Green Room

RE: James Bond and the new sex appeal

posted at 3:23 pm on November 27, 2012 by

A couple thoughts on this thesis, which reminds me of how the misunderstood heroes of comic book movies and sought-after female leads of teen vampire fiction always end up looking coincidentally a whole lot like the writers of said movies and books. In this version, Richard Cohen objects to Daniel Craig’s muscular physique in “Skyfall,” preferring an older, softer sex appeal:

“Skyfall” is a lot of fun — don’t get me wrong — but it still says something about our culture that, in the autumn of my years, I do not like. To appreciate what I mean, contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning. He is a man of the world. He is, in short, a man of a certain age — 55 at the time, to be more or less exact.

In “North by Northwest” and other movies, Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have.

First, I’m not sure there’s much of a change going on here. Sean Connery was an actual bodybuilder before he was Bond, famously placing in the Mr. Universe competition in the early 1950s. Granted, because bodybuilding was less mainstream and less extreme in the ’50s and ’60s, Connery debuted in “Dr. No” with a leaner look than Craig’s, but he’s still about seven percent body fat and likely a lot more defined than the average man of the time.

As for Grant, he’s certainly as suave and charming an actor as has ever graced the screen, but a symbol of sexual meritocracy? Grant escaped his given name and an unhappy childhood in Britain armed with his good looks and training on the vaudeville stage as, among other things, an acrobat— skills he later used to legendary effect in all those chase scenes and pratfalls. Though he brought much more to each part, stunning features and physical prowess were always part of Grant’s allure, even as he aged.

When Craig was cast to play Bond in “Casino Royale,” there was much public outcry about the actor falling a bit short in the stunning features area. He is not conventionally handsome— To me, he resembles nothing so much as a super-hot Mr. Potato Head.—but both his looks and his tougher physique reflect what producers were trying to do with the character— differentiate him from the suave and generally sunny Bond of old with a emotionally deeper, dangerous anti-hero. Ironically, it’s a return to the unpolished physicality and brogue that made Bond creator Ian Fleming unsure of Connery’s fitness to play the part. Connery acted his rough edges away for the character. Craig relies on his.

Second, I don’t think we’re in imminent danger of running short of older, male actors successfully wooing young actresses in films— another trend Cohen sees falling victim to Craig’s exaggerated pecs.

Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles. He was about 50, and Kelly was a mere 23.

Maybe the best example of the unmuscled hero is Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Bogart was 15 years older than Ingrid Bergman and it did not matter at all. He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age.

Don’t look now, but “Skyfall’s” Bond girl, Bérénice Marlohe is 12 years younger than Craig, and there are plenty of people who wouldn’t mind seeing such age gaps tighten up a bit every now and then or even go the other direction. Men may be required to keep on more muscle than in the past, but surely Cohen would allow than that they’re allowed to age far more easily in Hollywood than women are.

And, finally, someone’s going to have to keep me posted. Is exercise good or bad? It shifts so frequently. In this piece, Cohen piggybacks on a NYT piece deploring the —gasp!— the trend of young men weightlifting to gain muscle. Peter Suderman destroys that health scare handily, here. Back to Cohen:

This is all very sad news. Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held. That’s why Sean Connery was my kind of Bond. He was 53 when he made his last Bond film, “Never Say Never Again.” Women loved him because he was sophisticated and he could handle a maitre d’ as well as a commie assassin. Western civilization was saved not on account of his pecs but on account of his cleverness and experience.

I know the movie market skews young and kids want action, and I take it as a good thing that Daniel Craig’s Bond is older, world weary, and, in sports lingo, has slowed a step. But he still triumphs physically, not cleverly. He does not woo women; they just come on to him.

I’m not the most knowledgable connoisseur of the Bond franchise, but Bond has never been much of a wooer. His first-ever on-screen conquest showed up in his room half-naked for a round of putt-putt (literally and euphemistically) after exchanging three sentences with him. Bond’s sophistication matters, but Connery’s Bond relied so heavily on raw sexuality that it shaped public perception and parodies for decades to come. I remember hearing a funny story, perhaps apocryphal, about the original casting of Connery as Bond. Fleming was unsure of the choice, but his wife or girlfriend took one look at Connery and said, “Yeah, that guy’s got it.” I probably prefer the taller, leaner Bond and Connery’s angst-free portrayal, but I like Craig, too.

I’d say Craig’s Bond, who spent the entire second movie of his Bond hitch avenging the death of one woman with whom he’d had a meaningful relationship, has traded in some of his debonair for more depth. And, he got awesome abs as part of the upgrade. I’m not complaining.

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