ReelThoughts: October 08, 2012

"50 Years of Bondage, by the Numbers (Part 1)"

Commentary by James Berardinelli

The first time I saw him was on television. It was a Sunday night in the autumn of 1977. The ABC Sunday Night Movie. Live and Let Die. Probably not the network TV premiere; that was likely a year or two earlier. (In the '70s, movies typically reached TV about three years after their theatrical release.) My initial reaction was mixed. I found the movie to be silly but I liked the action. I had to go to bed before it was over, so it would be another decade before I found out how it ended.

007 wasn't as big in the 1970s and he was in the 1960s. Some of that had to do with the change in actors. Some was because the public's tastes were changing. And some was because viewers were just getting a little tired of Bond. But the strength of the series has always been its adaptability. Re-invention: that's the key. Bond in 2012 is nothing like what it was in 1962. None of the actors are the same. None of the key behind-the-scenes players are the same. The tone is different. The only things that remain constant are the character's name, the main theme, and the fact that he likes his vodka martinis shaken, not stirred.

It would have been a nice touch to offer cameos to Connery, Lazenby, Moore, Dalton, and Brosnan in Skyfall. Nothing substantive - just walk-ons as background extras. Winks to an audience that has stuck with this character for a half-century. That's a long time. Some sort of special nod to the past is warranted. I guess today's producers didn't feel the need to acknowledge the past so obviously or felt something along these lines would be undignified. Given this sort of opportunity, all the actors probably would have agreed except Connery, who has gone into seclusion when not promoting Andy Murray. And I guess the argument would be that if you can't have Connery, why bother with the others? When it comes to Doctor Who, everyone has a favorite Doctor, and there are 11 to choose from. When it comes to Bond, everyone has a favorite Bond and there's Connery and the other guys.

Dr. No arrived on screens in the U.K. in late 1962 (didn't reach the U.S. until early 1963). It was a different world then. JFK was president. Ian Fleming was still alive. And the screen thriller was a relatively sedate affair. Bond invigorated the genre. By today's standards, Dr. No is slow and measured. Action scenes are low-key. There's only one car chase and one big explosion. The story wasn't exactly a masterpiece of uniqueness. But the film became an enormous success. Inflation-adjusted, the movie made the equivalent of $185 million domestic, and that was on about 1/10 the number of screens currently available.

From Russia with Love, which reached U.S. screens in the spring of 1964, "tweaked" the formula a little, adding more action, a few gadgets, and increasing the visibility of the "Bond girl." Arch-enemy Blofeld made his first appearance (although we didn't see his face). Everything about the Connery Bond years was falling into place. Audiences reacted agreeably to the changes, boosting the inflation-adjusted total to $230 million domestic. For my money, this is the best of the Bonds (Connery agrees).

For Goldfinger, United Artists moved the U.S. release date closer to that of the U.K. This became the biggest action blockbuster of the 1960s until another Bond entry trumped it. In terms of pure 1964 dollars, it grossed $51 million (domestic),which translates to about $530 million in today's currency. That's on par with The Dark Knight. Theaters opened round the clock to accommodate long lines. Goldfinger, one of the franchise's best entries, represented an early pinnacle. It was the first film in which the "Bond formula" of girls, gadgets, cars, action, and charisma was fully in evidence.

Thunderball was the third Bond sequel and the fourth entry in the series. It steamrolled past Goldfinger even though it wasn't as good. The film's success was based in part on 007's cultural importance. Its inflation-adjusted $600 million domestic box office coming just a year after Goldfinger's almost equally impressive take made Bond a juggernaut. Nothing was bigger in the entertainment world during the mid-1960s. But after Thunderball, the cracks began to appear. Connery was getting bored and his salary demands to stay became exorbitant. You Only Live Twice, which reached screens 18 months after Thunderball, made a respectable inflation-adjusted $285 million, but this was considerably off the high-water mark of the Goldfinger/Thunderball twosome and was viewed in many quarters as a disappointment.

Over the years, change has been viewed as a good thing for Bond, but the first instance of this was a disaster. George Lazenby stepped into Connery's shoes for 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service and the domestic gross plummeted. Total inflation-adjusted box office: $125 million. Worse than Dr. No and as close to a disaster as anything associated with 007 could be in the 1960s. Despite the initial dislike, however, OHMSS has experienced a re-assessment over the years, especially once it became widely available on home video. Lazenby remains a weak point - his performance is often stiff - but almost every other element excels. Telly Savalas is a great Blofeld, Diana Rigg is the standard by which all other Bond girls must be judged, the action is top-notch, and the narrative has genuine emotional power. It's worth wondering whether this sort of story could have been done with Connery. His Bond had becomes so much larger than life that a heartfelt love story might not have worked. Indeed, nothing of this sort was again attempted until Casino Royale, when Daniel Craig stepped into the role with no baggage.

