Craig, Connery and Co: but just who is the best James Bond?
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Following the success of 2012's Skyfall, Shadowlocked's resident Bond guru – Mark Iveson – ranks the eight different actors to have portrayed the British secret agent...
So...Bond is back, and after an astonishing run in the cinemas (he's still going too!), it would appear that he's more successful than ever. However, with the success of Skyfall (2012) comes an all too familiar question – just who is the best ever Bond?
Eight actors have tackled the part, with varying degrees of success; so here they are in reverse order: the best Bonds – according to me.
8. Barry Nelson (one TV episode)
Bit of a shame having to put him last! After all, he was the first ever Bond. This live television adaptation of Casino Royale (1954) was an episode of an American anthology drama series called Climax. Long considered lost in the TV vaults, it was rediscovered a few years back and has now achieved a belated cult status among fans. Nelson’s performance does have some curiosity value and for what it's worth, he rises above the fluffed lines and missed cues that came with the claustrophobic confines of live television of the early fifties. But of course he’s not playing Bond as a British agent. He is actually CIA operative ‘Diamond’ Jimmy Bond, complete with widow’s peak crew cut and John Wayne machismo. On that level Nelson is acceptable enough; and since the film series was years away, there is no reason for fans to get a pet lip over the character changes.
Furthermore, it does leave a question as to whether Nelson would have flourished in a film role, as he did in this TV one-off. The actor had a long career on the Shakespearean stage so presenting a convincing English accent would have been no bother to the talented thespian. Moreover, while not conventionally handsome he did have an intelligent presence that added to his appeal, so the thought of him as an official Bond grows further. There’s no reason to assume that Nelson could not have done a decent job in a film, and the end result would have been interesting. And...pause for thought!
7. David Niven (one unofficial film spoof)
Ironically, David Niven was Ian Fleming’s recommendation for Bond in 1962's Dr. No. Niven’s elegant manner, sophisticated wit, impeccable diction and military bearing was certainly more attuned to Fleming’s original character, especially when compared to the brawny, working class, former ordinary seaman with the thick Scots brogue.
As it was, he had to make do playing Sir James Bond in the dreary, over-inflated sixties spoof Casino Royale (1967). In fact Niven is the only actor who manages to maintain his dignity in this over-the-top misfire in which everyone involved (bar the cinema audience) were having a fun time. Although Niven makes a very good middle-aged Bond, would he have been equally impressive as 007 in his action packed heyday? Sadly the answer is no! The easygoing authority and good humour he portrays in the film would make him an excellent M or Q, but not Bond.
Already a tad too old for Dr. No, Niven was far too slim to make a convincing action hero. If the Bond films were made in the thirties and forties, the obvious choices would be Errol Flynn or Clark Gable, both of whom had the right physique. So perhaps it was best that Niven’s contribution to the world of 007 stayed firmly rooted in a silly spoof.
6. Sir Roger Moore (seven official Bond films)
Let’s be honest here...Sir Roger isn’t Bond; at least to those who grew up with Connery. Too lightweight for some fans, it’s a wonder how he managed to star in seven increasingly camp movies.
Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve nothing against the actor. He has a likeable charm, a disarming presence and a sharp wit that made him perfect on TV as The Saint (1962-69); and being boyishly handsome did hide the fact he was a bit too old for 007, when he made his debut in Live and Let Die (1973), aged 46 at the time of filming. The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) was even worse, with a villain who was more interesting than Bond himself. (Christopher Lee as 007? Could have worked!)
However, Moore finally hit his stride with The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), a big-budget extravaganza packed with gadgets. It did show that he was quite capable of delivering the goods if pushed by a disciplined director. But amidst the flares and safari suits, the series fell victim to its new 'OTT' style and by the time of the sub-standard A View to a Kill (1985), Moore looked too old; even his super-smooth persona had worn thin. Both the actor and the series had become caricatures.
5. George Lazenby (one official Bond film)
Poor George! One cannot give a proper assessment of his Bond on the strength of one film; it usually takes two or three for an actor to hit his stride. Fans are split in their opinions over the Australian’s only 007 performance, which was made all the more difficult when he stepped into Sean Connery’s shoes.
The 31-year-old was the youngest actor to play Bond. As a former Australian army sergeant who taught keep fit and gymnastics, Lazenby also studied martial arts under Bruce Lee, so physically he was perfect for the role (he did his own stunts). His performance is wooden in spots, but then Connery wasn’t perfect in Dr. No. He also had a brittle vulnerability that made his interpretation all the more realistic. Bond as a flawed mortal...who'd have thought!
Perhaps the biggest fault with On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was that it was too drama-based. In hindsight, Lazenby needed something more action-packed to give him a good introduction. The tragic ending could have also given him a decent springboard for the next Bond, had he not made a complete nuisance of himself before being subsequently dropped. That second film could have secured major stardom; but as it is, OHMSS remains an unfortunate indication of what could have been.
4. Pierce Brosnan (four official Bond films)
Handsome, suave, wel- built, impeccably dressed, clipped English accent...it’s obvious from the start that Brosnan was a natural for 007. What the Irish actor lacked in versatility he more than made up for with polish, style and a suitably steely wit that took the series into a new century.
