Oh, hell. What did I get myself into? Although there's something to be said for the old saw about never refusing a mission, there's also wisdom in knowing when to keep one's mouth shut and not volunteering for the kind of mission you shouldn't refuse. Here's what happened...
Over at the HMSS world headquarters, it came to our attention that we have something of a reputation as a bunch of 007 snobs. To wit, we don't think all that much of the Roger Moore Bond films. That we're just a bunch of cantankerous old sticks-in-the-mud, living in a past where men were men, right was right, north was north, and Sean Connery was James Bond.
At any rate, while mulling over this particular bit of calumny, the idea was floated -- much like methane gas will float to the surface of swampwater -- that perhaps we should run a piece celebrating the achievements of Mr. Moore in the role of Ian Fleming's immortal gentleman secret agent. And before taking into account the sheer magnitude of such a sleeveless errand, your humble correspondent (that's me,) figuratively raised his hand and said "Great idea! Yeah, I'll do it." To which the rest of the staff positively trampled over each other in the rush to confirm that the task was indeed mine.
Which leaves with my (conflicted) thoughts about good ol' Sir Rog, Master of the Raised Eyebrow. It's axiomatic that the James Bond you grew up with is your Bond. With me, it's a little bit more complicated, so please bear with me for a brief bit of my Bondian biography...
Prior to my high school years, Elk Grove Village, Illinois -- my hometown -- did not have a movie theater of its own. Consequently, any movies I saw as a boy were at the discretion of my parents, who were not enormous James Bond fans. They weren't completely immune to pop-culture hype, however, and did take me to the Dr. No/From Russia with Love rerelease in 1965, when I was seven years old. The next summer we went to see Thunderball, on its second run in the suburban movie houses. And that was the total of my experience with the Bond Films -- three Terence Young/Sean Connery vehicles -- for the next four years. When the Jerry Lewis Cinema chain put up a unit in Elk Grove, parent's blessings (and cars) were no longer required; my friends and I could walk or ride our bikes to see Diamonds Are Forever and, a year later, Live and Let Die. When The Man with the Golden Gun opened in only one theater in downtown Chicago, my friend Ed Werner and I played hooky from school to take a series of buses into the city to see it. The Spy Who Loved Me was the first wide-release James Bond picture, opening simultaneously in the city and suburbs, but by that point we all had cars of our own anyhow.
Which is a long way of getting around to saying that in many respects, Roger Moore was my 007, occupying the role through my formative teenage years, and well into to my twenties.
And, I have to say... I didn't totally hate it that he was James Bond. While, even at that callow age, I recognized that there were problems with these newer Bond pictures, it seemed to me that Moore wasn't at the center of the issues. Looking back with the perspective of time, it's clear to me that he had two strikes against him right off the: it was the 1970s, and it was the 1970s. For one thing, it was probably the worst decade of the century for men's clothing fashions; nobody dressed well, and the screen James Bond acquitted himself only a little better than the rest of us mere mortals. The only problem was that it simply wasn't the decade for James Bond. Vietnam, Watergate, the Church Commission hearings, Three Days of the Condor -- espionage, in the popular mind, was no longer the glamorous and adventuresome pursuit of sophisticated gentlemen, it was a filthy business based on treachery and deceit, awash in ugly violence, and all in the service of corrupt politicians whose corroded moral compasses only pointed east and west. (Not that it had actually been anything other, but the 60s spy craze had made it all seems so... fun.) Definitely not the time for movie audiences to gobble up the adventures of a (British) government "blunt instrument." The accepted wisdom is that Eon's decision to switch the tone of the series to a lighter, more overtly comedic mode was to match Moore's acting strengths, but I would argue that the real reason was to keep up with the times. The Bond films could no longer afford to be the great sick joke that they started out as; the Cold War was no longer fun. So Roger Moore was in some ways a victim of circumstance: caught in the hangover of the swinging 60s, while wearing bell-bottomed suits.
