In August this year, the most famous Scotsman in cinema history turned eighty. Gazing out from the silvery chiaroscuro on the back cover of Christopher Bray’s new biography, the octogenarian Sean Connery looks in fine fettle. The Droeshout brow. The Errol Flynn whiskers. The loosely coiled fist, propping up a rugged cheek, which puts you in mind of his early days as a body builder. And is that metallic tassel, creeping above the collar, a stray tuft of the migratory Connery pelt?
The man himself being notoriously unforthcoming, biographers have been left with a challenge: how to go about the research? Bray’s solution is both neat and apposite. Like his 2006 biography of Michael Caine, his take on Connery is less concerned with the experiences of a life than with the outline of a phenomenon. The well-known details are here: the working-class childhood in an Edinburgh tenement, the brief naval service ended by a duodenal ulcer, the milk round, the body building and the chance move into show business in the chorus line of South Pacific. Little will be new to the fan. But that hardly matters. Screen presence, movement, charisma: these, for Bray, are the distillation of what ‘Sean Connery’ means to millions of moviegoers. The film archive, not the family archive, is his starting point, and Connery’s career has been long and turbulent enough to provide plenty of material for what are, especially in the latter two-thirds of the book, a series of linked essays on his appearances in various hits or turkeys.
Bray traces the evolution of that prowling gait, and stares with rapt attention at the curved muscles and bushy eyebrow (‘The singular’, he writes, slightly unfairly, ‘is apt’). Panegyric is never far away, but there’s a hint of winning self-mockery in the tone, meaning that even the worst excesses sound enthusiastic rather than pompous. ‘Think of Connery’s Captain Marko Ramius [from The Hunt for Red October] and you think first of his Bernini-like monumentality.’ Well, Bray does. And it’s no use replying that what really sticks in the mind is the extraordinary effect of hastily confected hair and cod-Slav delivery. Bray knows a Caledonian Bernini when he sees one.
For the most part, the readings of on-screen performances are persuasive and engaging, noting here the curl of a lip, there the fluffing of a line. That this strategy works so well can be attributed in part to the fact that Connery, a star, is essentially the opposite of an actor. If we think of actors as protean artists, transforming themselves into whatever a role requires, Connery has seemed to do the opposite, moulding films as well as characters to suit his own personality. As Bray sees it, a Connery performance isn’t a performance by Sean Connery so much as a performance of Sean Connery, and he reminds us how, more than once, screenwriters have been obliged to scribble hasty interjections to explain why their Soviet sailor or Berber tribal chief was declaiming his lines in the rich brogue best described by Clive James as a ‘shtrangely shibilant Shcottish ackshent’. Even Ian Fleming, having objected to the casting of ‘that fucking truck driver’, cannily gave Bond some Scottish heritage in the first post-Connery novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
In much the same way, Bray’s book about Connery is really a book about Bray, who takes it as axiomatic that his subject has been a touchstone of masculinity for the past half-century. So enthusiastic is he that he can’t help wondering what might have happened had Connery been cast in some of the many roles he didn’t get or simply rejected. ‘And so Rosencrantz’s Player King is another of the what-might-have-beens in Connery’s CV’; ‘How weirdly different a picture [Warlock] would have been had Connery taken the Richard E. Grant Witchfinder role’. After a few of these lamentations, it becomes clear that Bray’s devotion knows no bounds. He has the obsessive’s way of seeing everywhere the object of his obsession. He is, in short, a fan. No doubt his ideal film would field the hirsute Scot in every major role: a sort of Being Sean Malkovich, perhaps – or a Kind Hearts and Conneries.