A Chapter                                                                                                                             

         Ye maun dree yer weird.  (You must endure your fate. Free translation: You can only begin to play with the cards life deals you.)
         Sean Connery's looks were always his ace.

         Exterior. Day.
         Close-up of long grass.  Camera tracks left, coming upon a rock where several objects rest:  a dark-brown ribbed bottle (made from some undifferentiated substance), two pale-coloured goblets (ditto), a dark platter containing a green apple and a piece of cheese.  Beside the rock a blonde woman is lying on the ground and a man with long brown hair (which looks as if it has never made acquaintance with a comb) is on top of her.  He is kissing her hungrily and she is gasping.  He rolls over onto his back and she rests her head on his chest.  They appear to have completed more or less what they were doing.
         Woman:  You can do that to me forever if you like, my lord.
         She leans up on her arm, showing a lot of attractive breast.
         Woman:  Will ye, Connor?
         Man:  Aye, Blossom.  Ah will.
         They begin to kiss again.  The idyll is interrupted by a loud but indistinct sound, possibly 'Hallo-o-o!'  Enter a horse's arse, directly over camera.  It is a white horse.  The lovers look amazed, as well they might.  The white horse comes frontally into shot.  Seated on it is a tall rider, dressed in a rich red coat and breeches, black riding boots, and with what looks like a kind of mini-cape of peacock feathers over his shoulders.  He wears a broad-brimmed hat with a big feather in it.  It is a weirdly eclectic ensemble.  He is now in close-up.  He raises a gloved right hand.
         Horseman:  Greetings! I am Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez. Chief Metallurgist to King Charles Fifth of          Spain.  And I'm at your service.
         The lovers are, not surprisingly, surprised.
         Woman:  Who?
         It seems a reasonable question.  The lovers stand up, the woman taking shelter behind the man.
         Man:  What do you want?
         Horseman (Smiling a dazzling smile and pointing a finger):  You!
         He begins to dismount.  Cut briefly to bleak mountain-top - lightning flash.  Back to the horseman talking to the man.
         Horseman:  You are Connor MacLeod.
         Man:  Maybe I am and mayb-
        Horseman:  You are Connor MacLeod.  Wounded in battle and driven from your village of Glenfinnan five years ago. 
         More lightning.  The man buckles in pain.
         Cut, cut.

The man playing a Scotsman is a Frenchman called Christopher Lambert.  The man playing a Spaniard is a Scotsman called Sean Connery.  Welcome to Hollywood.

The film is 'Highlander'.  The horseman has just arrived to inform Connor MacLeod that they are both immortal.  Hollywood and hokum often seem to go naturally together like peaches and cream, or cowsheds and shit, but it is possible to feel that this film doesn't even register on the hokum scale, that it is off there somewhere in the immeasurably ludicrous, drifting around on a ramshackle premise, its incoherent progress refusing to obey even the flimsy dynamics of its own fantasy. You don't just have to suspend disbelief.  You need to bury it with shovels.  No chance that this could ever connect with planet earth.

But Connery does.  Such is his impact, arriving in the midst of this ill-conceived farrago, that it becomes one of the more stunning entrances in cinema.  He has such physical grandeur that it can even match the size of his name.  Juan Sanchez Villa-Lobos Ramirez.  Uh-huh.  (Still, it's not quite as bad as the real name of the Duchess of Parma.  Zita Maria Grazia Adelgouda Michela Raffaella Gabriella Giuseppina Antonia Luisa Agnese?  No cheques, please.  We'll be closed by the time you finish your signature.)  And in spite of wearing a costume that looks like the revenge of a wardrobe mistress who has been badly treated by men, he exudes incontrovertible masculine power.  During his brief appearance in the film there is something worth watching.  With him gone, it's hard to know where to put your eyes to avoid embarrassment.  Maybe behind closed lids.

This is a remarkable effect to have and it is not confined to 'Highlander'.  At the end of 'Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves' his brief appearance as Richard the Lionheart gives an almost historical dignity to yet another telling of the dubious story of England's favourite outlaw.  He looks every inch a king.  In the happy romp of 'Time Bandits', his Agamemnon looks almost too real for the scatty context he finds himself in.  He overflows it.  He joins in the fun pleasantly enough.  But he's like an adult at a children's party.  His image doesn't really belong here.

Schliemann, excavating at Mycenae, sent a telegram saying: 'I have looked upon the face of Agamemnon.'  No, he hadn't.  But an audience watching 'Time Bandits' might have felt it had come close to doing that.  You could imagine this is how the real Agamemnon (if there was one) might have looked (if he was lucky).

How does he do that?  Maybe the horses help.  In all three films he appears at some stage on horseback.  Even in this mechanised age - perhaps especially in this mechanised age - there remains something archetypal about horse and man together, an almost mythical fusion of powers crystallised in the image of the centaur.  You could argue in this case about which is more impressive - the dark man or the white horse.  Let's call it a draw.  And to dead-heat with a horse in the Beauty Stakes is no mean feat.

