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Sean Connery, an Icon of Effortlessness

Struggle is the essence of drama, but there are some actors who win audiences over by making everything look easy. Connery, who died Saturday at the age of 90, was the warmest presence, the most natural, the most welcoming of that group.

On the set of Dr. No Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images

Peacefully, in his sleep, in the Bahamas, at the age of 90—of course, it’s not necessarily true that the manner of a person’s death says anything about a person’s life, but if Sean Connery had to die, could he have found a more perfectly Sean Connery way to go than that? I mean without actually slipping on a Savile Row suit and infiltrating a supervillain’s volcano? In all his best roles, from his iconic 007 in seven James Bond films to his iconic Henry Jones Sr. in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade to his iconic Soviet submarine captain in The Hunt for Red October, Connery glowed with a kind of invincible effortlessness; I wasn’t at his deathbed, obviously, but based on the early news reports, it was a comfort to imagine the same quality enduring when he was at his least invincible.

Struggle is the essence of drama, but there are some actors who win you over by making everything look easy, and in that group, Connery was the warmest presence, the most natural, the most welcoming. Paul Newman made a career out of playing insouciant golden boys who learned what it meant to get the shit kicked out of them, but Connery almost never took a blow he couldn’t bounce back from with a quick change of clothes and a drink. He let you feel what it was like to dodge the bullet, get the loot, outwit the mastermind, and drive away in a cool car, softly chuckling. And as with Newman, you never resented him for anything he got away with, not because he deserved to get away with it, but because what he shared with you was the extraordinary relief of occasionally not having to deserve it. He made not deserving it existentially beautiful.

There’s a story that before Dr. No, the first Bond film, started filming in 1962, the producers told Connery to wear his bespoke suits to sleep. He was already 32 at that point, the son of an Edinburgh truck driver and a cleaning woman, and he’d knocked around the British film industry for years without making much of a mark; he’d worked as a milkman, he’d dated actresses, and he’d gotten in a lot of fights. He was having an interesting life. But fine suits? Not really his area of expertise. His Bond bosses wanted him to look as comfortable in tailored clothing as other people do in pajamas. And that was the trick he pulled off for 40 years, from Bond’s comfortable worsteds to Ramirez’s peacock-feathered cape and red velvet doublet in the Highlander movies to King Richard’s armor in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. He pulled it off figuratively, too. Why worry? he seemed to say. It’s only the fate of humanity at stake.

Off the top of my head, the only truly awful moment I can remember him playing on film is the infamous church-altar “Why? Why? WHYYY??” wail from First Knight, his drecky 1995 King Arthur drama. What’s cringe-inducing isn’t the dollar-store soap-opera quality of the line reading so much as the sheer wrongness of seeing Connery suffer so helplessly. The cause of the suffering—Guinevere, played by Julia Ormond, had been cheating on him with Lancelot—wasn’t the point; the point was that Sean Connery, of all God’s twinkle-eyed children, wasn’t supposed to berate his maker for bringing him misery. He wasn’t supposed to have to. Besides, Lancelot was played by Richard Gere, which … well, there are actors magnetic enough to hold their own next to Connery on screen, but in this case the comparison made Gere look like a featureless android; it was like watching King Arthur lose the girl to King Arthur’s unscrupulous accountant.

He put on costars as comfortably as he put on clothes. For all that he could overpower less charismatic presences, Connery was a generous screen partner for many actors, especially actors with the right sense of humor. Alec Baldwin, as the buttoned-up CIA analyst in Red October, was smart enough to stay out of his way, but Harrison Ford’s smirking Indiana Jones brought out a wonderful side of him; he found a way to transpose his aura of sheer blessedness into an otherworldly and almost saintlike innocence that brilliantly needled Ford’s earthbound hard work. The Kipling-derived colonialist fantasy The Man Who Would Be King, from 1975, must be one of the most problematic movies ever committed to film, but it’s worth gritting your teeth through the story just to see Connery and Michael Caine, real-life pals, being happily tall together.

