THE VIRGINIAN AND THE REAL BOND GIRL (James Drury and Honor Blackman, R.I.P.)

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.

LAST GENTLEMAN STANDING (Patrick MacNee, R.I.P.)

PATRICKMCNEE1

Even when I was growing up in the sixties and seventies, it was no longer given that there would always be an England.

I had a sneaking suspicion there might always be a Patrick MacNee.

Now that he really is gone it is, of course, a sad day for his family and friends. But it’s also a bit of a sad day for anyone who cherished the existence of a certain sense of style.

Not that it was any way common back when, but the sort of ease McNee carried around in his bones isn’t merely uncommon now. It’s gone.

He did other things, naturally, including a Bond movie where they had to kill him as quickly as possible to keep any semblance of order and both Holmes and Watson (the latter opposite the lately departed Christopher Lee in a couple of TV movies). But  he was John Steed before and after he was anything else and no actor has ever been more identified with a single part.

And of course it wasn’t really him. Hard to imagine Steed being tossed out of Eton for making book and selling dirty pictures, as MacNee was.

But there was a piece of him in it somewhere. Steed’s knowing air and flexible, but finally impenetrable, mix of charm and distance might well have belonged to a man who missed D-Day because of a bout of bronchitis to be  later informed that everyone else in his unit was lost.

Somehow, out of that, he forged a genuinely memorable and iconic character, more English than James Bond could ever be, and more modern than even the most brilliant reinterpretation of Sherlock Holmes imaginable.

And his most remarkable gift on screen (who knows if it carried to “real” life), was his easy chemistry with an astonishing string of lovelies who got younger and younger while he stayed…out of reach.

We’re used to a different sort of leading man now. Fine actors, sure. Likeable presences, sure. But George Clooney has achieved the kind of chemistry MacNee had, week after week, with Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Linda Thorson, Joanna Lumley, exactly once and that was because Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight burned so hot she could have put a twinkle in a pair of eyes painted on a rubber plant. Russell Crowe got it once, too, in Proof of Life, but it took a ruinous method-style affair with Meg Ryan to get there. Brad Pitt? Well he had it once, in Mr. and Mrs. Smith. I think we all know how that turned out and he’s been walking about with a glazed look on his face ever since.

One could go on. And one could argue that MacNee, as Steed, never had to actually consummate those longing, corner-of-the-eye looks his leading ladies were forever throwing at his genial profile or perfectly-tailored back.

But that’s the hardest kind of electricity to generate, let alone sustain across nearly two decades on television with four very different women.

And if you can’t make it look easy, you can’t do it at all.

How improbable was the achievement?

Well, pick the leading man of your choice, born after, say, 1960.

Then ask if they could ever, in a thousand years, pull this off. Or if future-Dame Diana (to say nothing of Emma Peel), would have really stood it from anybody else:

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For him, it was just another day at the office.

So yeah, I joke around here some times and say, “Goodbye us.” Well, half-joke anyway.

But today, at least, I can say with a perfectly straight face that it really is goodbye to a little piece of us.

Here’s hoping it won’t be too badly missed next time D-Day rolls around.