RIP Sir Sean Connery

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t be any more of a wall-to-wall crap-a-palooza, now comes word that Sir Sean Conney has left us.

Like most everyone else, I first encountered Connery as James Bond.  As a kid of the 70s, I confess I preferred Roger Moore, with his more conventional “pretty boy” looks and lighter approach, but Connery’s films were the ones with all the most memorable imagery: girls painted gold, cars with ejector seats, jetpacks, supervillains living in volcanoes.  In time, Sir Sean would come to equal Roger in my estimation as 007;  together they formed the bookends of Classic Bond, the yin and yang that defined the extremes of the character on film, with everyone else falling somewhere on the continuum. Connery himself, of course, was a major component of the early Bonds’ amazing success, with his tremendous screen presence and a raw machismo that upended stereotypes of how a “British” character could behave, or for that matter what a movie “hero” even was.  Forget waiting for the other guy to draw first: Bond would fire on an unarmed man…and shoot him again after he hit the floor. Arguably, no other actor was as uniquely suited to selling the concept of James Bond to international audiences, and without his casting, who can say whether the franchise would still be rolling along in the 21st century?  Still, it’s worth remembering that Connery was part of a “dream team” of phenomenally talented innovators that’s never really been equalled: the great Sir Ken Adam with his magnificent set designs, Bob Simmons heading up a super-talented stunt team, Peter Hunt reinventing the way action films were edited, John Stears engineering gadget-laden wonders like the iconic Aston Martin DB5, the inestimable John Barry providing gorgeous musical scores and directors like Terence Young, Guy Hamilton and Lewis Gilbert masterminding the translation of Ian Fleming’s cool but fairly dour literary hero into a crowd-pleasing screen sensation.  (It’s depressing to realize that with Connery’s passing, everyone on the above list is now deceased.)

Still, it was Connery’s non-Bond films that won me over: the grand spectacle and haunting ending of The Man Who Would Be King, the heroic yet elegiacal Robin and Marian and the period-piece “heist movie” thrills of The Great Train Robbery.  Later would come the terrific “High Noon in space” Outland, a film-stealing cameo in Time Bandits, late-in-the-game Cold War classic The Hunt For Red October and possibly my favorite of the lot, Indiana Jones And the Last Crusade.  Not merely the most successful of the ex-Bond actors, or even the last of the big-time “movie stars,” Connery was nearly unique in his ability to stage a career resurgence late in life, becoming as big a success in his 50s and 60s as he’d been his Bond years, and — to the extent such silly things matter — the oldest guy to ever earn the title of “Sexiest Man Alive” (and later “…of the Century”).

As noted in an earlier post, the pandemic has given me time to revisit — or discover — classic films instead of visiting the cinema for new ones, and on the whole I’ve found the experience superior.  This year I’ve seeen Sir Sean in Murder On The Orient Express, Woman Of Straw, The Anderson Tapes, The Offence and The Hill.  The last one especially was a revelation; after years of hearing how fond of it Connery was, and how good it supposedly was, I went in a bit worried it wouldn’t live up to the hype.  However, it is a remarkable work — if at times disturbing and ultimately tragic — and arguably the single best performance given by any Bond actor in anything.

Alas, time conquers all, and so here we are.  Now we enter the obligatory cycle of career retrospectives, front page obituaries, Twitter tributes, “clever” headlines like “Fans Left Shaken and Stirred…” and “His name was Bond…”, editorial cartoons that show Connery driving up to the pearly gates in an Aston Martin or trading in his jetpack for angel wings…the tacky potential is limitless.  But ultimately what matters, what will endure, is an impressive legacy of career achievements, the films that will be viewed and re-viewed for generations to come.  Through the Bond films alone, Connery achieved a brand of immortality over which the ravages of time and the transience of earthly existence have no power.  Decades from now, in some corner of the globe, he’ll still be alive on a screen somewhere as a heroic ancient king, an aging Chicago cop, a Russian sub commander, an outer space lawman, an immortal swordsman, a plucky professor of medievel studies or of course, the ultimate superspy.

That’s a lot of great performances for one lifetime, and a lot of hours of entertainment when we really needed it. Which with due respect to this singularly sucky year, was pretty much all the time.

Godpseed, Sir Sean, and thanks.

