I’m a middle-aged product of 1970’s feminism who abhors the objectification of women, the unrealistic and often brutal sexuality of porn, the manly action movie, and macho behavior both in art and in life. So why do I love James Bond?
Personally, I blame Sean Connery.
Since the early 20th century, every generation has had their libidos sparked by personas from pop culture that defined their fantasies. From Rudolph Valentino to Clark Gable to Marilyn Monroe to Mick Jagger to Madonna to Brad Pitt and beyond – kids find images of what they imagine it means to be a man or a woman (or sometimes a delicious blend of both).
And it just so happens that Connery as Bond was still lingering in the atmosphere as an exemplar of manhood when I was going through puberty in the late 60’s and early 70’s. As a kid, the only Bond films I saw were on TV, where they seemed deliciously adult, with innuendos that I didn’t understand but knew with absolute certainty were dirty (what was a Pussy Galore anyway?).
Intrigued, I decided to conduct more research and read the Ian Fleming novels. All of them. (A claim few men can make, and even fewer women.)
The novels are a distinctly different beast than the movies, which often have little more than a title in common with their published namesake. Slower moving by necessity, they delve into Bond’s Epicureanism and frequently stop mid-action to flaunt his expert knowledge of subjects like brandy, baccarat and the Bahamas. We also get Bond’s back story, rarely delved into on celluloid until the recent Casino Royale, when Vesper correctly guesses that Bond is an orphan. The books show us how this fellow has evolved to become equally at ease with wine, women and weapons.
However, I confess that I didn’t read the novels for either their action or their sophistication (which the likes of JFK reportedly savored). Instead, I read them for the sex. (Perhaps JFK did, too.) Like other adolescents of my era, I had to scrounge for sexual knowledge where I could get it, and pulp novels were a prime resource.
Given they were written by a man for men, the funny thing about the sex in the Bond books is that it’s the closest thing to a Harlequin romance that I’ve ever deigned to read. In a certain sense, they are bodice-rippers, in which a virile and masterful man takes a woman beyond the point of her good judgment…and she loves it.
Take “The Spy Who Loved Me,” which is unique in the series for being narrated by the lead female character. In the novel, the action takes place at a run-down motel in the Adirondack Mountains., where an ordinary, innocent woman is rescued from thugs by Bond and gratefully makes love with him after they have escaped death. Describing the way their brutalized bodies ravenously take pleasure in each other, Fleming gives the female narrator a line that has been seared into my brain ever since reading it: “All women love semi-rape.”
Even as a thirteen-year-old virgin, I knew something was wrong with that formulation. But as offensive and even dangerous as his conclusion is, Fleming is honestly describing a fantasy that romance novelists depict in every book they write for their (almost entirely female) audience: The forceful man who overcomes the woman’s inhibitions and better judgment to sweep her into a passionate encounter.
A classic example of this fantasy appears in a famous novel written by a woman for women: Gone With the Wind.
This time the movie faithfully recreates the scene from the book in which a drunken Rhett Butler literally sweeps Scarlett off her feet and carries her protestingly up the dark staircase to bed, only to fade to a morning after scene of Scarlett all but purring with sexual contentment as she lolls in a rumpled bed. (Take that, you wimpy Ashley, is the subtext.)
So, given the appeal of the dark side of Bond, is it any wonder that I despaired during the Roger Moore-Timothy Dalton-Pierce Brosnan years of the series? None matched the suave and humorous brutality of Connery, and I actually found Moore physically repugnant. (Far from being sexy and dangerous, he increasingly displayed the plastic, inflated quality of a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade float like Underdog.)
The movies became jokier and more outrageous, and the tough but sophisticated near-reality of the books was entirely lost.
To the rescue of both the series and my love of Bond comes Daniel Craig, an actor who can play both tender and brutish, often at the same moment, and make you feel the pain of someone who is able to both inflict and bear suffering as few humans can. As M. says, he’s a “blunt instrument,” but one with soft edges.
Contrasting him to his most recent predecessor, Brosnan (an actor I’ve always found too fey to be interesting or attractive) brings to mind a college film class lecture comparing two dance icons: Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire.
