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Click for larger image Madison 
Nov/Dec 1999 
Pierce Brosnans Uncommon Bond

There is doubtless more than a grain of truth to the charges made by Judi Dench playing the role of James Bond's boss, M, in 1995's GoldenEye (and films since) that despite "his boyish charm," Bond is both "a relic of the Cold War," and, worse, "a sexist, misogynist dinosaur."

True or not, what seems undeniable is that James Bond remains very much with us perhaps even as something of "a hero figure for the millennium," as Michael Apted, the director of the next Bond adventure, describes him. Obviously, the popularity of  Pierce Brosnan, the actor to whom Dench's speech is delivered, has been a significant part of preserving this particular dinosaur from extinction. But there is more. As Apted also points out, Brosnan is one of those rare and fortunate actors who, like Gregory Peck, Paul Newman or Robert Redford, "has only gotten better as he has gotten older. Better looking. Sexier. And a better actor."

Whatever the actual complex of causes, the fact is James Bond's popularity and the James Bond business are flourishing. A dizzying range of licensed James Bond products continues to be made and sold in every inhabited corner of the world (my own particular favorites being James Bond postage stamps issued by two ex-Soviet republics: Turkmenistan and Chechnya). Author Raymond Benson evidently channels Ian Fleming and writes a new Bond adventure about once a year - thus making his contribution to the billions that have been steadily amassed by the slightly mysterious Glidrose Productions Ltd. (a publishing entity founded by Fleming in 1953 when Casino Royale first appeared in an edition of 4,750 copies that is still owned in part by the Fleming family). The movies, generating their own synergistically related billions, have appeared on average every other year 18 over 37 years, beginning with a million-dollar production starring a BBC television actor from Scotland (who'd had a hard time breaking into film roles) and culminating (on Thanksgiving Day) with the United States release of the 19th Bond adventure, a $100 million production, The World Is Not Enough, starring Pierce Brosnan (a former U.S. television star originally from Ireland).

Though there may still be a few hard-core holdouts who :continue to fault Pierce Brosnan for not being Sean Connery or who pine for their adolescent idol (Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton or even George Lazenby, as the case might be), in many ways, including the proverbial bottom line, Brosnan is shaping up as the most successful Bond yet (an action hero who is equally popular with men, thinking women and precocious children of all ages). 
 

Over the past five years, since he landed GoldenEye in a field of competitors that reportedly included Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson, Michael Keaton, Harrison Ford and Ralph Fiennes Brosnan has done much to re-create Bond, James Bond, for a new generation of moviegoers. 

Aside from simply being extremely able at the job (indeed, seemingly destined for the role), Brosnan has evidenced a perfectly pitched political savvy that all but assures him of continued employment for at least another, or more probably several, films to come. On the one hand, Brosnan has restored to Bond the well-tailored masculine elegance (which Connery was so good at) of a tough, soldierly English gentleman along with more than a faint twinkle of self-deprecating irony. But he has also given his Bond, on the other hand (prior films' evidence to the contrary notwithstanding), a heart, and a change of heart that makes it possible for one to think that Bond may actually rather like women and now regards them as something more than disposable, largely interchangeable bikini-clad playthings.

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Obviously, as all who are involved in working on "the franchise" maintain, Bond movies are primarily about creating entertainment of the escapist variety. They're intended to be, and intended to be taken as, simple good fun maybe not squeaky clean, but certainly PG-13 rated. Producer Michael Wilson (stepson and heir to the late Cubby Broccoli, co-founder of Eon, the production dynasty which either produced or co-produced all of the Bond films) explains that Bond films are family entertainment, and that as they work on Bond projects they try to imagine a family, with two children, sitting 'round the table, trying to decide what to do "as a family." The idea is to come up with something "that no one will object to too violently."

PG-13 or not, as ingredients go for a universal formula, it would probably be hard to better Bond's trademark mix of great sex, exotic locales, beautiful clothes, luxury cars, cool gadgets and a visceral roller-coaster ride of gunfire and fireballs especially when these are played out to the plush seats of a packed neighborhood movie house, against the rousing variations of several well-known and beloved musical themes. (As if this weren't enough, it's also been noted that like most really enduring entertainments, the Bond adventures are essentially a contemporary reworking of a noble literary paradigm the struggle of the knight Saint George to slay a dragon and win the maiden.)