When asked about how naturally he seems to go with horses, Connery has a typically pragmatic and unromantic explanation:  'Well, I used to drive horses for the Co-operative.'  This is a bit like Willie Shoemaker, the legendary American jockey, accounting for his prodigious success on the racetrack, his awesome rapport with horses, by saying that as a child he used to have a rocking-horse.  It's hard to connect the boy with the milk-cart with the impact of the man on the screen.

This must be the most remarkable transformation of someone with a horse and cart since Gordius, who was trundling along a road in ancient Phrygia when a group of people stopped him and told him he was to be their king.  It seems these people had consulted an oracle to find out how they could restore order to their ravaged country.  They were told they were to stop the first man coming along the approach road to the temple of Zeus with a horse and cart and appoint him King of Phrygia.  Enter, accidentally, Gordius.  You could imagine him sitting later in his throne room and thinking:  Good job I didn't take the back road that day, eh?  You wonder if Connery hasn't sometimes felt the same way.

The transition from Connery's past to the future he would have seems about as strange.  How does a working-class runabout from an Edinburgh slum come to pass himself off as a Spanish hidalgo and one of the most famous kings of England and a legendary Greek ruler?  One obvious reason is simply that people like looking at him whoever he's supposed to be.  He has the kind of magnetic physical authority that would make him the man you notice in a crowd scene.  He has that invaluable commodity for an actor: watchability.
(A man overheard in a Glasgow bar:  'Went tae see "Highlander" there.  Pure pish.  Ah enjoyed it, though.  Ah jist like watchin' Big Sean.  But he left too early.  He hadn't much choice right enough.  They cut 'is heid aff.' Demotic film criticism.)

People like looking at him.

Of course, watchability comes in many forms.  The most obviously noticeable thing about Connery's form of it is that it is sizeable.  His wife has said, 'Sean is a mountain of a man.'  The exaggeration of a loving wife can be forgiven, especially since Micheline herself is of a height that might leave her feeling that James Cagney was looming large.  (And I suppose he was, in a way.)  Her husband is assuredly a physically impressive person.  For the time that he grew up in he was exceptionally tall.  In these days of more easily accessible nutritious food, however, he would be just another tall tree in a forest of big ones.

But Micheline, I suspect, was talking about more than height.  And there she was telling a truth.  He has a dominant presence, as if somehow he seems bigger than he is.  Most of us just fill the space we happen to be in.  Some people emanate.  They seem to take up more room than their bodies occupy.  Connery is one.  He has instantaneous and potent physical authority.

Interior.  Night.

A large tavern full of men.  Smoky atmosphere.  Men playing darts, cards, chequers.  It looks like the kind of place a stranger wouldn't want to enter without a bodyguard, a working-class variant of a gentleman's club where excess testosterone is the condition of entry.

The door has opened and a stranger enters.  He is a big man.  He wears a cloth cap and is carrying a satchel.  The conversational level drops on his entrance.  Strangers, it would seem, are neither frequent nor welcome here.  He goes to the bar, asks for a drink.  The barman regards him as if he might be a plague-carrier.  As the man waits for his drink, he turns his back to the bar, leans on it and looks round the room.  As the camera pans to take in his point of view, the most striking image we catch is that of a dark man playing chequers.  He seems broodingly thoughtful. 

We come back to the man at the bar.  He takes his drink, examines his change.  He begins to wander round the room, looking on at what is happening at various tables, sipping as he goes.  Two rough-looking men eye him as he moves, in turn look across the room in the same direction.

Cut to: the dark man.  He seems preoccupied, glances briefly back at the two men, makes an infinitesimal jerk of the head: check out the stranger.

The stranger is Richard Harris.  The dark man is Sean Connery.  The film is 'The Molly Maguires'.  In this scene of minimalist information, one key fact is first implied and then confirmed: Connery's character, Black Jack Kehoe, is the head man of this fraternity bristling with machismo.  One of the interesting things about it is that, while the second moment may be necessary to set the machinery of the plot in motion, it wasn't needed to convince us that he was in charge.  We knew that, just by seeing him the first time.

That's a strange power to have and it's one that can't be taught in any school of acting.  I suspect it comes from what Dire Straits called 'a whiff of the street'.  I think it relates to a kind of individual authenticity, something which may inform and animate a script but which you somehow believe exists beyond it, so that you can imagine that, when the studio lights go out and the cameras wrap, it will still be there.  It's a quality Connery shares with some notable actors.

Cagney certainly had it.  He exuded physical authority - and not just in moments such as the one when he pushed half of a grapefruit into Mae Clarke's face at the breakfast table.  It was vividly present in many of his stillnesses, as you watched him listen to people and could almost hear the violence in him ticking like a time-bomb and wondered when it was going to go off.  It was present in the precise tightness of his dancer's movements, like a toy you thought might be too tightly wound and might explode at any moment.  When he received his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Oscars and acknowledged his debt to the corner-standers he had observed in his tough New York neighbourhood as a young man - a debt which included the famous hitch of the shoulders that said, 'I can handle anything that happens' - he was merely confirming something you should have known.