But why should such a perfect Bond be put in fourth place? Brosnan should have played him a decade earlier, had it not been for his contractual obligation to the TV series Remington Steele (1982-87). By the time he got his chance he was a little too old, although still in good physical shape. Also, the films themselves are hardly classics. Goldeneye (1995) is rather overrated and Brosnan gives a stiff performance. Conversely, he settles nicely into the role with Tomorrow Never Dies (1997) and The World is Not Enough (1999), both of which are marked improvements but still way short of being Bond classics despite his excellent acting.
The biggest faults in all three films, however, are the very ineffective villains, forgettable babes and lacklustre stories. The change of director on each film also took away the consistency that made the series work so well. Of course Die Another Day (2002) remains one of the worst Bonds ever made, with 007 even managing to play second fiddle to a character known as 'Jinx' Johnson (played...I suppose adequately...by Halle Berry). Brosnan himself was now looking old, tired and completely cheesed off. One Bond too many perhaps!
3. Timothy Dalton (two official films)
It’s a pity that Dalton is not as popular as he deserved to be. He was certainly years ahead of his time with his interpretation of Bond; but like him or not, the Welshman was needed.
After the camp silliness of the Moore era, the series returned to acting basics; Bond had to be real once more. The Living Daylights (1987) was the right step forward, with a new and intensely aggressive Bond, brilliantly played by Dalton. Because the actor felt that the new 007 should be made of harder stuff, a lot of the humour was missing from the film. Dalton lacked Connery’s laid-back charm and Moore’s tongue-in-cheek flamboyance, so when the one-liners were delivered from a more serious, introverted Bond, they came across rather heavy-handed. The fact that the script had been written for an unknown actor meant Dalton, who was second choice, had little room to manoeuvre.
This balance was suitably redressed in Licence to Kill (1989), with the actor looking more relaxed without having to compromise his intensity. It’s the best film of the series with an outstanding villain in Robert Davi, and features Desmond Llewellyn’s finest hour as Q. Unfortunately, this 'new Bond' failed to appease the need of many of the Bond die-hards...a real shame, because Dalton was way ahead of the other, better-established Bonds.
2. Daniel Craig (three official films and counting)
Aon Productions' announcement that Daniel Craig would be the new 007 raised more than just Sir Roger's eyebrows! Critics and fans alike were surprised, confused, appalled and outraged by the decision. And despite public support from Judi Dench and Pierce Brosnan, the odds were pretty much stacked against this versatile actor; an individual who had been around a lot longer than people think.
With the pressure on, Daniel Craig had to work twice as hard as any other actor to win the fans over. Fortunately, it paid off when he made his first-class debut in the excellent Casino Royale (2006). Craig effectively stepped into the role with skill and confidence, indulging in the darkness the role allowed and providing fans with a Bond that was gritty, intelligent, intense and vulnerable. In fact, his 007 owes more to Lazenby and Dalton than to Connery, Moore and Brosnan. Whilst Quantum of Solace (2008) took his image a stage further, whilst developing a platform for Craig's darker, more unhinged Bond, his pièce de résistance came courtesy of 2012's Skyfall, perhaps one of the finest films of the franchise.
Will Craig become the greatest Bond ever? Only time will tell; and with two more films on his contract, it’ll be interesting to see what develops. One thing is certain, though – Aon will have a very difficult job replacing him once he hangs up his licence to kill.
1. Sir Sean Connery (six official – and one unofficial – Bond film(s))
Whether he likes it or not, Connery is still the greatest Bond ever, even if Craig is on the verge of kicking him into touch. The Edinburgh-born actor was certainly not Ian Fleming’s choice – his working class roots and thick Scottish accent being far removed from Fleming’s public school-educated naval commander. Funnier still was his appearance. Even dressed head-to-toe in the finest formal wear or tuxedo, Connery still looked more like a nightclub bouncer than an officer and a gentleman.
So, to play Bond convincingly Connery had to become Bond. Simply put, this meant a total transformation – refining one's accent, partaking in regular etiquette classes and generally presenting a demeanor that looked like it was born to wear Saville Row suits. Thankfully, the gamble worked and the Bond persona audiences saw in Dr. No was enough to create a living legend, as Connery stepped into the role with total conviction. He consolidated the image with his best performance in From Russia with Love (1963) and secured Bond immortality in Goldfinger (1964).
Although Thunderball (1965) and You Only Live Twice (1967) were lesser efforts, Connery still personified Bond in all aspects, despite becoming weary of the role itself. That said, the veneer did wear thin in Diamonds Are Forever (1971). Now a little too old for 007, Connery walked through the film with little to no conviction, despite being paid a rather handsome fee of £1.2 million (which was used to set up the Edinburgh Youth Trust).
Connery did return to the role of 007, however, in the independently-made (and totally unnecessary) Never Say Never Again (1983), and showed – despite being 53 years of age – that he still had what it took to be the definitive James Bond.
Sir Sean...we salute you!
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