Two actors came into full flower on motion-picture screens in this decade. There on one screen was the perennial, Meryl Streep; on another the evergreen, Sean Connery. Times Film Critic Sheila Benson departs from individual movie criticism for the moment to unreel a filmography of each, a biographical evaluation of two distinct talents.
'He's bold," Sean Connery says approvingly of Richard Harris' character in "The Molly Maguires." "He's got a way with him." In the film, Connery's Jack Kehoe is checking out this newcomer, a man as tough as he is, before allowing him into a secret society of Irish miners. For the rest of us, however, Connery, who this year finally won an Academy Award for his supporting role in "The Untouchables," might have been describing himself.
Here is an actor who, given the slick, Savile Row straitjacket of James Bond, boldly pulled the character's qualities closer to his own blunt, direct, amused ones and redefined Bond for millions who would never read the books. Connery's dry Scottish spin on his lines democratized Ian Fleming's public-school snob; the actor's physicality made 007 a mythic screen presence.
At the same time, Connery willed himself to be known as something more than James Bond. In between every one of his first six 007s, he took off, working with Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Ritt or, frequently, Sidney Lumet, not always playing heroes but never playing less-than-complicated men. Some of Connery's best--and least seen--work came during these periods.
In 1965, for Lumet, it was his nail-hard, indomitable Joe Roberts in "The Hill," set in a brutal British prison camp in World War II North Africa. In 1970 in "The Molly Maguires," he played the canny, watchful head of an Irish miners' organization in Martin Ritt's great, uneven poem to those Pennsylvania coal miner-rebels. And in 1972, he would give a complex, brilliant performance as a Scottish detective sergeant who, tortured by his own self-knowledge, brutally interrogates a child molester in "The Offense," again for Lumet.
These were exceptional performances, but they did nothing to subdue the cult of the body Connery. He's probably done more scenes in short terry-cloth robes than Lana Turner; his tattoos ("Mum and Dad," "Scotland Forever") are the stuff of trivia tie-breakers. It was as though audiences would feel shortchanged if Connery didn't at some time feel the need to change his shirt, or his tunic. This offhanded, ingrained sensuality has enriched almost every Connery character. In Richard Lester's aching, autumnal "Robin and Marian," a loving Audrey Hepburn, playing Maid Marian to Connery's mid-years Robin Hood, inventories the scars that wars have brought to her lover's body in the 20 years since they've been separated, "You had the sweetest body when you left," she sighs, "hard and not a mark on it." In "Zardoz," the sight of Connery wearing sandals, a ponytail and something resembling a scarlet diaper made the film's staggering metaphysical intricacies almost worth sorting out.
You can't help but feel that Connery must share a little of the audience's pleasure in his body. His occasional half-nakedness on the screen is done with a sort of throwaway style, but there is a handsomeness to the sight, even as he edges into his late 50s, that he can't be unaware of.
Connery has been in front of a camera for more than 30 years now, and time has distilled that complicated essence that is an actor's "presence." He was always self-possessed; in the last decade, he's demonstrated how a single thought--in the eyes of a completely focused actor--has the power of a magnifying lens on dry grass. To catch this economy at its seditious best, look at the interplay between him and Michael Caine as a pair of unprincipled, roistering British soldiers in John Huston's adaptation of "The Man Who Would Be King." Their big physical scenes together are the best vaudeville, but watch Connery tell everything with the most imperceptible movement of his eyes in the treasure-room scene.
CONNERY CAN PLAY neuroses ("The Offense"), poetic intensity ("A Fine Madness") or consummate villainy ("Woman of Straw"). He's even credible at celibacy ("The Name of the Rose"). From some reaches of his imagination or his experience, he has access to a terrifying anger and to astonishing cruelty. Probably the only thing he can't play believably is weakness, any more than Robert Mitchum could, or Lino Ventura.