Wishbook Memories

Halloween is nearly here,  and next week brings the even scarier reality of another presidential election, but for me this time of year always brings memories of another annual tradition: the Christmas catalog, or as they were officially known, “wishbooks.”

Many Octobers of my youth were spent poring through the pages of a Sears, JC Penney or Montgomery Ward catalog, marveling at color photos of toys and gadgets and jotting down lists for my parents and grandparents’ consideration.

Growing up in the boonies, I had limited shopping options, so those catalogs were a magical window into a larger world of choices, choices, choices. Who knew there were so many toys in the world?  Not to mention so many possible colors of shag carpeting to cover your bathroom floor and toilet tank?

In those days, the big thrill came with a drive to Richmond and a visit to Sears, where the lawn and garden section was temporarily retired (who cuts the grass in December, anyway?) and filled with toys and bicycles and the like.  But trips like that were rare, while the wishbooks were always an arm’s length away.

I recentlty found the site, wishbookweb.com, filled with digital versions of catalogs going all the way back to  1937.  Looks like I’m late to the game, as it hasn’t been updated since 2017 and still uses a Flash player, but it’s been fun paging through these artifacts and remembering what it was like to read them as a kid.

In the clothing (is it even fair to call this “fashion”?) section of the 1975 Sears wishbook, there’s this painful reminder of my wardrobe as a 10-year-old.  I had the green outfit in the middle, or one very much like it (it was green, anyway).  I wore it with the sleeve cuffs turned back so I’d like just like Lee Majors as The Six Million Dollar Man.  The great thing about Toughskins was that they stood up to abuse, so you could run and play in them, and running in slow motion like Steve Austin minimized the potential for grass stains.  Nothing says “70s” like a leisure suit, and it was great that even elementary school boys could get in on the grooviness.

For the grown-up leisure suit wearers, there were digital watches, quite the status symbol as I recall.  Look at the size of those monsters; if you think smart watches are behemoths, consider that these things took up just as much real estate on your wrist and the only thing they showed was the time.  Or if you hit a button, maybe it would change to the date.  I remember a brainy teenager who had a watch where you had to push a button get the time to display.  He took it apart and somehow modified it so it would show the time when he flexed his wrist.  That was cool, but still not enough to justify the price difference between these and my trusty Mickey Mouse analog watch.  According to the inflation calculator, $69.95 translates to $338.41 in today’s dollars, so these were not for dabblers.

The sheer volume of NFL-themed merchandise in the catalogs was always so impressive it made me wish I gave a damn about football.  Just look at all the cool crap I could be accumulating if I had a sports fixation.  Hats, shirts, jackets, scarves, clocks, banks, lamps, blankets, bedsheets, you name it; if it was big enough to slap on a team logo, the NFL was there.  I remember studying the color schemes and logos, trying to decide which one I could adopt as “my team.” Maybe the Raiders, with that pirate-looking guy? Except black and silver wasn’t very exciting.  I liked the Vikings’ purple, but the horns were too “generic” somehow.  The Jets’ green was just fugly.  Green Bay’s colors were okay, but what the heck was a “packer”?  The Steeler’s colors were okay, but I didn’t dig the “sparkles,” and anyway everyone around me hated the team, so it wasn’t worth the risk.  Eventually I realized picking a favorite team based on colors and logos is not the way it’s done, and regardless of how spiffy a jacket I got out of it, it’s not like I’d be any more likely to sit down every weekend and watch 20 minutes of action crammed into a four-hour game.  So I moved on.

The real appeal of the wishbooks, of course, was the toy section.  This nifty Tonka fire engine provided lots of fun, and in fact still resides in my garage as I write this.  (Not sure if it’s still functional, though.)  In what I still think is one of the cleverest toy designs ever, you could connect a garden hose to that fire plug and squirt water out of the little “fire hose” on the “cherry picker.”  Pretty awesome.  I also held onto a Tonka dump truck and earth mover my brother and I used to drive around in the sand box.  Sand was about all they were strong enough to move, but the frustrating thing about sand is that no matter how long you spend digging, you never end up with much of a hole.

