Sean Connery has been waiting three entire movies to say this line. The first chance he got, Dr. No beat him to it, ordered the drink for him with that genteel menace so common among Bond villains. Now, three movies in, he’s finally got the hang of the role. Not only is he Bond, but no one will ever believe another actor as Bond again. For generations, children will clutch movie theater armrests and shove popcorn down their throats, eyes wide with excitement watching Roger Moore interrupt a wedding by jumping over it on a speedboat, or Pierce Brosnan take a swan dive from the top of a 100 story dam, or Daniel Craig perform the dually impossible feat of sparring on top of a crane while looking good in khakis and an Aloha shirt. But whispering in their ears, always, will be well-meaning fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and stepfathers, reminding them that things were better once, long before they were born, that they will never be the same. This is Sean Connery’s world. Timothy Dalton just lives in it.
And here we are. Finally, Connery has his chance to say the line that we will all be imitating in our worst Highlander accents for years to come. This is his moment. How perfect he looks, surrounded by gold and black leather, his hair immaculate despite the fact that he’s been lying unconscious in a cargo hold all night; unshaven, yes, but with that manliest of five o’clock shadows, a coat of greasepaint applied by God after falling asleep drunk in front of a Patriots game. But even as he says the career-making line, the consonants so thick you could break a tooth on them, he can’t truly savor his victory.
There are two reasons to drink: to celebrate and to blunt your suffering. And Connery’s been doing too much of the second kind lately. He’s not drinking this martini on a casino floor, a beautiful woman on his arm. He’s not drinking it while strolling through the ruins of a smoldering doomsday weapon that he destroyed with a bomb hidden in his cufflink. This drink is the last cigarette before the firing squad. The eponymous villain, Auric Goldfinger, apprehended him the night before, has him under lock and key on his private jet. If he were a secret agent worth half his salt, he wouldn’t take a sip of this dry martini, shaken, not stirred. Who knows what Goldfinger’s goons could be mixing in with the vermouth. But Sean Connery doesn’t think that way. He never has. His typical strategy is simple: knock on the door of his enemy’s house, make the villain angry by winning at Baccarat, and say his own name twice just in case there’s any confusion. It’s not exactly super spy stuff. No wonder he’s let himself be captured. No wonder he’s taking advantage of the open bar.
It’s curious that Goldfinger, the most iconic and beloved of the series, centers around a Bond who spends most of the movie tied up. (Another Bond might have taken some sadomasochistic pleasure in it, but not Connery. He’s strictly missionary, purely vanilla). Even in the climactic final scenes, he spends most of the action handcuffed to a handcart. The film’s most famous scene involves Connery strapped to a table with the laser beam inching toward his inseam. “Do you expect me to talk, Goldfinger?” If you’ve seen a single clip montage in the last 50 years you know that Goldfinger is less interested in what Bond has to say than in watching the laser cut him in half. Bond escapes, inevitably, but his method isn’t particularly daring. He doesn’t use a buzz saw in his watch to cut his restraints just in time. He doesn’t reflect the laser’s beam off of his belt buckle and short out the control panel. No. He begs for his life. I’ve seen this movie a thousand times, and this scene a thousand more, and it surprises me every time. You can see it in his eyes, as he lies squirming on that table. You can see the moment when the brash exterior falls away. You can see the fear. There’s no James Bond here. There’s no Sean Connery. There’s nothing but a scared little boy who doesn’t want to die.
* * *
Every day at five o’clock, for as long as I could remember, my grandfather made himself a martini. I can only remember so far back, of course. Who knows how many years he’d been making them before I’d been born; before I was old enough to pay attention to what he drank, to smell the acrid smell of the liquor, the brininess of the olive that he dropped into it; before I was old enough to take it from his hand when he offered a sip, press the ice sculpture of the glass against my lips and recoil; before I was old enough to wish he would use a better brand than Beefeater. When I was young, when we went to his house for dinner, I would watch him drink it, emulating him by pouring myself shots of Sprite into an unused jigger shaped like a lemon.
