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[800 Words]

A Gentleman, Naturally

November 06, 2005|Dan Neil

It took the producers of the james bond movies two years to decide who would be the next 007. Then, in mid-October, white smoke rose over MI6. Daniel Craig, a stylishly scruffy British actor, would pick up the Walther PPK put down by Pierce Brosnan.

The blogs erupted. Bond fanatics wailed that Craig was not nearly handsome enough to play the male Mata Hari and--sputter!--he's blond! Are they afraid he'll lock his keys in the Aston Martin?

I propose their mourning is misplaced. The casting of Bond has always been something of a cultural bellwether, and maybe Craig--with his vulpine energy and lower-caste edge--is actually the perfect Bond for our times.

It's the death of debonair the fans are grieving. And I with them.

In the 1950s, there was no higher praise for a man than debonair. It denoted a courtly male elan, an incollapsible grace, a cool, seductive energy. But in the age of irony--postmodern and post-feminist--debonair seems like an accusation. To be debonair would seem to require observing a rigid code of appearances, that you can never laugh too loud, get a pimple or fail to execute the tango perfectly. To be debonair is to be a metrosexual with delusions of grandeur.

And yet the programming to be debonair runs deep. Sooner or later, all men try it on for size--after all, what is prom night but a tentative effort to climb into Bond's tuxedo?

Is debonair even possible in 2005? I thought I would consult the one undisputed living authority on the subject: Ricardo Montalban.

If you think of Montalban as the light comic actor of his later years, playing the Continental, lubricious Mr. Roarke on "Fantasy Island," you might assume his suavity is an act, like Billy Crystal's riff on Fernando Lamas on "Saturday Night Live." It isn't. I met Montalban in a small room in his big Spanish-style house in the Hollywood Hills. He turns 85 this month, and though he is now confined to a wheelchair, he still looks very much like himself, and is only one makeup session away from reprising the wrathful Khan. His hand is strong and warm. I thank him for seeing me. "Of course, it's my pleasure," he says in that lush, familiar, from-everywhere-and-nowhere accent. I have just touched debonair.

He is wearing gray sweat pants, a white cotton V-neck and a black-and-white paisley scarf--his one sartorial concession to debonair. If I wore that outfit, people would want to shovel dirt on me. On Montalban, it's a fashion statement.

I ask him what he thinks debonair means. "To me it means love of neighbor," he says after a moment of deliberation that flatters the question. "To always be considerate of others' feelings, to practice good manners." Well, that's kind of unexpected. I have always thought of debonair as poise with purpose, and that purpose, ultimately, is seduction. Such a thought apparently never crosses Montalban's mind. "Of course, you must know how to treat women," he says.

It turns out that Montalban--a devout Catholic who has been married to the same woman for 60 years--equates debonair with an even rarer quantity, agape, the brotherly love of the Latin church. When I ask about how to dress debonair, he again frames it in terms of others' comfort: "A gentleman must not dress up too much or too little," he says. "He should try to make everyone around him feel comfortable. Just modest."

On his left arm is a cheap old wristwatch. "It's Chinese, I think," he says. "It cost $19. I like the simplicity of it." This seems significant. To the extent that anyone trades in debonair anymore, it's usually only to sell you something. Bond himself is often no more than a mannequin in a cinematic window, with a Stoli martini in hand and an Omega watch on the wrist.

"No, no, you cannot buy debonair," says Montalban. "It has nothing to do with possessions."

Together we try to compile a list of suave and debonair actors. Claude Rains, James Mason, Cary Grant, Sean Connery. It does help to have an accent, Montalban agrees. I assert that one must be thin to be suave. He says, "Orson Welles," and, of course, he's got me.

The list seems to dwindle to nothing by the time we reach the '80s and '90s--Brosnan being the exception. I mention a recent study that suggests Americans are getting ruder, and perhaps that's why suave and debonair--which are exalted forms of ordinary courtesy--now seem so incongruous. "It's true that manners have lessened, and that's too bad," he says. "Debonair has not changed, but the times have."

John F. Kennedy was debonair, he agrees, but George W. Bush is not. "Debonair connotes a man of the world, a sophisticated person," says Montalban. "Bush is one of the guys."

Montalban understands that he is debonair but seems a little mystified by it. "Whatever it is, it has to be completely natural," he says. "You cannot be aware of it or else it disappears. I never tried to be debonair. I am who I am."

And if Daniel Craig washes out? Says Montalban: "I'm available."

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