Here’s a page that’ll perplex any kids reading this in 2020.  These are toys we played with outdoors.  That used to be a thing. I had friends with pogo sticks, but I don’t know if they’re even made any more?  Also big in olden times: stilts.  Those ride-on bouncy balls were a big deal, for sure, and if you were going to go for top-of-the-line, you had the one with Mickey Mouse’s head.  I had the Batman “bop bag”, which was cool until you asked yourself, “Why am I  punching the good guy?”  Mr Spock also seems an unlikely object of assault, but it’s cool to see how the Star Trek merchandise was finally taking off some six years after the show was cancelled and still three years out from the first movie.  And those balloon swords at bottom were two years too early: slap a Star Wars sticker on the box and you’d sell 10 times as many.

Here’s the biggie, though, from the 1976 Penney’s catalog.  My hero Steve Austin and a plethora of dubious add-ons.  Funny how he could accumulate extra arms, laboratories, side characters and vehicles and yet he never rated a change of clothes.  Actually I think at one point they did offer some outfits for Steve, but I guess they didn’t catch on.  In the red track suit, he’s “the bionic man,” but in jeans and a jacket, he’s just another Leisure Suit Ken.

If there was ever a “Red Power Ranger” or “Tickle Me Elmo” toy in my past, the one thing I HAD to have for Christmas to succeed, it was Kenner’s Six Million Dollar Man figure. Of course my foks came through, and Christmas was saved.  I also ended up with Maskatron, who with all respect to Steve was the coolest figure in the whole line.  I never did get Oscar Goldman, though.  I guess I couldn’t see the utility of a figure who just showed up long enough to say, “Here’s your assignment, Steve” and then walked off.  Maybe if they’d given it the ability to whip off a pair of glasses in astonishment, or yell “Steve!!!” whever the other figure was in mortal danger.

Having mined the 70s nostalgia pretty fully, I’m moving back in time to the 60s to enjoy all the images of Batman, James Bond, Lost in Space and Man From Uncle mechandise.  There’s also the “curiosity factor” of revisiting a time when you could devote six or so pages to working firearms, or different editions of The Bible.

This stuff is best taken in small doses, however.  On my Kindle Fire I can pull back to see thumbnails of the entire catalog at once, and when I do, an ugly thought hits me: the realization that thousands upon thousands of units of all this junk was manufactured and shipped all over the country, where by now it’s either been used up and sent to a landfill or some day will be.  That’s a lot of garbage.  I’m not normally what you’d call an eco-minded sort, but it’s a pretty sobering mental image.

RIP Diana Rigg

I’m a little late posting this, but I’m also leery of having this site turn into an Obits page, and reluctant to acknowledge yet another lousy development in what’s been hands down the crappiest year in my lifetime. However, I would be remiss if I didn’t make note of the passing of Dame Diana Rigg.

Some time ago, I wrote a tribute to Emma Peel of The Avengers, and while Ms Rigg was obviously a separate person entirely with a long line of impressive credits to her name, it’s equally obvious that much of the charisma and wit and style of the character was inextricable from the performer.

Much of that carried over into other roles, notably that of the Countess Teresa diVincenzo, aka Tracy Bond, the only woman capable of compelling confirmed batchelor 007 to walk the aisle in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.  Ms Rigg didn’t physically resemble Fleming’s character from the novel, but she was the best and only choice for the role on screen, with her ability to be feminine and alluring but also tough and capable at the same time.  In 1969, that was fairly uncommon combination on screen, especially in a series not exactly renowned for promoting feminist ideals.  Indeed, Dame Diana’s established bona fides as a capable performer and believable action hero made her the perfect “insurance policy” for a film that starred a new lead actor as-yet unproven on either front.  George Lazenby as Bond acquitted himself fairly well on some fronts, less so on others, but ultimately it was Diana who embued the proceedings with a sense of gravitas and import, and Tracy’s fate on which the film turned.  When, a couple of years ago, I was able to see it again on the big screen at a local cinema, one lady in the audience who’d obviously never seen it before (in some ways, it is the “forgotten Bond”) let out a shocked yell when Tracy met her doom in the last scene.  It was funny in way, given that we’re talking about s a 50-year-old movie and a predictable fate for the wife of a franchised action hero, but it also spoke to the power of Diana’s performance: she gave us the first Bond Girl in whose welfare we were at all interested.

More receently, she won over a whole new generation of fans with her role on Game of Thrones, of which I confess I have seen not a single episode, but it’s telling that even in her 70s and 80s, she never lost the screen presence and audience appeal she’d mastered half a century before.  Time can be tough on a pretty face, but a truly attractive soul exerts its draw til the end.

