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That's the Chicago Way

 A word, if you will, in praise of the life of Sean Connery.

Connery is as close to a movie star as there ever was, in any generation. He was the best James Bond, more charismatic than charming, even though he was among the few who didn't care for the franchise. He was an actor's actor, and didn't care for the pageantry of 007 movies. He told a New York Times reporter, early on, that they are, "like comic strips dependent on bigger and better gimmicks."

He'd rather be playing golf.

But the Bond movies brought him fame and lots of money, enough money that he could be selective about his projects. And that part, he liked. 

A tribute to Sean Connery, then, in Three Acts:

Act I

I began dating my wife in 1983. She was hot, I'm not going to lie. I was playing way over my head. If I never win the lottery it will be because I blew all my good luck on that one gambit back in the day. Also, I mostly don't play the lottery.

The 1980s were the era of MTV, back when MTV was radio for your eyeballs. Most of the girls on campus had crushes on dandies that looked like Duran Duran; or hair monsters like David Lee Roth. Not my girlfriend. Long before Friends popularized the practice, my wife's celebrity pass list was pretty short and started with none other than Sean Connery. 

Now, we were all a lot younger then, including Sir Sean (who I don't think was knighted yet, but no matter). But still, he was a nontraditional romantic rival to say the least. At the time I could compete in the chest hair category, but that was about it. My level of charm and gravitas was way closer to Steve Gutenberg than Sean Connery, and I knew it. So I took the mature path and just quietly allowed her the fantasy, comforted in the fact that a face-to-face meeting was unlikely.

(Update: Dodged that bullet! While she DID chase down Ben Vereen, who was also on the list, on a New York City Street, she never met Sean Connery!)

***

Act II

In 1987 I was out of college but not yet married. Flush with knowledge and newly minted independence I saw Brian DePalma's film The Untouchables. The film starred Kevin Costner as a mayonnaise sandwich claiming to be Prohibition G-Man Elliot Ness, but in reality there were only two actors on screen: Robert DeNiro, as Al Capone; and Sean Connery, as the reluctant Good Cop, Jimmy Malone. It was for this role that Connery won his Oscar.

Most people remember the scene in church, Connery and Costner, where Malone says to Ness, "You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. THAT'S the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone."  And while that scene is indeed iconic, not to mention fairly easy to remember and imitate, even while intoxicated, it's not the one I remember when I think of Sean Connery in that movie.

There's his death scene (oops, spoiler!) and that's about as good as you'll get anywhere. But the scene I flash to is the one where Ness and his crew are in the Great White North trying to intercept a caravan of hooch coming across the border. They capture one of Capone's lieutenants, but he's not talking. He knows his boss can buy him out of any trouble he's wandered into. 

Frustrated, Malone walks outside the shack, spies one of the dead gangsters on the porch and hoists him up against the window. "What's the matter, can't talk with a gun in your mouth?" he demands? And then blows the (dead) guy's head off. Which prompts the stooge to start singing like a canary. (That's my film noir voice by the way.)

It's an extraordinary scene. It sounds gruesome to read but it's played with just the right wink and nod, like Paul Newman in Butch and Sundance. It's classic.

***

Act III

In 1989 Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade came out. It was the last legitimate Indiana Jones outing (the fourth one is dreck) and, honestly, may be better than the original Raiders of The Lost Ark. Maybe. If so, it's because of the chemistry between Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones and Sean Connery as his dad, Professor Henry Jones SENIOR. ("I named the dog Indiana!")

Oh, also I got married.

The scene my wife and I look forward to every time we watch it is when Indy and his father are tied up, back to back, in the Nazi stronghold, which is on fire around them. It's on fire because Sean Connery's Dr. Jones is as intense as he is inept in exactly the kind of high-action tomfoolery the franchise is built on. It's silly, really: in the scene they are trying to communicate - something they have been unable to do all their lives, under far better circumstances than this - and Harrison Ford is saying, "Dad!" and looking one way, while Sean Connery says, "What?!" and looks the other way. It's a visual gag: see for yourself.

But Connery absolutely shines through the whole movie. He's amazing when he accidently lets on that he (as well as his son) slept with the comely Nazi professor. ("She talks in her sleep.") He's amazing when he slaps Indy across the face ("THAT'S for blasphemy!")

But he's best when the two of them are trying to escape the Nazi Fokker (it's historically accurate and fun to say!) along the beach where they've crashed their car. Connery's character uses his proper British umbrella to send a flock of seagulls skyward where they foul the plane's propellers and bring the bad guy down in an impressive fireball. Strolling away from the carnage he smiles, self-satisfied, and quotes Charlemagne: "Let my armies be the rocks and the trees and the birds in the sky..." In that moment Indy sees, maybe for the first time, a man he can admire. And we see, absolutely for the first time, the only man who could have sired Indiana Jones.

Chemistry, sure - it wouldn't have worked if Harrison Ford and Sean Connery hadn't been as natural on screen as they were. But come on, when you can walk onto a larger than life tableau like the Indiana Jones franchise as a supporting player, and tip the scales against a larger than life character actor like Harrison Ford (Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan, Blade Runner's Deckard), you are the King of The World. No kidding.

***

I have so many other fond memories tied to films starring Sean Connery:

  • He's the only one steady enough to balance coming-unglued Nicolas Cage in The Rock
  • He was the perfect commander of the Russian sub in Tom Clancy's The Hunt for Red October. Only Sean Connery could make you silence the voice in your head that should have been screaming: "Why is this guy talking with a British accent?!?" 
  • In Entrapment, only Catherine Zeta Jones' museum quality derriere could make you look away from Sean Connery's portrayal of a legendary art thief; and even then, only for about 10 seconds. Then back to Sir Sean. 
  • And the only thing better than his cameo as King Richard in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is Sir Patrick Stewart's homage to it in Mel Brooks' film, Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

But the best thing to remember about him is that he never lost sight of who he was and what was important. He never took himself more seriously than the work. He was grateful for the financial and artistic independence being James Bond afforded him, at the same time he was resentful of being a cog in what he saw as a comic book machine world.

To me, he was one of those actors who always made you lose yourself in the character. You left the movie thinking, "Sean Connery is the coolest guy," even though you didn't spend the last two hours with Sean Connery, but with a character he inhabited. 

He hasn't been active in a long while but I will miss him, miss knowing that he's around. Fortunately, when the mood strikes there's a wonderful body of work to help fill the void.

Rest in peace.

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