Lest we feel guilty about the frivolous or immoral nature of our pleasure in Bond (if it can be assumed that there is anyone left in Bond's audience who feels guilt or the weight of moral censure when selecting leisure time activity), the Bond opus skillfully ignores gritty verisimilitude in favor of a "yeah, right" style of whoppingly implausible feats of derring-do. As it clearly belongs to a fantasy realm remote from "real life," there is never much question that this is not, you know, the sort of thing you'll want to try at home.
 

BROSNAN  HAS  GIVEN  HIS  BOND A HEART, AND  A  CHANGE  OF HEART  THAT  MAKES  IT  POSSIBLE  FOR  ONE  TO  THINK  THAT BOND  MAY   ACTUALLY   RATHER LIKE  WOMEN  AND  NOW  REGARDS  THEM  AS 
SOMETHING  MORE  THAN  DISPOSABLE,  LARGELY  INTERCHANGEABLE BIKINI-CLAD  PLAYTHINGS.
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Given the chance, though, who would not be Bond? Who wouldn't love to have the snappy final retort before dispatching enemies without hesitation, regret or consequence? Who doesn't (at least secretly) wish to be irresistible? And possibly best of all, who wouldn't be utterly delighted to be effortlessly competent at everything knowing how to dress for every occasion, to gamble well, shoot guns, drink, make love to intimidating beauties, maneuver high-powered sports cars down the Grande Corniche above Monte Carlo pilot various types of multi-billion dollar aircraft and handle mortal dangers of every conceivable sort with cool savoir faire and an unruffled aplomb?

Finally, there is the backdrop of world affairs in Bond films seldom more complicated than that of Saint George and his dragons. A respite from moral grays, ambiguous causes and effects, complex (mostly insolvable) problems and reluctant but necessary realpolitik calculations what could possibly be better than a simple Us versus Them in stark blacks and whites? Nothing except perhaps Brosnan's Bond, 12 feet tall, in 35mm Kodak color and Dolby Surround sound, recapturing the flavor of the Cold War era's simplistic moral certainties.

Brosnan's great gift is that he can make much of the above reasonably believable. And meeting him in person little diminishes this impression. The day we get together in New York at a discreet luxury hotel off Madison Avenue, he looks like, well, a very successful and debonair actor who's been enjoying a late-summer morning in Manhattan. He is unshaven. He smiles with real warmth. And his natty blue shirt seems to only accentuate the striking color of his unreasonably vivid blue eyes. Without makeup, Brosnan's face has considerable character and more than a few good lines. He moves gracefully lighter on his feet than you'd expect a man six-feet-one would move. And he is also a great deal more lithe than any man midway through his forties should be.

I ask him why he believes Bond has endured. And while speaking of his accomplishments with poised modesty (and self-deprecating charm), he admits that much "depends on the man who's playing the role. On who's front-and-center stage." He adds, "I seem to have done something right," but he is also careful to stress that he's thankful that audiences "seem to connect with something I'm doing up there." Later, when we return to the subject, he tells me, "You have to have a sense of humor playing Bond. You have to pay attention to what people have grown up with." And for the role to work, "there has to be a nod and a wink to the audience."

Born May 16, 1953, in Drogheda, Ireland, and christened Pierce Brendan Brosnan, the actor has frequently spoken about his childhood as being "humble" but "rich in other ways." It could not, however, have been easy. Shortly after Pierce's birth, his mother was abandoned by his father. "The old man went out the back door when I came into the world," he says. Unfortunately, Irish mill towns in the 1950s were neither the time nor the place to be a single parent, and though still in her early twenties. May Brosnan set out alone to build a new life and became a nurse in London. She was not to live with her son again until 1964, when she finally sent for him. "To have your husband leave you, in a very small Irish community," says Brosnan of his mother, "that was shameful. So she thought 'to the Devil with the lot of you' and went off."