Rest in peace, Dame Diana.  You may not have had “all the time in the world” any more than the rest of us, but what time you had you made great use of, and we’re the richer for it.

Happy 90th Birthday, Sean Connery

Sir Sean Connery celebrates his 90th birthday today, so I thought I’d mark the occasion with another art project using my digital stylus.  I’m sure he’s thrilled.

Note I didn’t say “James Bond Actor Sean Connery,” because by now he’s earned the right to be recognized as an icon in his own right, having long ago climbed out from under the shadow of 007.  In fact, I tend to like him better in non-Bond roles, including his turns in The Man Who Would Be King, The Great Train Robbery, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Outland and The Hunt For Red October. It’s impressive that one performer could be tapped to play such heroic figures as James Bond, Robin Hood, King Arthur and Richard Lionheart over his career.  I still remember seeing Time Bandits on the big screen and when King Agamemnon — after a fierce battle with a Minotaur-like monster — removes his helmet to reveal the face of Sean Connery, a cheer went up.  I didn’t even know he was in the film, but as soon as I saw him, my reaction was, “Well, of course that’s who it’d have to be.” That moment was echoed years later in the last few moments of the truly dire Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, when King Richard climbs down off his horse and it’s Sean again, to more cheers.  In what was pretty much a cameo appearance, he nearly salvaged that wreck of a film just by showing up.  Almost.

Since the COVID shutdown, I’ve gotten to catch up on a number of Connery films I’d last seen either decades ago or not at all, including Murder On The Orient Express and The Anderson Tapes, The Offense and — easily the best of the lot — The Hill.   And now I’ve got an urge to seek out Highlander.  Even though I came in at the middle of Connery’s career — rife with stinkers like Wrong Is Right, The Next Man and Meteor — I have to say that on balance, Big Tam has racked up one of the most impressive filmographies of any actor since the Golden Age of Hollywood.

And yet, when it comes time to draw him, here I’ve gone and put him in the tux from Dr No.  Ah well.  Here’s to ya, Sir Sean.  I hope it’s  great day and there’s many more ahead of you.

The Latest Doodle

Like most folks, I’ve tried to find creative ways to stay busy during this whole pandemic thing.  Since I’ve had so much daylight and so many weekends without commitments, the house and yard are looking pretty good.  In fact, the neighborhood in general is looking a lot better since everyone else is in the same boat.

To keep life interesting I’ve also taken up new hobbies like learning the guitar (I’m making progress, slowly but surely) and growing a beard (the jury’s still out) and resuming old ones like reading vintage pulp novels and drawing.  On the latter front, I took another stab at caricature using a stylus on my 10-inch Kindle.  I go back and forth on whether I like it, but anyway here’s where I ended up.

Hopefully you recognize that as two-time Bond actor Timothy Dalton, or maybe you just guessed it was “some take on James Bond” because of the tux and gun (hopefully I at least made THEM recognizable).

The task I’ve set for myself — besides drawing with a stylus, which can be challenge enough — is to capture a likeness with as few lines as I can, hopefully arriving at some kind of individual style as well as getting across who the person is.  Certainly I’ll never be in the league of the greats like Mort Drucker, Jack Davis or of Tom Richmond, who manage to walk a fine line between “real” and “cartoony,” but maybe with practice I can come up with a style that’s consistent and my own.

Anyway the cool part about digital drawing is the ability to “cheat.” I can create a “pencil” layer and “trace over” it with more controlled lines, then throw away the “pencils” like they were never there.  I can isolate eyes, or a nose or mouth, and drag them around if I got the relationships wrong.  I can even enlarge or reduce elements if I need to, or realign them if they’re off kilter.  Of course I could do all those things on a piece of paper with an eraser, too, but it’s so much cleaner and easier this way, and if I get several steps in and decide I don’t like the way it’s going, I can go back as many steps as I need.  Try erasing ink, or removing color from a drawing on paper.

If nothing else, I look at it as a learning experience; every mistake I make, every adjustment or do-over is a lesson learned for next time.  Hopefully it’ll rub off on my “real” drawings, too.  After all the only way to improve is to practice.  And right now, I’ve got plenty of time for that.