So... okay. If I'm absolving Moore of most of the blame for the disco-age 007, what can I point to of his that was truly positive for the series? Let's try to count the ways...
While one may quibble over screen Bond depictions vs. Ian Fleming's descriptions, Roger Moore actually had quite a satisfactory screen presence in the role. That he was handsome goes without saying, although he's been charged with being "blandly handsome." Whatever. His voice is perhaps the best of all the Bonds, a rich baritone with a drawling English accent just this short of being plummy (which he could actually turn quite crisp when he needed to). Although he always seemed to be battling a tendency towards stockiness, he was actually impressively broad in the beam and wide of shoulder; when he punched somebody, you believed it when the punchee went down. And, mirabile dictu, he managed to avoid the fashion excesses of that wretched decade. Even if his pants were flared and his lapels and ties wackily wide, at least he was still wearing suits and ties. No jeans and Frye boots, no leisure suits or Apache scarves, no unnaturally-colored sportcoats. If the producers were seriously considering Burt Reynolds for the role, how close did we come to having a mustachioed James Bond? Moore's sideburns moved up and down a bit, but he remained clean-shaven and kept his haircut consistently Bondian. Small favors, I know, but the times were very weird...
It didn't often seem like it, but Moore could actually act. His style wasn't flashy like Timothy Dalton's or studied like Sean Connery's, but you never saw him looking awkward on the screen. Goofy at times, sure, but even then it was always in concert with the scene and the other actors. He could project great warmth or steely coolness; it's still a thrill to see the gravitas he brought to his "serious" scenes. Like you would imagine 007 to be, Moore was comfortable in his own skin, naturalistic and at ease onscreen as "that gentleman secret agent."
He was a great ambassador for the James Bond movies. Moore was a frequent, and welcome, guest on most of the major television talk shows, where he could banter and/or engage in serious conversation with wit, charisma, and charm. Whether promoting the newly-released film or talking about going into production on the next one, his enthusiasm and appreciation were always tempered by his self-deprecating sense of humor and private amusement at where his career had taken him. Moore is -- practically on sight -- an eminently likable guy, and it could be argued that she kept the series afloat on the strength of his personality alone, during the dog days of his early tenure. The old saw about "he kept the series popular" is largely true, and no small accomplishment.
Even though it was his own particular style, Moore could bring the Bondiness. Easier said than done, because so much of it depends on timing and attitude. One of my favorite moments in the series is when, in disguise as "Colonel Toro" in Octopussy, infiltrating a Cuban military function, he takes a couple of seconds out of his mission to flick the unbuttoned pocket flap of an improperly-uniformed soldier, like any good senior officer with an eye for detail would. It's quick, it's casual, it's funny, it calls dangerous attention to himself... it's Bond. And Moore's timing is impeccable. As is the martial arts school scene in The Man with the Golden Gun, with the quick succession disrespectful short bow to the school's master/kick-in-the-face to his bowing opponent/deep respectful (and triumphant) bow to the school's master. It's funny and it's cool; he's being arrogant but clever -- he's being 007. There are scads of such terrific small moments, whether of action or of word, scattered throughout the Moore years, showing him off in a different light than the other five actors, but always showing him as a quite capable James Bond.
Looks, acting chops, style, personality. Everything we could look for in a movie star, and everything we could ask for in a movie James Bond. If, during his tenure, the Bond film's seriousness of intent, scripts, or direction did not serve the 007 character (or his world) very well, neither did they serve their leading man much at all. However, even for us diehard Bond snobs who grew up on Ian Fleming and Terence Young, Roger Moore's witty and assured portrayal of our hero remains eminently watchable and enjoyable. Leading the pack with seven official movies under his belt, he may not be "Your" or "My" James Bond, but he most certainly is All of Ours.
Copyright © 2010 Paul Baack
Contact the Author: PAUL BAACK
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