He was a great actor but Sean Connery, who passed away yesterday at the age of 90, was more than that. He had the rare combination of talent, charisma, and the strangely indefinable thing called star quality. Like Gene Kelly or Humphrey Bogart, he had strange, seemingly exaggerated physical characteristics that gave the viewer the impression of an extraordinarily clear view of a man's soul.
Those big, dark eyebrows, large eyes, thin but protruding lips--mostly it was the eyebrows, I think. I can imagine he was great onstage--those eyebrows must have been visible from the cheap seats.
I'm not a very big James Bond fan but I very much like From Russia with Love and Connery is certainly my favourite Bond. The role was originally offered to Richard Johnson, who turned it down, and years later had this to say about the part:
Eventually they offered it to Sean Connery, who was completely wrong for the part. But in getting the wrong man they got the right man, because it turned the thing on its head and he made it funny. And that's what propelled it to success.
Bond was supposed to be suave and sophisticated--the template was Cary Grant as he was in Alfred Hitchcock movies. But just as Cary Grant's sophistication appealed mainly because it was a playful guise over a working class upbringing, Connery made the role vulgar in a delightful way. Many of the things he does in movies that would seem reprehensible for most actors to do seemed charming when he did it--he was always inviting us along with him for the fun. He seemed to make an accomplice of everyone. He was wonderfully wicked. And directors immediately recognised it and started to try to take advantage of it. It didn't quite work, at least for me, in Marnie, where Hitchcock made him a little too reptilian. But when Connery deliberately tried playing against his charisma in Straw Woman it couldn't help but be disappointing, however fascinating that movie is.
It made him perfect for his role in The Man Who Would be King--that's one way to make the story of a scoundrel and a conqueror truly tragic. He was perfect in the role of an older Robin Hood in Robin and Marian--he has the apparent canniness of a capable leader and the charming vulgarity of a rogue. He was a good father for Indiana Jones, taking the concept of intellect combined with virility to a different configuration, believably being the same as and different to his son in just the way one might expect father and son to be.
But even when he was in bad movies, it was good just to see him. He was certainly one of the greatest of his profession.