It’s a testament, actually, to Connery’s supreme easy-goingness that the sheer scale of his career only really becomes apparent when you glance down the list of names that featured alongside his—Connery is surely the only person to have played love scenes with Audrey Hepburn and fight scenes with Wesley Snipes. In the 1950s, he was reportedly held at gunpoint (in real life!) by Lana Turner’s mobster boyfriend Johnny Stompanato; in the ’80s, he had his wrist broken, while training for a role, by an action choreographer named Steven Seagal. He made a movie with Alfred Hitchcock (Marnie, 1964) and one with Nicolas Cage (The Rock, 1996). In the 2000s, in a twist too stupid for 007, the latter film became the basis of a false MI6 intelligence report in the run-up to the Iraq War, when a covert source was found to have borrowed details from the plot for a report about Saddam Hussein’s supposed chemical weapons program.

I’m not sure whether the careers of actors have central themes the way the careers of writers often do. If Connery’s had one, it was the construction of a particular style of midcentury masculinity, one more relaxed than the prewar version, less violent, better fed, more sure of always winning. Humphrey Bogart was playing for higher existential stakes in most of his movies than Connery, but Bogart was also apt to snap, lash out, lose his mind. Connery had more advantages—no Depression, no World War—but precisely because of that, he wasn’t rash. You could reason with him. There’s a coldly exploitative edge to many of his films, especially the early ones, that ties directly to this moment in history and its neither-shaken-nor-stirred vision of manhood. I’m thinking not just of the “natives” in The Man Who Would Be King but of Shirley Eaton dead and covered in gold paint in Goldfinger; there’s no sense that Connery’s Bond intends any harm toward the (many) women who die during his adventures, but there’s also no sense that he’s especially put out when they do. People like to say Bond treats women as objects, but in fact he treats them much worse than that. He takes pretty good care of his objects. He knows how much they cost.

This may be an evasion of the point, but what keeps me going back to Connery’s films is that little crinkle at the corner of his mouth that says none of this deserves to be taken very seriously. You can disagree with the stance—there’s a sense in which I think the James Bond movies ought to be taken very seriously, and probably fled from while screaming—but it opens a space between the human presence of Connery the actor and whatever’s happening on screen. And the actor, at least, can almost always be enjoyed on his own terms. Here we are playing with a particular cultural fantasy, the crinkle says, maybe not a particularly good one, but then, few of them are. It’s strange how often the best parts of the world and the worst parts are mixed together. Every time Connery slouches back against the silver Aston Martin and the wind picks up his tie, I see a little bit of both.

In the end, the clearest sign of Connery’s cultural legacy may be the thing that seems most opposed to what he represented in life—namely, how unbelievably fraught and effortful every single thing to do with the James Bond franchise seems these days. Daniel Craig plays the character as a borderline sadomasochist, a walking (and punching, and rocket-firing) emotional crisis vehemently repressed through sex and alcohol and (unseen but palpable) shopping orgies at Brunello Cucinelli. This may be a more realistic depiction of the psychological toll inflicted by the Bond lifestyle, but in pragmatic terms it reads as a concession to the fact that no one will ever bring Connery’s charm to this role again. If you don’t want to play the character as a watered-down reduction of the icon, the way Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan did, then the only choice is play it as his raging opposite, because that way at least you aren’t competing with Connery.

Offscreen, too, everything with Bond is so harried, so frazzled, so 10,000 percent stressed-out. The pandemic-mandated delay of No Time to Die. Craig’s openly expressed exasperation with the role. The endless jockeying and bickering in the media over whether the part should go next to Idris Elba or Tom Hiddlestone or Tom Hardy. The friction around Bond throws Connery’s superlative lack of friction into a kind of continual relief; more than that, it indicates the size of the void he leaves behind. All this un-Connery-like work, and still no one can fill it, and no one will.

“No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” the villain barks at him in Goldfinger. He must have been the only one. The rest of us knew on some level that Connery would die, but we surely never expected it. How could we have? He’d spent his whole career calmly sidestepping whatever damage the world had prepared for him, and making us feel we were sidestepping it with him. The name of the movie is You Only Live Twice; at least, if we had to lose Sean Connery, we can take comfort in the thought that we saw him live many more times than that.