It only takes one.
(Orson Welles…on being remembered)
They did other good things, but when 60’s stalwarts James Drury and Honor Blackman passed away within a few days of each other last week, it was for The Virginian and Goldfinger they were principally, almost exclusively, remembered. That might have been a little unfair to their steady, consistent careers, but there you have it.
I think each deserves a slightly bigger context: Blackman wasn’t just a Bond girl, she was the Bond girl. Goldfinger was the third release in the Bond franchise. It had fabulous villains, a pulsing score, great, memorable set-pieces and Sean Connery. But the first two films had all of that…and better plots. There was a reason Goldfinger became the never-matched standard for a franchise now approaching its 60th anniversary. Blackman was the first credible actress to play opposite Connery as a love interest (Ursula Andress, the original Bond girl, had her lines dubbed because she spoke little English…the best that could be said of the rest was that they were, to a woman, no Ursula Andress).
Combining the necessary hot-to-trot factor (which Blackman had more of at 38 than ninety-five percent of beautiful women have at 22) with a knack for sardonic by-play and credible fight scenes was not as easy to pull off as she made it look. In the long decades since, only Diana Rigg, who had taken Blackman’s place in the iconic British spy series, The Avengers, managed it as well, and, while she had a better story, she didn’t have Connery. And she didn’t do it first.
The idea for an improbably gorgeous, ass-kicking femme may have sprung from the fertile imagination of Ian Fleming, but it was Honor Blackman who first embodied it for all to see. They gave her the most ridiculous of Fleming’s ridiculous names (“I’m Pussy Galore,” “But of course you are”), the furthest fetched of his far-fetched plots, and the hoary old frigid-lesbian-who-really-only-needs-to-meet-the-right-man for a character. She didn’t bat an eye. She just owned it. If you watch the first three Bond films in order you can still feel the shock when she shows up. It’s the first–and last–moment in a Bond film that lets you understand how the Brits came to rule the world for the three centuries preceding Blackman’s birth. Their failure to reproduce her in adequate numbers goes as far as anything to explain why she died in a world where her native land has become a footnote.
If James Drury were only remembered as the paragon of small town virtue and frontier decency and competence he represented so ably in Pollyanna and The Virginian it would be a fine legacy. But his “one”–the one that ensures he’ll be remembered as long as anyone cares about film–is, ironically, his nasty villain in Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country.
For all of that film’s other great qualities, it’s Drury, as the leader (but not, crucially, the oldest or meanest) of a band of ornery brothers, who gives the film its edge. Had he come along a little earlier and played bad apples in the crime noirs of the 40’s and 50’s he might have a cult following to match Dan Duryea’s or even Lee Marvin’s. As it was, he settled for making a living on television. In those perilous times, no man could be blamed for that–and few had the chops to make such a transition look as natural as riding a horse.
Honorable careers, honorable lives, one indelible moment. There has never been an age when people who matched those descriptions were in abundance. Sad to lose two of our age’s best in such short order.