Friday 15 December 2017

Film: Assassins and airheads: reboot of the Bond girl

Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder in Dr No
Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder in Dr No

Paul Whitington

It says a lot about the traditions and values of the Bond franchise that, when Monica Bellucci was cast in Spectre, eyebrows were immediately raised. The Italian actress is 51, and when hounded by the British and international press about being a Bond girl, was forced to clarify that she's "a Bond woman".

While it's rather pathetic that casting a 51-year-old actress as the potential love interest of a 47-year-old actor should be seen as daring, Bellucci's presence is a sign of how the Bond world has recently changed. Since Eon Productions rebooted the film franchise in 2006 with the help of writers Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade, 007 has become more serious, less sleazy, and his women have followed suit.

Though still in the main young and beautiful, the Bond girls in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace, Skyfall and Spectre have been a demure bunch compared with their predecessors, less passive and biddable, and more inclined to challenge Bond on his behaviour and remoteness. He even falls in love with one of them, and Daniel Craig's 007 has slept with only one or two per film.

Which is all very commendable, but they still wear bikinis, are still (Ms Bellucci excepted) 15 to 20 years younger than Bond and still get murdered with alarming regularity once he's had his wicked way with them. So have the Bond girls really changed with the times, or are they still the objectified sex objects of yore? And should the real women who watch them be offended, or amused?

If the Bond girls have tended overall to be throwaway misogynist fantasies, that's no accident. James Bond's creator, Ian Fleming, was of an amorous disposition but always seemed ambivalent about females, sometimes sentimentalising them, but capable also of cruelty, and callousness.

He once described women as "like pets, like dogs", whereas men were "the only real human beings". His ideal girl would be "a companion who wouldn't need education in the arts of love" and "would aim to please". It's hard to read statements like that without coming to the conclusion that Fleming saw women as disposable sex objects.

This unreconstructed chauvinism found its way into Fleming's Bond novels and the subsequent films, where the girls would be pretty, available, relatively powerless and usually doomed. And some commentators have suggested that in his 007 novels, Fleming endlessly replayed his romance with an early girlfriend called Muriel Wright, who was meek and beautiful and died young in a Luftwaffe air raid in 1944.

In the first two Bond films, 007 actually had a girlfriend of sorts, God help her, a pretty but mentally negligible London socialite called Sylvia Trench, played by Eunice Grayson. She spends most of her time saying "oh James!" and trying feebly to entice him into a more permanent arrangement, but Connery's Bond made the word 'darling' sound like a curse, and gazed at women the way a wolf looks at sheep.

The first real Bond girl is generally acknowledged to have been not poor Sylvia but Honey Ryder, a Caribbean shell diver played by Swiss actress Ursula Andress. She was unknown when she made Dr No in 1962, but all of that changed as soon as she emerged from the sea dressed in a skimpy white bikini and carrying a knife that wouldn't save her from Bond.

She was a primitive, a proud and sensual woman with wild eyes and bad English who'd provide a blank canvas for the oversexed spy. She said little and seemed happy enough when she and Bond floated off into the sunset at the end of Dr No, but was never heard from again.

In Dr No and all subsequent Bond films, 007 is depicted as a man so suave and handsome, a lover so adept and passionate, that it's impossible for any women to resist him, no matter how spirited she might initially seem. In From Russia with Love (1963), his intoxicating musk even managed to turn the head of a beautiful Russian spy sent to entrap him.

Italian actress Daniela Bianchi played Tatiana Romanova, a pretty but gullible clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul who's persuaded by Spectre agent Rosa Klebb to seduce Bond, but ends up betraying Klebb and falling in love with him. She was a helpless drip, a damsel in distress, and ought to have feared for her safety as she drifted off down a Venetian canal on a lonely barge with the incorrigible Bond.

But not all the early Bond girls were quite so compliant. While Goldfinger (1964) begins with a sexual sacrifice, as Shirley Eaton sleeps with Bond and is then killed and sprayed with gold paint, Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore was definitely the leading lady in the film. The charismatic boss of a team of female exhibition pilots, Pussy was strong and self-possessed and initially unimpressed by Bond's attempts at seduction.

