Sean Connery Was My Movie Dad. I’m Only Now Reckoning With His Death And The Man He Was

How do you separate art from artist in an era of so many 'Bad Men?'

Sean Connery Was My Movie Dad. I’m Only Now Reckoning With His Death And The Man He Was
Photo:Michael Loccisano (Getty Images)

I grew up not knowing who my dad is. Also, I grew up with a fairly seriously overactive imagination. So over the years, I’ve had a lot of celebrity dads, depending on what kind of person I thought would be put to best use in the moment: Steve Martin, Dennis Leary, Nick Offerman, Hannibal Lecter. But Sean Connery was the first and most important—the proto-father figure, against which all others would be judged.

Highlander appeared when I was five, The Untouchables when I was seven, and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when I was nine. That may seem too young for just about all of this, but please let me remind you this was the 1980s, and children were encouraged to watch all kinds of damaging material that was largely marketed directly at them. (This was the era before they edited the guns out of E.T.!) So I watched those movies, and I fucking loved Sean Connery.

He was already older by the time I was born. In the movies where he played a heartthrob, where he was James Bond — those movies were old. The version of Sean Connery I loved seemed like the most capable, sophisticated, dangerous dad you could imagine. My Connery wasn’t unsexy— that just wasn’t the point. What resonated for me that is he always showed up when the lead needed a dad — from Highlander to The Rock, there he was with his Scottish accent (regardless of whether he was playing Irish, or British, or Russian or Spanish). He always had exactly the skill set needed for whatever crisis was being navigated, even if that crisis was on a submarine, or just, like, needing to sword-fight underwater. Point is, Liam Neeson wishes he had the range.

The ghoulish truth is that I had been mentally preparing for the death of Connery for years—the way you know that the passing of your most frustrating, problematic relative is going to hit you the hardest, because they make you feel bad and you love them anyway. The fact that it is fraught and unfinished and messy means you have to grapple with it and twist it into a firm shape, something you can hold onto and turn into a story for the rest of your life. It’s work. Celebrity deaths shouldn’t be work, but this one was going to be.

I don’t remember learning about the slapping remarks. Somewhere during high school, I heard Sean Connery had said that slapping women was fine if they were being a bitch and that he had beat his wife. I didn’t hear much else, because it was the 90s, and we didn’t have the internet.

I’d love to tell you that I gasped and raced to my local library to check out the 1965 Playboy where he made those comments and then read all the related scholarly feminist work, but I didn’t. I just added it to the list of things I knew about Sean Connery (basically, that he was Scottish) and went about being a teenager.

I thought it was deeply cool when he was knighted in 200o.

By 2006, I was busy working on multiple political campaigns, navigating early life outside college, starting a relationship with a man I learned nine years in had never seen Highlander. (Luckily, I received the fact that Highlander hadn’t come up in our nine years together as the massive red flag regarding our communication that it was, and it was the first nail of many in that particular coffin.) Point is, I was in that stage where you are first trying to be an adult, which is exhausting.

Then I saw a headline from the Times of London. “Connery: to hit a woman is wrong.”

Well, shit. Now I have to look.

Connery first made his opinion known to Playboy in 1965, and it wasn’t far off from what I’d heard as a teen. “I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong about hitting a woman, although I don’t recommend doing it in the same way that you’d hit a man,” he said, clarifying that an “openhanded slap” would be “justified if all other alternatives fail and there has been plenty of warning.” The kicker: “If a woman is a bitch, or hysterical, or bloody-minded continually, then I’d do it.”

Can you hear it in the Sean Connery voice? It hurts more that way. Also upping the pain ante was Connery’s first wife, Diane Cilento, who alleged physical and mental abuse throughout their 11-year marriage.

But wait, it gets worse! Twenty years after the Playboy interview, Connery tried to clarify his comments to Barbara Walters: “I haven’t changed my opinion… If you have tried everything else – and women are pretty good at this – they can’t leave it alone,” he said. “They want to have the last word and you give them the last word, but they’re not happy with the last word. They want to say it again, and get into a really provocative situation, then I think it’s absolutely right.”

Ok, sir!

Now we’ve established Sean Connery’s criteria for getting a smacking is…repeatedly trying to say how you feel after he’d like to end the conversation. And I suppose he’s right that that is, in fact, one way to make a person stop talking.

