Reputations: Sean Connery

Muscular misogynist, by Anna Smith

PHOTO: BOGAERTS, ROB / ANEFO, NATIONAAL ARCHIEF

When he died aged 90 in 2020, Sir Sean Connery’s darker side was politely avoided in many obituaries – including my own. In fact, like many people, I was barely aware of it. I knew him as James Bond, as the Oscar winner from The Untouchables, as Indiana Jones’ dad. He used to show up in a kilt at the Edinburgh Film Festival, where he was treated like a Scottish king. He was gruff and masculine, for sure. Not everyone’s type, but a definite type. He was voted Sexiest Man Alive in 1987 and the Sexiest Man of the Century a decade later, just shy of his 70th birthday.

And yet, in addition to ongoing controversies around his tax status, he was an alleged domestic abuser and had defended slapping women on several occasions. In 1965, he told Playboy magazine: “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong in hitting a woman, though I don’t recommend you do it the same way that you hit a man… An open-handed slap is justified, if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning. If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.”

This was a pretty shocking admission even in 1965, but it did nothing to hamper his career as Bond. He was picked up on the Playboy quotes in a 1987 interview with Barbara Walters – and continued to defend his position. “I haven’t changed my opinion…’ he said. ‘I think that it depends entirely on the circumstances and if it merits it… Women… can’t leave it alone… You give them the last word, but they’re not happy with the last word, they want to say it again, Then, I think it’s absolutely right.” There’s something aggressive and entitled about this very statement, especially given that he’s speaking to a female interviewer, knowing how triggering his words are likely to be.

Further trouble followed. In her 2006 autobiography, his first wife, Diane Cilento, alleged that he had abused her mentally and physically during their relationship. Connery denied this, but never publicly went on the record to withdraw his statements about domestic abuse, pulling out of an interview when it was suggested the topic might be raised.

While the print obituaries were dominated by platitudes, these troubling facts resurfaced on social media in the days and weeks after Connery’s death. For everyone who cries “too soon”, there’ll be another who feels it’s the perfect time to draw attention to a problem inherent not just in Connery’s attitude but in the culture that spawned it. An old-school “masculine” image was key to the Scottish actor’s success. At that time it was an inherent part of the Bond franchise and Connery appeared to fit it perfectly. His Bond was handsome, suave, muscular and an unapologetic supporter of traditional gender roles. Women were either mother figures or – more typically – sex objects. If they happened to be “naughty” sex objects, so much the better: bad girls can be bedded and taken down a peg or two in the process.

In addition to ongoing controversies around his tax status, he was an alleged domestic abuser and had defended slapping women on several occasions

Connery often protested he disliked being linked to Bond, but the stories about his off-screen womanising only strengthen the parallels. A typical example is the story of an extra in Diamonds are Forever, who told me that when she was standing on a ladder on set (she was then in her 30s), Connery gave her bottom a swift slap as he walked past.

And in the late 90s, the gossip email Popbitch reported Connery having a “locker room” conversation with a group of friends in a golf clubhouse. The story goes: “A couple of the lads shouted over to him ‘Hey Sean, bet you’ve had a celebrity shag or two… What’s your best ever?’ Connery just grimaced and walked out. Later on… Sean walks back in. He comes over to the table [cites a much-loved British pop singer] “1964… Up the arse.’”

Invented or not, this sort of story chimes with those who decry Sean’s image as a boastful womaniser with little respect for his conquests. But it appeals equally to his fans by indulging, even applauding, his power and sexual allure: ah, bless that old womanising Sean Connery, he certainly lived. And I’ll admit I do find the story funny, even if I shouldn’t.

I was more troubled by contemporary comments on a YouTube video of that slapping conversation with Walters. Many called him a “legend”, finding his view amusing or even justified. Of course, you should never read internet comments, as an editor once told me. But we do seem to be living in a polarised world where you’re either viewed as a lovable cad or completely cancelled. Connery would certainly have been ostracised by many in the industry had he made those statements in 2020. That year, Johnny Depp departed from his Fantastic Beasts role after the Amber Heard court case, and there is current uncertainty around films starring Armie Hammer, the subject of disturbing allegations by women. Connery may be the last star who just about got away with it. To quote a disturbing amount of YouTubers: “He’s probably slapping women in heaven now.”

Anna Smith is a film critic, broadcaster and host of the feminist film podcast “Girls On Film” on Podfollow.com Twitter: @annasmithjourno

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