Honor Blackman was 38 when she starred in Goldfinger, some five years older than Sean Connery, and oozed a quiet authority that was most un-typical of Bond girls. She wore jodhpurs, and tops with discretely plunging necklines, and her elegance and independence were well ahead of their time. "I must be dreaming," Bond says with his usual leer when he first meets her, but Pussy looks amused rather than interested, and throws him over her shoulder using a judo hold when he decides to get fresh.

She fell for him in the end of course, but only after making him work pretty hard. But Pussy would remain the exception rather than the rule, a flesh-and-blood woman in a franchise teeming with blow-up dolls. Her name, of course, was a childish in-joke, and this kind of clumsy innuendo would be revisited in later Bond girls like Xenia Onatopp, Holly Goodhead and Plenty O'Toole.

The unfortunate Miss O'Toole turned up in Sean Connery's last Eon Productions Bond film, Diamonds are Forever (1971), and was played by Natalie Woods' younger sister, Lana. A casino good-time girl, she ended up getting thrown out of a hotel window after seducing 007, and perhaps best sums up the trashy disposability of most Bond girls.

Things didn't improve in the Roger Moore era. The casting of African-American actress Gloria Hendry as a female CIA agent in Live and Let Die (1973) might have seemed daring, but she was inexperienced, clueless, putty in Bond's hands. And the other main love interest in that film, Jane Seymour's Solitaire, was a mystic idiot who used tarot cards to read the future, another ditsy damsel in distress.

The female villains were always more interesting, from Grace Jones' high-kicking maniac May Day in A View to a Kill (1985) to Famke Janssen's Xenia Onotopp in GoldenEye (1996), a femme fatale who strangles her victims with her thighs. But the Bond girls remained helpless victims for the most part. In Die Another Day, for instance, Pierce Brosnan's last Bond film, Halle Berry memorable recreated Ursula Andress's bikini scene playing Jinx Johnson. She falls for Bond of course, and ends up getting tortured by the baddie before 007 rescues her in the inevitable nick of time.

Four years would pass between Die Another Day and Casino Royale, and in the 2006 film, the Bond girl was given a reboot along with everything else. Martin Campbell's film did contain one traditional Bond girl, a villain's wife played by beautiful Sardinian actress Caterina Murino, who wore a bikini, slept with Bond and ended up dead on a beach.

But she was peripheral, sexual cannon fodder as it were, and entirely eclipsed by the arrival of Eva Green's Vesper Lynd. Miss Lynd was a treasury agent, in charge of the purse strings for a vital poker game: she had a brain, and was up to Bond's usual nonsense. He would fall in love with her (see panel), but in Casino Royale, Quantum of Solace and Skyfall, one woman loomed even larger than Lynd in 007's life.

The one factor that has really distinguished the Daniel Craig Bonds thus far and given them emotional depth has been the spy's relationship with Judi Dench's M. She'd been playing the role since 1995 and GoldenEye, but really came into her own when confronted with Craig's youthful and impetuous Bond.

She disapproved of his blood-lust and dissolute ways, but sensed his potential and genuinely seemed to care for him. And she was the one person that 007 really wanted to impress: for the orphaned spy, she became a vital emotional touchstone, a hectoring, disapproving, fussing figure - in other words, a mother.

The best Bond girl

Ursula Andress's Honey Ryder remains perhaps the best-known Bond girl, and a case could definitely be made for Honor Blackman's sharp-tongued air ace Pussy Galore, but for me Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale is the best Bond girl of them all. Bond first meets her on a train to Montenegro, where they flirt slyly, analyse each other's weaknesses and exchange withering comments over dinner. She works for the British Treasury, and has been sent to limit the financial damage 007 might cause in a forthcoming casino poker game with the film's villain, Le Chiffre.

As played by French actress Eva Green, Lynd represents a new kind of Bond girl. Clever and self-possessed, independent but also vulnerable, she only warms to 007 slowly, is traumatised by the violence she sees him inflict and worried about the damage his line of work is doing him. Vesper also has flaws and secrets of her own, and late in the film we realise she's been blackmailed into betraying Bond and stealing his poker winnings. Vesper Lynd seems like a real woman as opposed to a cartoonish sex object, and she also breaks the young spy's heart, thus presenting us with a handy psychological explanation as to why he subsequently became such a heartless cad.

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