My grandfather loves James Bond. Connery’s Bond. Most men his generation do—and most men in general, come to think of it. My grandfather is only a few years older than Sean Connery, would have been 34 when he saw James Bond accept his first poorly made martini from Dr. No. (Drinking a shaken martini is the mixological equivalent of eating well done meat). The movie made an impact on him, but his memory of it was imperfect. When I was a kid, he told me about the first time he’d seen Bond, a theater in Chicago showing Dr. No. An iconic scene: Connery pulls himself up onto a dock in the middle of the night, peels off his wetsuit to reveal a spotless white tuxedo.
Even at the time, I knew this wasn’t right. This scene isn’t Dr. No at all, but one of the first moments of Goldfinger. My brothers and I had taken enough trips to Blockbuster to know that. We’d pore over the Action and Adventure rack for any hint of Connery, Moore, or (in a pinch) Dalton. Back then, without the internet, it was hard to know exactly how many Bond movies there were, or what all of them were called, or what order they came in, or even how many actors had played him. For all we knew, Burt Reynolds might have made 12 of the things.
My grandfather would have seen Dr. No in his thirties, still the handsome young man I recognize from pictures. In one of them, he sits in the backseat of a car with my grandmother just after their wedding. He looks James Bond dapper in a bowtie and tuxedo. He smiles at my grandmother, at the camera, at the space in between, at the entire world really, ready to face the future. He’s a tall man with a strong jaw, but he doesn’t project anything but warmth and kindness. There’s no menace behind those eyes. If anything, he looks somewhat dopey behind his horn-rimmed Clark Kent glasses, all goggle-eyed and in love.
The early years of his marriage to my grandmother are hard for me to piece together from the collage of stories and anecdotes. I know that he was an actor at some point, but I’m not sure to what extent it was a dream and to what extent it was just a hobby, something to pass those early, childless afternoons. Maybe playing the Jimmy Stewart role in Harvey in a small Cleveland theater company was a lark, a way to fill the afternoons before there were children to take care of. Or maybe this was what he wanted to be, this lanky kid who would be my grandfather one day, who read Shakespeare in college, who even as an old man would misquote Hamlet with relish during cocktail hour. Maybe when he saw James Bond on that screen, it was more than just escapism. Maybe he wanted to be Sean Connery—and not just the same way every other man did. He wanted a life different than the one he would go on to live, good but quiet, full but sad, long but normal.
Whatever he might have dreamed of, my grandfather ended up in sales, spent his career travelling the country selling medical equipment (or something along those lines). He supported my grandmother and their four daughters, but he wasn’t good with money. By the time I was old enough to realize what it was he drank in those conical glasses every night before dinner, he’d lost everything. Squandered, misspent, poorly invested, I’m not sure. But he didn’t retire well. By the time I was in high school, we moved in with him and my grandmother in their split level across town—my mother, my brothers and I. Ostensibly, this was so that we could spend more time together. The truth was that my mother was there to support them—pay their rent, help them with living expenses. Of course, we were a good middle class family, so nobody discussed the reality of the situation out loud, only in whispers in the kitchen during dinner, or in hushed tones after they’d gone to bed.
My grandfather played his role perfectly. It was the perfect picture of retired bliss—of a man who’d accomplished things, made choices, moved the world forward in his own small way. He has an unwavering belief that he has lived his life well. It’s something you can hear when he tells stories, all of them embellished if not invented whole cloth, a carefully constructed version of himself—the gentleman, the patriarch, sipping his martinis and enjoying the end of a long life. There are no moments of vulnerability—nothing about the financial problems that drove him to check fraud sometime in the mid ‘90s, or the ailments that are starting to sap his strength, or about the family members who have hurt him or hurt themselves over the years. Sometimes I think it’s a façade, and sometimes I think it’s what he really believes—if you tell yourself a story long enough, it starts to become the truth.
* * *
James Bond is running out of options. He’s attempted escape numerous times, but every time he thinks he is free, Goldfinger’s goons manage to take him back into their custody. He doesn’t want you to know it, but Bond is a desperate man. A caged animal. He’s been face to face with his own death—worse, his own castration. So, in the middle of Goldfinger, this most celebrated of James Bond classics, 007 rapes a woman. I’ve watched this movie over and over, and the more I endure this scene, the more certain I am that there is no other interpretation. In the scene, Bond faces off against Pussy Galore (a name so cringe-inducing to 2015 ears that I’m tempted to block it out in symbols like a swear word in an old comic book). The confrontation starts off strategic—how can Bond get her to turn on Goldfinger and fight on his side. The two of them stand in a horse stable, and as Bond’s persuasive tactics begin to fail, he gets what he wants by taking it. He holds her by the wrists. He slowly lowers her into a bed of hay. She resists until she doesn’t.