Six years after the Barbara sit-down, he tried again, this time to Vanity Fair: “But I was really saying that to slap a woman was not the crudest thing you can do to her,” Connery explained. “I said that in my book—it’s much more cruel to psychologically damage somebody… to put them in such distress that they really come to hate themselves. Sometimes there are women who take it to the wire. That’s what they’re looking for, the ultimate confrontation—they want a smack.”

I blinked the most wide-eyed, leaden slow-blink in the history of women slow-blinking while reading men’s thoughts about women. Why — 13 years after Connery’s third attempt to explain that it’s reasonable to slap women when they just don’t get it — he felt the need to change the record to the Times of London, I really don’t know.

But right around then, he just kind of faded away; no new movies, blessedly few interviews, and then nothing. I never really had to deal with the ethics of seeing League of Extraordinary Gentlemen II, because there wasn’t one.

We weren’t yet collectively separating art from artist; at most we were deciding not to see any new Woody Allen movies, but not feeling bad about watching Annie Hall, so there wasn’t much affect on my ability to enjoy The Untouchables. I did, often. The reality of Sean Connery the man was tucked away in a tidy little box in my brain, separate from the room of joy his movies had always provided me.

Then 2016 and the pussy-grabbing president and the collective howl of rage that followed broke open all the little boxes on our neat little shelves, and everything we’d carefully compartmentalized throughout our lifetimes spilled all over the damn place. Watching Sean Connery suddenly stopped being enjoyable. It was just sad — like catching your dad stealing cash from a kid. You just can’t ever look at him the same.

But I knew Connery was approaching 90, and I knew it wouldn’t be long before he died. And when a star of that magnitude goes, we replay their lives for days, like we’re trying to see what flashed before their eyes in the final moments. I knew I’d see infinity photos of the man I’d wished was my dad and hear that super familiar voice and see the clips from all the films I adore. I figured I’d read all the takes and maybe offer one myself and probably get sucked into the vortex of discourse and have to publicly disavow my previous love and maybe pour a whiskey or 12 and watch a marathon, while feeling guilty the whole time. Whatever it was, I knew it would suck.

But Sean Connery died in October of 2020. And may the generations to come understand that in October of that year, we were so full-up on death and danger and toxicity and sludge and men that I simply did not notice.

Maybe it was the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg just a few weeks earlier, which remains perfectly etched in my memory. I know the time of day, where I was sitting, what I did next (transmogrified into a puddle), who I talked to the night she died.

Maybe it was the fact that I was stressing about my mom, who is elderly and immunocompromised and was living in a large Brooklyn building with no outside access, windows that barely opened, tiny elevators and constant covid cases. Maybe it was the most important election of our lifetimes just days away, eating up all of our non-covid anxiety bandwidth.

Or maybe it was also the fact that he died on Halloween, and Sean Connery has never made a Halloween movie, so TV news didn’t know what to play.

I really didn’t process his death the following April, at the conclusion of the strangest, saddest, Oscars “In Memoriam” ever, where so many deaths had to be acknowledged that it looked like they had to speed it up to get to the commercial break. There was my movie dad Sean Connery, who probably got a half second longer than everyone else, and I was just stunned.

I went to the internet and then vaguely remembered having read that before, having learned that he died. I just…hadn’t had the emotional bandwidth to retain right then.

I sat in a movie theater for the second time in two years last week, watching the latest James Bond movie. It felt like a perfect send-off to a really fun character, but one we don’t really need anymore. There are honestly too many other interesting stories to tell to keep repeating this one.

As it turns out, Sean Connery dying wasn’t interesting to me at all at the time that it happened. It wasn’t a moment to remember his work or even to reflect on what he meant to me and how that warped and curdled the more that I learned about him. In October of 2020, I didn’t have the time or mental energy for that.

One year later, I do a bit, but just a bit. The currency of Bad Men, now, is losing its value after so many market entries; but comfort is at an all-time premium. If watching Highlander makes me smile, I’m not going to let some dead, alleged wife-beater take that away. I will continue not thinking much about Sean Connery—keeping the movies but forgetting the man. And this October 31tst, you will find me in theaters watching Halloween Kills, imagining that the capable, dangerous, skilled-in-a-crisis Jamie Lee Curtis is my dad. That feels like a win.

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