The contemporary bad taste left in the producers' mouths by OHMSS resulted in a massive change in direction for the franchise as it entered the 1970s. The Roger Moore era actually began with Diamonds Are Forever. A gargantuan paycheck lured back Sean Connery, who went through the motions. But everything else about the movie augured the fatuousness that would become associated with Moore's tenure. It's almost impossible to take this movie seriously even within the context of the comic book action genre. Connery's return brought back some viewers (inflation-adjusted domestic box office = $210 million), but it was obvious the series had peaked. So Connery departed again and Roger Moore came on board.

Moore's first two Bond movies were not well-received and, watched 40 years later, it's apparent why. There are more stunts and more elaborate action sequences but the plots are shit and Moore's interpretation is cartoonish. He's a buffoon in a tuxedo. Audiences didn't take to this new interpretation of Bond; the hankering for Connery was apparent. Live and Let Die managed only an inflation-adjusted $160 million despite a heavy marketing campaign. The Man with the Golden Gun made an anemic inflation-adjusted $82 million in 1975 as movie-goer's tastes were changing. A scant 13 years faster its debut, the Bond franchise appeared to be headed toward irrelevancy.

Had The Spy Who Loved Me been a failure, that probably would have been it for James Bond, even though the end credits promised his return. The producers were aware that the series was on life support and did what they could to make 007 relevant for the late 1970s. They toned down the silliness, added a super-henchman, and provided a more legitimate love interest for Bond. The resulting inflation-adjusted $170 million box office, nearly twice that of The Man with the Golden Gun, provided Bond with CPR. But even as The Spy Who Loved Me was wooing fans to Moore's incarnation of 007, Star Wars was unspooling next door in many multi-screen theaters.

The resounding success of George Lucas' space opera sent shockwaves through the movie industry with the ripple effects impacting Bond in more ways than one. The first, most obvious change was a shuffling of titles. Originally, it had been intended that For Your Eyes Only would follow The Spy Who Loved Me. However, in order to better appeal to the Star Wars crowd, Moonraker was substituted because of its "futuristic" approach. The movie was savaged by critics but audiences generally enjoyed it to the tune of an inflation-adjusted $225 million - the best performance by a 007 adventure since You Only Live Twice. Thus ended the 1970s, a decade that saw James Bond descend from the pinnacle of the action-adventure mountain to a place on a crowded blockbuster plateau.

The delayed For Your Eyes Only arrived in 1981 and represented the first entry into the Bond franchise that I saw theatrically. (By now, I had seen all of the previous ones except Moonraker on TV). Cutting back on the excesses of Moonraker resulted in a more streamlined, straightforward spy adventure and I loved it. But in opting for this approach, Bond was going against the grain in Hollywood that called for bigger, more ambitious action/adventure blockbusters. For Your Eyes Only disappointed, pulling in only an inflation-adjusted $160 million. After production had wrapped, Roger Moore hinted he was moving on. This may have been a negotiating ploy because he got a nice raise and returned two more times.

1983 was dubbed "the year of Bond" because it featured not one but two new 007 productions. The "official" entry, Octopussy was silly and lackluster. Opening in July, it capitalized on the publicity surrounding the double-dip of 007 by making an inflation-adjusted $173 million, which was generally in line with The Spy Who Loved Me and For Your Eyes Only. October brought Connery's return to the role in the "unofficial" Never Say Never Again (a re-make of Thunderball, the rights to which were owned by Kevin McClory). Curiosity and nostalgia resulted in a respectable inflation-adjusted box office of $140 million. Taken together, both films accrued over $300 million (adjusted) for 007 in 1983 - his best showing since the mid-1960s, proving a sizeable audience still existed for a franchise that many viewed as a dinosaur at the ripe old age of 21. Better times were to come, but only after things got much worse.

Following Octopussy , the producers persuaded Moore to don the tux one last time. A View to a Kill was a return to vintage Moore ridiculousness, with the added sideshow of a 58-year old Bond acting like a man half his age. Connery, playing "old Bond" in Never Say Never Again was only 53 at the time. Although a 58-year old action hero held some appeal for long-time 007 fans, it wasn't of great interest to the blockbuster lifeblood of multiplexes: the teenage boy. A View to a Kill grossed an unimpressive inflation-adjusted $113 million and again Bond's future was in doubt.

(Originally, this was only supposed to be a single post. But it ended up being so long that I broke it in two. The second part can be found here.)

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