P*$$% G@/0&# is the fourth female character to appear in Goldfinger. The first Connery slaps on the ass and sends on her way. The third ends up dead, decapitated by a serrated hat brim. You know what happens to the second—you can see her now, glowing gold, naked except for a sheet draped by some chaste prop master over her bottom half. In the movie’s opening credits, as Shirley Bassey sings the iconic theme song, a montage of the film’s key moments is projected onto a series of close-ups of the dead woman’s golden flesh. Here, Bond rides in the back seat of a town car on her bellybutton. There, Goldfinger glares menacingly from the crook of her elbow. It’s fitting that the most recognizable female character from the Bond series is a dead woman, and these credits are a perfect summation of the Connery era—the woman is not a character, and she is certainly not a person. She is a place for men to project themselves, a way for them to see a version of who they are that they can accept. Something beautiful for the men to look at, something expendable for them to destroy.
I think of watching these movies as a child, of my grandfather breathlessly narrating their plots, the olive at the bottom of his martini trembling with excitement. I think of my father, showing me Scorcese movies and Sam Raimi splatter flicks before I was nine, and telling me “I don’t want any grandkids” when I told him over the phone that I had my first girlfriend (a relationship that amounted to a few dances at a bat mitzvah and a chaste kiss under plastic mistletoe at a middle school party). I think of that moment, at about 15, watching a Bond movie and wondering for the first time (the first time!) what happened to all these women James embraced before the credits, pulled beneath the covers, punned into submission. Wasn’t this supposed to be a happy ending? Where were they? Why did he always return, new face but same tuxedo, as if nothing had ever happened, as if none of it meant anything to him?
* * *
Men like to project strength, but we don’t need James Bond because we’re strong. We need him because we are weak. He’s a coping mechanism, a bedtime story men tell themselves about their power. Close your eyes now. Imagine a world where you are the hero. Where all the terrible things you have ever done are the right thing to do, where you are saving the world, where you are keeping us all safe. It all rests on your shoulders. Everyone else? Expendable. They owe you their lives. They owe you everything. So you take it. Everything. Whatever you want. The world is not enough.
My grandfather yearns, I think, for a past that he can’t get back, a time when he was young and strong, when he had power in this world. I understand it. But power comes with a price. The problem with yearning for the past is that you’re always yearning for a time when someone else had it worse. You’re yearning for a time when others were less free. The problem with idolizing power is that you always have to crush someone to get it. James Bond made a career out of it. Sean Connery understood it too well—in an infamous interview, he maintained that it was perfectly acceptable to slap a woman if she wasn’t being reasonable. Years later, Barbara Walters asked him if he had changed his mind, but he doubled down—he told her it was “absolutely right” to settle an argument by hitting a woman.
What good, in the end, is strength? This idea we insist on, that men are measured by their rugged individualism, by their ability to take control in a situation, by their capacity for delivering violence with finality—what does it get you? My grandfather is close to 90, a few years older than Sean Connery. I don’t know whether he still idolizes this man and the debonair savagery of the role he perfected all those years ago. I don’t know to what extent he longs to be the man he once was, when he had money, youth, career, family, when he couldn’t have imagined the pain and disappointment life brings all of us by the end.
When I think of him now, I think of a day not many years ago when my wife and I visited him in the hospital. He’d been feeling ill for weeks, and the doctors found some irregularity with his heart. He’d been putting up a fight, berating the nurses for taking his vitals, insisting they needed to let him go. He had to escape. He could take care of himself. Meagan and I drove from downtown Atlanta, deep into the suburbs, to see him. It was afternoon visiting hours, and most of the family had taken a break for dinner. He wasn’t expecting us. When we came into the hospital room he was staggering from the bed to the bathroom, his legs wobbling underneath him. “I’m okay,” he said. “I’m okay,” he is saying, repeating it like a mantra. But he isn’t okay. He isn’t strong. He needs help. I can see it in his eyes—how true it is, how impossible it is for him to admit it.