“Skyfall” is a lot of fun — don’t get me wrong — but it still says something about our culture that, in the autumn of my years, I do not like. To appreciate what I mean, contrast this new Bond to Roger O. Thornhill, the charmingly hapless advertising man played by Cary Grant in “North by Northwest.” Like Bond, Thornhill pulls off some amazing physical feats — his mad frantic escape from the crop duster, the traverse of Mount Rushmore — and like Bond he wears an expensive suit. Unlike Bond, though, when he takes it off we do not see some marbleized man, an ersatz creation of some trainer, but a fit man, effortlessly athletic and just as effortlessly sophisticated. Of course, he knows his martinis, but he also knows how to send out a suit for swift hotel cleaning. He is a man of the world. He is, in short, a man of a certain age — 55 at the time, to be more or less exact.
In “North by Northwest” and other movies, Grant — for all his good looks — represented the triumph of the sexual meritocracy — a sex appeal won by experience and savoir-faire, not delts and pecs and other such things that any kid can have. He was not alone in this. Gary Cooper in “High Noon” wins Grace Kelly by strength of character, not muscles. He was about 50, and Kelly was a mere 23.
Maybe the best example of the unmuscled hero is Humphrey Bogart in “Casablanca.” Bogart was 15 years older than Ingrid Bergman and it did not matter at all. He had the experience, the confidence, the internal strength that can only come with age. As he did with Mary Astor in “The Maltese Falcon” — “I don’t care who loves who, I won’t play the sap for you” — he gives up the love of his life because age and wisdom have given him character. These older men seduce; they are not seduced. They make love. They do not score.
The new Bond is a zeitgeisty sort of character. “There has been a striking change in attitudes toward male body image in the past 30 years,” Harrison Pope, a Harvard psychiatry professor, recently told the New York Times. He said the portrayal of men in what amounts to the Bond image is now “dramatically more prevalent in society than it was a generation ago.” That same Times story reported that 40 percent of middle and high school boys work out with the purpose of “increasing muscle mass.” Many of them also use protein supplements.
This is all very sad news. Every rippling muscle is a book not read, a movie not seen or a conversation not held. That’s why Sean Connery was my kind of Bond. He was 53 when he made his last Bond film, “Never Say Never Again.” Women loved him because he was sophisticated and he could handle a maitre d’ as well as a commie assassin. Western civilization was saved not on account of his pecs but on account of his cleverness and experience.
I know the movie market skews young and kids want action, and I take it as a good thing that Daniel Craig’s Bond is older, world weary, and, in sports lingo, has slowed a step. But he still triumphs physically, not cleverly. He does not woo women; they just come on to him. Still, I have great hope for him. In this movie, Bond’s drink is Macallan Scotch. It’s mine, too. The name is Cohen.