Beware the double meaning of that subtitle. The conventional reading, of course, is that Bray is taking the measure of his subject, although the biographer does not pretend that his appraisal of Connery will be rigorously objective. Connery, writes Bray, had at an early age ‘showed me a vision of the man I wanted to be.’
Given that Bray was a boy when he first saw Connery play James Bond in ‘Diamonds are Forever’ (1971), this is entirely understandable. In his introduction, however, Bray gives the subtitle another reading. Quoting the film critic Pauline Kael, Bray claims that every man born in the past half-century or so wants to be Sean Connery when he grows up. The implicit suggestion is that Connery’s masculinity is the standard against which all men must measure themselves, particularly in terms of Connery’s most famous role. “If part of wanting to be Connery is wanting to be Bond,” Bray writes, “the whole of wanting to be Bond is wanting to be Connery.”
What’s fascinating about Bray’s book is Connery’s love-hate relationship with the character that made him a star, yet pigeonholed him as a particular kind of actor. Unfortunately for Bray, that’s well-worn ground, as the author is well aware. In further defining his remit, he claims that, “ … this is a book about the [Bond] movies and what they have done to us.” A leap of faith allows Bray to assert that the early Bond movies were something of a fulcrum upon which the business (if not the art) of filmmaking turned. He then spends the rest of the book analysing the films of the star’s post-Bond career by judging each new project against what Bray describes as ‘Connery’s languorously insurrectionary take on what he saw as this jumped-up imperialist bore.’
This insistence on comparing all of Connery’s post-Bond work to ‘Dr No’ (1962) and ‘From Russia With Love’ (1963) begins to grate very quickly. Moreover, Bray is often unnecessarily wordy as he strains to ascribe significance to some of Connery’s more mundane celluloid outings. One use of ‘synecdoche’ is happenstance, if we can paraphrase Ian Fleming, and twice bad editing; a third usage suggests that Bray is as guilty as Connery when he wonders ‘whether Connery’s fondness for [Ingmar] Bergman might not consist largely in a belief that seriousness is the same thing as significance.’
It almost goes without saying that Bray does not penetrate the Connery mystique to any great extent. “What strikes you most about Connery is his sheer down-to-earth ordinariness,” Bray observes two pages short of the end of the book, although given how little Bray has excavated of Connery’s off-screen persona other than his well-known passions for golf, football and Scottish nationalism, that’s hardly surprising. The star’s son Jason gets one blink-and-you-miss-it reference, for example.
That said, Connery is notorious for not collaborating with biographers, so Bray’s account is not unusual in that respect. The result, however, is something of a cut-and-paste compilation of second- and third-hand sources, woven together by Bray’s exuberant enthusiasm for his subject matter, which is at times exhilarating, at others downright repellent.
It’s when Bray goes to bat for Connery over allegations of domestic violence that the reader gets a sour taste in the mouth. First the author glosses over the suggestion that Connery deliberately struck co-star Gina Lollobrigida on the set of ‘Woman of Straw’ (1964) (“It’s possible,” comments Bray, “that there might have been something to the rumours of on-set enmity between [the] two stars.”). Later, he closely parses the vivid account given by Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, of her husband’s assault towards the end of the shoot for ‘The Hill’ (1965). “Alas,” concludes Bray, “she hid herself away so well that no one has ever been able to corroborate this story.”
Connery’s infamous interview with Playboy magazine, on the other hand, is a matter of record. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman,” Connery told journalist David Lewin in 1965, “although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man.”
Here Bray jumps through a number of hoops on behalf of his hero, first suggesting that such comments were not out of the ordinary at the time, before going on to define the question and answer ‘in narrowly legalistic’ terms, before finally asserting that, “Connery nowhere advocates the hitting of women” (italics Bray’s).
Such ‘narrowly legalistic’ nit-picking, however, is completely at odds with Bray’s unabashed eulogising of Connery’s ability to humanise the sadistic, quasi-fascistic James Bond for a mainstream audience. It’s also the kind of self-serving double-think that allows Bray to gush as if in a homo-erotic frenzy about Connery’s physical presence, even as he rues the quality of most of the actor’s post-Bond output.
In a nutshell, this is the perfect book for that audience that still believes Sean Connery is God’s gift to the Silver Screen. Unfortunately for Christopher Bray, that audience is likely to consist only of Christopher Bray. - Declan Burke
This review was first published in the Sunday Business Post.
“Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Prose both scabrous and poetic.” – Publishers Weekly. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “A sheer pleasure.” – Tana French. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville. “The effortless cool of Elmore Leonard at his peak.” – Ray Banks. “A fine writer at the top of his game.” – Lee Child.