Bond’s props, costumes, gadgets, and other tangible objects have defined him to a much greater extent than anything he’s said or done.
Among the many revelations of TIFF Bell Lightbox’s new James Bond exhibition is the fact that a 50-year-long movie franchise yields no shortage of stuff. Everything from the golden gun in The Man With the Golden Gun to the bikini worn by Halle Berry in Die Another Day will be presented at “Designing 007: 50 Years of Bond Style,” which runs until January.
Unfortunately, visitors won’t be able to enjoy a special display that I’d hoped would be part of the show: a room dedicated to the many almost-lifelike hairpieces worn by Sean Connery during his stint as Ian Fleming’s secret agent. The Scottish actor’s hair had been thinning for years before he made his first appearance in 1962’s Dr. No at the age of 32. But the idea of a bald Bond was too much for anyone to take. Instead, producers responsible for the character’s transition to the big screen decided that a nice thick head of hair would be a reliable sign of 007’s manly virility forever more.
Indeed, the character of James Bond is unthinkable without his many signature attributes: the crisp British accent, the slim but plausibly rugged build, the perfectly tailored black tuxedo, the Walther PPK pistol in whichever hand isn’t already holding a martini glass. Together, they comprise a costume that’s as instantly recognizable as any superhero’s get-up.
That’s why there’s always been something specious about arguments and speculations about who played the character best or who should play him next. (Daniel Craig’s admirers need not worry about him being replaced by Taylor Lautner any time soon—he’s set for two more after next month’s Skyfall.) In many respects, it’s always been irrelevant as to who exactly has been hired for the mission, since the task of being Bond depends on factors that minimize the importance of any particular thespian’s interpretation of the role. Essentially, the character’s been actor-proofed.
That’s not to suggest that 007 hasn’t gone through some variations from one decade to the next. Just as other eras demanded a cheekier Bond (Roger Moore) or a more priggish Bond (Timothy Dalton), ours requires a militantly stoic, largely humourless one so as to better reflect our culture’s prevailing, post-9/11 mood of uncertainty and heightened anxiety. Indeed, if not for his occasional eagerness to rock a tight pair of swim trunks, Craig’s Bond would seem nearly as angst-ridden as Christian Bale’s Batman.
Nevertheless, his 007 still falls well within the spectrum of acceptable Bond-ness established over the past half-century. Bond has not and never will be a character of great complexity, wracked like Hamlet over the rightness of his acts. Living with the limitations of the role is part of the deal that any actor makes should he hope to enjoy a tenure longer than George Lazenby’s. The Australian actor and model famously lambasted 007 as a “brute” upon leaving the franchise after his sole installment, 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly this past August, he complained that Craig’s incarnation in Casino Royale had “no heart.”
Lazenby was right to judge the character to be somewhat less than human. Really, Bond’s never been more than a tuxedo with a gun, a fantasy figure who thrills us with his ability to kill without compunction or remorse, and screw without consequences or complications. (Or, at least, none for him—his lovers have a worrisome tendency to get murdered and/or dunked in gold paint.)
For a more complex or conflicted movie character—say, Michael Corleone—to get an exhibition like “Designing 007” would seem absurd. But for Bond to be represented by all these props, costumes, gadgets, and other tangible objects is perfectly fitting since these physical signs and signifiers have defined him to a much greater extent than anything he’s said or done. That’s why the stuff matters so much both to him and to us. With all the chaos and confusion that surrounds us, it’s reassuring to be fed the fiction that the act of mastering the world is just a matter of having the right equipment.