An only child, Brosnan was shunted among his mother's relatives living first with his grandparents, then (after their deaths about the time Pierce turned six) with various aunts and uncles (mostly in and around Navan, a village roughly 30 miles north of Dublin). He did, he says, "a lot of dreaming" and endured "a certain amount of loneliness," but "had a great deal of fun as well."
 

Click for larger version As an altar boy at the local church, Brosnan recalls, he enjoyed the pageantry of the Mass and of dressing up. But he was not much of a student and has few fond memories of the Christian brothers who ran the local Scoil Mhuire, a Catholic boys school (which he began attending about the time he was eight). It was a stern place; corporal punishment was still prevalent, and beatings for the most trifling transgressions were common. On August 12, 1964, Brosnan's life changed dramatically: He was put on a plane to London. Though a shock, he says, "it was an exciting shock."

It is now almost a legend that one of the very first films Brosnan saw on coming to London was Goldfinger. As he explained it to a reporter several years ago, "There was this gold lady, naked. A man with a hat that decapitated people and statues. And this amazing cool dude who just kind of strutted through the fair, beat the shit out of anybody who got in his way, and got the girl. I kind of liked it." Among Brosnan's other early teenage heroes were Clint Eastwood and Steve McQueen.

Although, Brosnan says, he talked about film with friends almost "all the time," it was commercial art, and hot acting, that Brosnan first aspired to when he left school at 16. "Acting," he says, "found me." And it happened almost by accident, when a co-worker at his first job (as a trainee in a south London photo studio) suggested he come along to an audition at a theater club after work.

The time, 1969, was fertile for experiment in all things including theater, and Brosnan says that names like "La MaMa" were full of the allure of the exotic and unknown. He had begun to read, picking serious books off the shelves of WH Smith on his lunch break and quickly devouring them. Yevtushenko and Sartre were among his early discoveries. But it was the theater the process of acting and the "company of actors" that were the most stunning revelations. Suddenly, surrounded by people who were "talented, gifted, crazy, mad, mangled, beautiful and exciting to be with," Brosnan felt he'd found "a sanctuary." And he threw himself into experimental workshops as a regular participant. Gradually, he began to discover that acting "was something that I might be good at." But it would be a long and, at times, very tough road ahead. 

Brosnan's feature film debut was not to come until 1980. The Long Good Friday (a thriller starring Bob Hoskins as a London crime lord locked in a gang war of spiraling violence) provided a role that while not especially auspicious, at least hinted in the right direction. Cast as an IRA hit man, Brosnan appears early in the film, luring a victim into a changing room at a public swimming pool (with a come-hither look and a dark Speedo bathing suit). Then, a little more than an hour later, Brosnan reappears in the film's finale to take Hoskins on his last ride, armed with a pistol fitted with a silencer. Menacing in a quiet, businesslike way, Brosnan looks on while Hoskins mugs, baring his teeth and grimacing to music as the credits role. I mention having seen The Long Good Friday to Brosnan. But this is evidently not a film that he seems particularly eager to talk about.

By the end of 1980, however, Brosnan's career and life seemed suddenly and dramatically to be getting under way. He landed a starring role as a provocateur in a 1981 television miniseries, The Manions of America, and married the actress Cassandra Harris, setting up house With her and her two children. The Manions led, in short order and almost directly, to him getting Remington Steele, the NBC television series that would make Brosnan a household name and something of a major heartthrob in America.

It is early in Brosnan's round-the-world promotional tour for his remake of  The Thomas Crown Affair, a romantic thriller he has produced as well as starred in. He is plainly proud of his first major venture at mainstream Hollywood producing, and when I ask him how he feels about it, he says, employing an effective pause, "I think it's. . . entertaining." He is, however, candid, if philosophical, about his disappointment that more American reviewers didn't completely "get it." It is clearly something he has dealt with before. (In Europe, in the weeks that follow, The Thomas Crown Affair will fare considerably better, and critics will pay more attention to the romance at the center of the story.)
 

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"YOU  HAVE  TO  HAVE  A  SENSE  OF HUMOR  PLAYING  BOND.  YOU  HAVE  TO  PAY  ATTENTION  TO  WHAT  PEOPLE  HAVE  GROWN  UP  WITH.  THERE  HAS TO  BE  A  NOD  AND  A  WINK  TO  THE  AUDIENCE."

