About eighteen months ago I had an idea. “What if I watched a Sean Connery movie tonight?”, I thought. Then I had an even better idea; “What if I watched every Sean Connery movie?”. That thought spawned into a plan, and from that plan, came the largest cinema-viewing undertaking of my lifetime. While the exact number varies depending on how you count archival footage and cameos, cinema’s most iconic Scotsman starred in around 70 feature films during his nearly sixty-year-long career. I’m proud to say that I have completed my adventure and then some, consuming documentaries and shorts not officially counted along the way. While I have certainly put together a best-of list, I’d like to use this article to talk about what I learned during this cinematic journey. After all, what’s the point of spending so much time with an actor if you don’t learn anything about him?
Say Never Again
Sean Connery is an actor who never played the same role twice. While he did slip into 007’s shoes on many occasions, none of his projects ever feel similar to what else he was doing at the time. Most leading men stick to what’s working, but not Sir Sean. Connery was notoriously picky about his roles and the specifics of the script. At the height of his career, he passed on both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings because he didn’t understand them. He played who he wanted to play and he didn’t play who he’d already played.
This led to a career in which he played a wide breadth of characters that share little in common aside from his signature guttural accent. Sean Connery is an actor who took a lot of chances, using the prime of his James Bond years to step into side projects with top-of-the-line directors. In later life, he began using his own clout to jumpstart projects that nobody would greenlight. He learned his lesson with Bond and learned to approach roles and films with a “never again” attitude. This experimental side of his career is typically the least well-known, but for such reasons, it was often the most fascinating for me on this little adventure.
From Scotland with Love
Easily the most iconic thing about Sean Connery is his voice. Even the worst impressions are easily identifiable because of their unique sound and enunciations. Never in 70 movies did Sean Connery drop, alter, or hide the accent. Not when he was playing an Arab warlord, not when he was a Russian spy, nor when he was an immortal Spaniard. At the same time, Connery didn’t use wigs or extensions to hide his early baldness (outside of his 007 roles in which he had no choice). As he lost his hair, so did the characters he played. Sean Connery always found the character through the lens of himself and it is because of this stubborn attitude that he has become such an icon. Even in movies where he is a small role, he is a formidable screen presence. He truly is Hollywood’s greatest leading man because he knew who he was and he stuck to it. It didn’t matter how much money was offered or what perks may come. Even when his popularity dipped in the 70s, he stuck to his guns.
If you compromise your independence for any reason, there’s not much use living. If you compromise it for something as fleeting as money you are already dead. – Sean Connery
Connery/Lumet Are Forever
Sean Connery didn’t gravitate towards many big franchises or sure-sell roles. There are definitely a few here and there, but his filmography points toward a love of what would be new or exciting rather than what might sell. This is seen in no better way than in the partnership between Sean Connery and Sidney Lumet. Starting with The Hill in 1965 and ending with Family Business in 1989, the two formed one of my favorite director/actor combos.
The pair made mysteries, political thrillers, comedies, and intense character-driven studies of the human psyche. While these films were not all on par with each other, they were all fascinating experiments in what two creators can pull from the other. While the most famous film the two made together is 1974’s Murder on the Orient Express, the remaining four films they collaborated on are no less impressive.
I was particularly impressed with The Offence from 1973. This film follows Connery as a veteran detective trying to crack a suspected child molester during an interrogation. While the end result didn’t place in my top ten, it does deliver what I consider to be Sean Connery’s finest performance. He might have won the Oscar for The Untouchables, but he deserved it for his role as Det. Johnson.
The film is largely a one-man show, with Connery spending much of his time in front of the camera via close-ups and single shots. It tracks the progression of a man sifting through his own trauma and resonating with the madness of his interrogated criminal. It truly is a fascinating study of what makes one man good and another bad in the eyes of society. Connery has a fascinating amount of control over his eyes that lets you see into this character’s mind as he tumbles down the rabbit hole to madness. This sits up there with the likes of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor in terms of one-man shows. It might not have been top ten material, but it is damn good.
Another fascinating discovery during this deep dive was Connery’s comedic prowess. I’ve always loved Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and knew that he could be funny. What I didn’t know was that not only could he be funny, he had better comedic chops than most leading men in the business. Compare him to a peer like Harrison Ford, for example. Ford is great at reacting to a joke but he can’t deliver one. Connery has an impeccable sense of knowing when to be the joke and when to make the joke. It’s this that makes his Bond-era one-liners sound cool despite their extreme cheesiness. At the same time, he knows how to hit jokes thrown by his costars. His interplay with Michael Caine in The Man Who Would Be King is the quintessential example of how well he can play off of other actors.
His greatest comedic strength, however, is that he can also play off of just himself. The best example of this is in A Fine Madness. In this 1966 movie by Irvin Kershner, Connery plays a deadbeat poet who finds himself caught between the twisted machinations of a psychiatrist and his floundering home life. Connery plays a very slapstick, larger-than-life character who deals entirely in extremes and absurdities. It’s a satisfying blend of screwball and black comedy that works entirely because of Connery’s comedic sense.
Playing the Fool
Sean Connery is an actor who had no shame. He was more than willing to play the fool and while he had many a serious comedy like A Fine Madness or Family Business, he also had many not-so-serious films. He wasn’t averse to playing over-the-top characters for the fun of it. A great example of this is in Sword of the Valiant. This movie, a 1984 adaptation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is absolutely terrible. Yet it has one strength, and that is Sean Connery painted green and chewing up the scenery. He’s always aware of what movie he is in and has a blast with the over-the-top theatrics of it.
The other best example of this is Highlander, where he played the immortal Spaniard, Ramirez. He’s dressed like a swashbuckler and he acts like a swashbuckler, bringing a great amount of levity to a movie that takes itself far too seriously. Connery did many a poor film and often times it is his existence in said movies that brings them their single redeeming quality.
Sean Connery is my favorite actor; he was before the SeanConn and he’ll stay that way long after. He is a presence on the screen unlike any other. Acting as he lived, he did whatever he pleased however he intended to do it. He’s an actor of a rare era, one who got to star alongside the dying legends of Old Hollywood and who got to show the ropes to the newcomers of the Blockbuster era. He was and will always be an icon in every sense of the word.
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“…he passed on both The Matrix and The Lord of the Rings because he didn’t understand them.”
And because he didn’t want a third mega franchise miss, he did sign up for… The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Oops
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