Astaire had an ethereal, other-worldly quality, and his lean form was swallowed up by his dandyish clothing which, while impeccably tailored, always hung just a bit loose on him. You couldn’t ever really visualize or imagine Astaire’s body, a great oddity for a dancer in any era.
Kelly, by contrast, was all body. Dressed in tight clothing, often with rolled up sleeves or open shirt, he always seemed about to burst out of his wardrobe, and obviously relished showing off his muscular dancer’s form.
Kelly was walking sex, while Astaire was walking air.
Craig, by far the most muscled of all the Bonds, is the series’ Gene Kelly, defined by his body, which he uses like a hammer against his foes. (Is it any coincidence that his debut, Casino Royale, is perhaps the least-gadgeted film in the entire series, relying instead on Craig’s brute force to achieve its effects?)
Like Connery, Craig plays Bond as the rough, rather cruel character that Fleming created, a far cry from the cartoonish Moore and the lightweight and ironic Brosnan, both of whom missed the creator’s intentions by a mile.
Connery and Craig share not only a more muscular build, but deeper, more resonant and masculine voices than the soft tones of Brosnan or the smirky delivery of Moore. (If you want to know how important men’s voices are to women’s erotic response, try Googling Alan Rickman’s name. As a woman I know once said, “It’s his voice that makes me moist.”)
But most importantly, Craig brings a sense of menace back to Bond. Bond isn’t supposed to be a walking punchline, but a dangerous figure who is feared and respected by both women and men. (He’s licensed to kill, after all, even if he loves you first.)
In Casino Royale, we see Bond earn that license, in a visceral pre-title sequence that tells us all we need to know about both the man and his job, and which reminded me of the famous killing scene in Torn Curtain, which Hitchcock said was intended to show that, unlike what we usually see in the movies, it can be awfully hard to kill someone. To quote Bond’s second victim, the film makes you “feel it,” feel the physical impact of a fight to the death, like the sensation of being in a car crash and not knowing if you will survive. What in earlier Bond films was jokey and assured becomes brutal and battering, to the viewer as well as the participants. “You’ve got a bloody cheek,” M. says to Bond, a nice pun for the pummeling that we see him take and actually show signs of – this is no Teflon Bond.
I’ve always felt at odds with how most audiences prefer violence in films – I want to feel it, I want it to seem real, I want it to mean something, even in an action film – whereas most people seem to want the violence to be as unreal as it is in cartoons, so they can laugh and cheer while it’s occurring and not feel like savages. By contrast, I’m a fan of meaningful violence, because violence is a terrible thing that we should never take lightly, in art or in life. Even in a light entertainment like the Bond films, I want to feel shaken, not just stirred, by what’s being done to the bodies onscreen.
On this count, Quantum of Solace finds Bond abusing his license to kill like a teenager let loose on the roads for the first time. (Even M., the woman who pays him to murder people, begs him to slow down.) Bond seems to have heard the saying that revenge is a dish best eaten cold and misinterpreted it – he coldly goes about killing anyone who might be associated with the crimes of his treacherous love Vesper (although you have to grant the fact that they all seem to want to kill him first).
The trail of bodies becomes a bit wearisome, and Quantum lacks the fullness of Casino Royale, which ranks at or near the top of the series with its balance of action, humor and romance, coupled with the pleasure of seeing a familiar character figuring out who he is, even as we, like good students, are eager to raise our hands and give the answer we know but he can’t utter until film’s end: “Bond, James Bond.”
Unlike another spy finding his identity, Jason Bourne, Bond isn’t tormented by his wickedness (as he tells Vesper, he wouldn’t be very good at his job if he was) but neither is he gleeful or blithe about it (unlike in previous Bond films). Instead he goes about his job with the bemused assurance of a man who has finally found his calling, the perfect outlet for all those odd skills and dangerous impulses that never fit into normal life. In Casino Royale, he seems surprised but pleased to find it all coming together…just before it all comes apart.
Picking up where that film leaves off, Quantum of Solace could be read either as a nervous breakdown, spying division, or merely the necessary breaking in of a killer to his new profession – going too far before he finds a reasonable balance of mayhem and maybe-not.
With the reboot of the series completed, I suspect subsequent films with Craig will show us a more fully-formed and smoother Bond, but one which I hope will retain the rough edges that his creator intended him to have – and which many of us have loved and missed.