John Garfield had it.  Just to watch him walking into a room, his chin butting before him like the prow of a ship that wasn't bothered by how rough the water might be, was to be aware of a man who had experienced hard times and bad places, and come through.  He might as well have been towing in his wake one of the Bronx street gangs he used to run with.

There have been others:  Steve McQueen, whose cool blue eyes seemed to suggest they had seen so much that nothing you could show them would jolt their self-assurance; Robert Mitchum, who looked as if any threat you offered him might only add to his boredom.

Even John Wayne had it.  You may have despaired at the naivety of his politics as exemplified in his film about America in Vietnam, 'The Green Berets', which is like a two-hour commercial for softening of the brain.  You may have seen him as Genghis Khan (where, led by him, the Golden Horde was indistinguishable from the Dalton Gang) and found yourself wondering if this man could act being cold if he was nude in a snowstorm.  But see him at his best and he emanated substance.  You had to admit the presence of a formidable man.

Connery belongs in their company.

What makes him always worth watching is what lies behind the striking handsomeness, the sense of a man with more to bother him than how he looks, a man too real to be defined by his appearance.  This unselfconsciousness is an addition to his attractiveness, just as a beautiful woman is more engaging when caught naturally than when she is pouting deliberately for the public.

It may also have contributed to what has been a crucial factor in sustaining his career through constant troughs: the longevity of his looks.  In a business where aging can be even more traumatic than it is for those who do not live by their appearance, he has shown remarkable sangfroid in dealing with the effects of time.  Early baldness must have come as a shock but it's one he seems to have absorbed without much panic.  It defined the way he would handle his progress through the years.

It's true that he was lucky in that he continued to look good with or without hair and in that he suited his wrinkles.  But he made that luck virtually irrelevant by the confidence with which he put on age.  His audience could take him or leave him as he was, and he obliged them to take him.  His changing looks held partly because of the panache with which he accepted them.

That indifference to waging a war against time you can only lose was no act.  Sitting on the porch of his study in Casa Malibu in Spain when he was weeks away from his 66th birthday, he was asked what he did to try to stay in shape.  Looking no younger than he was but looking better than any man of his age had any right to look, he thought about it briefly.

'I don't do anything to keep fit.  I should.  Well, I play golf.  I have a skipping rope and I might do a session with that.  I tried high-speed walking once.  To Puente Romano and back.  Two miles there, two miles back.  I did it for about three weeks.  But I must say honestly that the amount of effort I put in didn't seem to be justified by the results.  I mean, I didn't feel that sensationally much better.  I thought, Christ, after all that fucking effort.  Not a hair grew.  Nothing.'

That disarming self-deprecation, which shouldn't be confused with false modesty, is one of the clues to his survival as an actor.  He never mistook himself for any image he was supposed to have at any given time.  Any image he acquired was just part of him, not the other way round.  That realistic sense of himself was always in charge, give or take some phases of self-doubt.  The man was always more important than the actor.  He learned to live with fame by making fame learn to live with him.

Life may have dealt him an ace in looks that seem to reflect the black Irish travelling people from whom he is partly descended, the kind of looks reflected in an old song:

                        The whistling gipsy came over the hill
                        Into the valley so shady.
                        He whistled and sang till the greenwoods rang
                        And he won the heart of a lady.

The image of Connery whistling and singing may not be one that leaps instantly to mind ('Darby O'Gill and the Little People' notwithstanding) but his appearance does have a kind of gipsy danger to it, the sense of a man who maybe lives on his own terms and nobody else's.

That may be his ace but his life has been the result of how he played it, in relation to the rest of his hand and how the other cards were falling.  His looks would always have made him a personality but what he did with them turned personality into character.  These are not the same thing.

Imagine the world as a room in which you find yourself without warning.  It's a very crowded room and the people in it are playing all sorts of very complicated games.  The games are all obviously interconnected.  You watch for a while, trying to work out what's going on here.  Then you think you begin to understand the rules and you decide, 'I can play these games.  Watch this.'  And you do play them.  And people like the way you play their games.  And you're a 'success'.  That's personality.

Or, you watch all of these interconnected games and you can't help thinking, 'Wait a minute.  Most of these games are crap.'  And you decide you don't want merely to obey the rules of these games.  You decide you want to devise a more honest game, with fairer rules.  You'll play your own game and if other people want to join in, they're welcome.  If not, you'll play it anyway, because it's the game that you believe in.  That's character.

It's also what Connery did, how he dealt with fame and Hollywood.  He may have been given the looks but what he did with them was all his own.

He had the luck, it's true.  But then luck is a surfer's wave.  Besides being able to bring you in on the crest, it can also pull you under or throw you on the beach like flotsam.  It all depends on the determination and the skill and the nerve with which you ride it.

It was what he brought to his career besides the looks, the past that had made him, which was the basis of his long career.

(To read the next post in this series click here.)


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com