it...but he wanted to be a partner with Broccoli and Satlzman and both those men thought here was one partner too many already.
(And you thought YOU were rambling!)

Scott said...

Allow me just one rambling retort.

I don't think that OHMSS should have been done with Connery. I think he was waaaaaaay too old even in You Only Live Twice. I'm glad to see the new blood arrive. When they went back to Connery for Diamonds Are Forever he was really waaaaaaaay tooooooo old!

Lazenby was reportedly furious that they didn't use his voice in the Hillary Bray scenes. I have always wished they used his own voice (I think he had a great voice) instead of dubbing in the effete voice. I blame the director for that, not Lazenby.

Also, no need to put him in the kilt and such. In the book, recall, Bond wore a double breasted suit (!!) and bowler to strike the foppish image and read the Daily Gleaner or something. I'm sure he didn't do any funny voices. Again, I blame the director for that decision, and can appreciate the rage that filled Lazenby for having to spend 2/3 of his screen time in a damn kilt (no offense, Walaka) and having his voice replaced in post.

I think he's a fine specimen of a guy. I love how he wears those (presumably) polyester (or is that silk?) shirts with no undershirt. The scene where Rigg pulls the gun on him and he snatches her wrist and twists her arm -- I think was perfect.

I like the office scene with Draco. "But today is the 13th, Commander." "I'm superstitious."

The scene with the Saint Bernard. "Enough of that. Go get brandy."

Frankly, I don't fault a single moment of his or Rigg's performance. I think that the director should have played Bray more like an Oxxford professor and less like whatever they decided to play him as. And I don't think the Louis Armstrong theme really worked well within the film.

Some script points were poor, such as the "he branched off" line. Or the "he had a lot of guts." But that's the writer's fault, not my pal George's.

For the death scene. I always thought that he played it as a truly defeated man. He's too intimate with death to flip out about it. He knows what a bullet in the brain does. So, he skips the shock and goes straight to nervous breakdown and denial. What else could he do? Drop to his knees, throw his fists in the air, and shout "NOOOOOOOO"?

In summary, although I know that by the mere fact that I am arguing with you, I am clearly wrong, my own personal take was that Lazenby made far fewer mistakes than the directing team. That the movie is a great film and Lazenby's performance, a solid one. Rigg is the greatest Bond girl ever, rivaled only by Green and Andress.

You said your list always generates controversy, so I didn't want to let you get away without at least a little bit of a fight.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Let me counter-punch, blow by blow (in the manner of OHMSS' fight scenes):

-Sean Connery (38/39 at the time) was not too old to play Bond at OHMSS (which had been planned to be filmed after "Goldfinger" AND "Thunderball." For the record Moore was older than Connery (when he did "Diamonds Are forever") when he did his first Bond.

-I'm not talking about the Hilary Bray scenes...I'm talking about the extensive re-dubbing to add laugh-lines, and replace Lazenby's on-stage work (much of which was mumbled). Almost half of Lazenby's work was replaced.

-The Bray scenes don't comprise 2/3of Lazenby's performance. Far from it. The kilt, to me, is funny, takes a slam at Connery's Scottish roots, and allows for some mis-adventures. That Sir Hilary Bray is gay (it's implied) I like, especially considering that the director, Peter Hunt, was also gay.

-Polyester shirt? Bond? Wha...?!
The Tracy gun scene is one of two Bond scenes Bond-candidates are required to "nail" when auditioning.

-The Draco scene is more than the knife-toss...and it's Draco's scene for exposition, with Bond listening and reacting. Lazenby doesn't react much, and he mumbles his lines, with indifferent line readings ("I find her fascinating..." read in a way that isn't) and he blows the transition from dismissing Draco's marriage "deal" to speculating that Draco could help him in his investigation in exchange for romancing Tracy. That's a complex and slightly churlish transition that a better actor (or, simply, an actor) would do well to negotiate carefully so that Bond doesn't come off as a complete cad (which, frankly, he should be a bit of...Dalton was good at that). Lazenby negotiates it by being as casual as possible. Wrong.

-"5-Star Hennessey, of course" Desperate laugh-lines.

-"We Have All the Time in the World" has proven to be what John Barry set it out to be...
an "evergreen" song, with lasting appeal. It topped the UK charts some 20 years after OHMSS, after it became noticed when it was used in an ad for Guinness (heh). It was Louis Armstrong's last recording, and he was far too weak to play the trumpet part (they didn't even ask him to). I obviously fault a lot (a LOT) in Lazenby's performance. I love Rigg. Who wouldn't?

-Laugh-lines in Bond films are either clever or make me wince. They were trying to up the "funny" quotient in OHMSS, to compenmsate. There's a lot of fine writing in OHMSS...the last minute laughs inserted aren't those. They're desperate.

-Bond knows what a bullet in the brains does, sure. But his new bride just got shot. C'mooon!

- The movie IS a great one, but that's the direction, not Lazenby! The direction tried to compensate for him (as composer Barry says he tried to, by amping up the score) by taking the "Bond" elements to "11," so that they didn't have to depend on Lazenby's performance to prove it was a Bond film.

-Agree to disagree on this.

Scott said...

I duly raise my head from the chopping block to utter my last words.

"Agree to disagree?" I have no intention of doing any such thing. In fact, my intention all along was to jump ship after you destroyed me and join you on your side. Consider me reformed.

And thanks for taking the time to explain all that. I will re-watch it with a keener eye.

I do still think that a double breasted and a bowler would have been better than a kilt.... But...aside from that....

"Forgive me. My mind was elsewhere."

Yojimbo_5 said...

Hey, Scott, there's a book that's just come out—"The Making of 'On Her Majesty's Secret Service'" that should prove to be invaluable in sorting the rumors/myths about this unique (and underrated) film in the Bond series. I'll put an Amazon link to it.

Yojimbo_5 said...

Oh! And Scott? How's the Fam'? Still magical?

simoncolumb said...

We pretty much match! How funny! I think you have alot invested in Daniel Craig. I remember at the time, everyone loved Brosnan and, as soon as CASINO ROYALE came out, everyone double-backed, and said how Brosnan was always the worst James Bond. I reckon, give a little time, we will compare Daniel Craig with Timothy Dalton because both acted with such aggressive and passionate performances. The question is, in time, who will stand up. I think Daniel Craig is not as unqiue as Dalton... I mean, Dalton completely changed the entire Bond persona to a style that, effectively pre-dated Connery... what a shame he only made two.

You might be right on Daniel Craig... but we must wait until the next Bond before we can completely judge him on his films alone...

Yojimbo_5 said...

Right. I think that Craig made a leap from Brosnan, just as Dalton made a leap from Moore. Brosnan combined elements from everybody and had the skill and timing to pull it off, but I always saw Brosnan's Bond as "weak," even though he'd do something in every film I liked (the "bee-sting" flick of the head as bullets ricocheted nearby in "Goldeneye," the "I belong" walk through the hotel lobby, despite looking like Robinson Crusoe in "Die Another Day."). Brosnan saved the franchise, just as Moore kept it on life-support.

I just like for Bond films to surprise me rather than placate me, and the actors playing Bond to toss the cliches—what everyone expects. Only with time and perspective will we see how Craig stacks up...but for me, he delivers even if the movie doesn't. Today, that is. ;)