Critics, though, on the whole especially in the United States and Great Britain have seldom been among Brosnan's most fervent admirers, this regardless of performances that should have earned him respect and praise. Certainly among these is his wonderfully restrained portrayal of a colonial British officer who is ultimately doomed by his decency and vague, well-meaning intentions in 1991's Mister Johnson. There is every possibility that Brosnan's upcoming portrayal of the great English naturalist Grey Owl, in a Sir Richard Attenborough-directed film of the same name, will further help to effect the long overdue reappraisal of his talents. Until then Brosnan remains, despite his star status, regularly underrated as a serious actor. As for why this should continue even now to be the case, is something far from clear.

Part of it, presumably, has to do simply with Brosnan's appearance. For better and for worse, for most of his career, Brosnan has too frequently been judged mainly on his sexy too-good looks with scant notice being paid to his acting. This, on occasion, even by his most loyal admirers. A friend's mother, a stunning woman roughly Brosnan's own age, is fond of saying she won't remarry unless she finds "someone as rich as Rockefeller and as handsome as Remington Steele." Though the television series has been off the air for some 13 years, Brosnan's 90-plus episodes as a seductive confidence man turned sleuth still mark him.

Nevertheless, as a suave leading man in major international features (with enormous dollar consequences riding on his skills), he is realistic about his audience, sensitive to their expectations and not about to be stupid about responding to their preferences. His professional life, it seems, shares more than one might expect with that of a politician, and as a star (distinguished from an actor), he is answerable to the will of a constituency that will express its approval or disapproval by attending his films. Added to this, Brosnan has also honed a seasoned veteran's sense of what sort of project is feasible for him to sell within the Hollywood system, get financed and ultimately promoted and distributed. When I ask him what he'd really like to do, Chekhov's Uncle Vanya comes up in passing conversation, and he tells me about his first attempt at producing in 1989, just after he'd starred in a popular television miniseries, Noble House, based on James Clavell's best-seller.

"The first development deal I had was at Columbia," says Brosnan. "I had an office. At one end of the corridor was Cher, and at the other end was Madonna." In short, he had very much arrived, and at very much the right place among the prevailing powers. However, with little clear idea of what it was that he might develop as a script, and eventually turn into a movie, Brosnan knew he was not fated to do terribly well there. He showed up, he says, with a book of Chekhov's short stories, which, as these things go, was not quite the shrewdest possible move. The late Dawn Steel, the studio executive who'd brought Brosnan to Columbia Pictures, was "sympathetic," he recalls, but she did not apparently share Brosnan's faith in Chekhov's as yet untapped mass-market commercial appeal.

"I didn't know what the hell I was doing," Brosnan admits cheerfully. But what mattered more here, he explains, was that he had "no clout." Winning the role of Bond, and GoldenEye's subsequent success, provided him with plenty of it overnight.

His second venture at producing, Irish DreamTime, founded in 1996 with his partner. Beau St. Clair, is already shaping up as a formidable new shop, bound and determined to develop projects from the ground up and make them into pictures. Even before they'd taken offices, St. Clair tells me, they'd started to work on their first feature project, The Nephew (which came out in 1998). A lovely contemporary drama set in a small Irish town, the film concerns a New York teenager who sets out, shortly after his mother's death, to make his peace with her long-estranged brother (played by the wonderful late Irish actor Donal McCann). Brosnan, cast nicely against type, plays a supporting role as a local pub owner (his presence almost certainly an aid to financing a project close to his heart).

When I ask if Chekhov will be next, Brosnan laughs.

"I don't think we'll go there just yet," he says. "Let's give them what they want right now keep it safe, not stretch too far too soon." And Thomas Crown, he says, was in part motivated by this sort of reasoning.

While some reviewers invoked the slightly camp 1968 Norman Jewison original (and praised the chemistry of sixties icons Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway), this was chiefly to disparage Brosnan's far more subtly plotted and more skillfully nuanced update. Nonetheless, Brosnan's remake has performed quite respectably against the rough summer competition of big studio blockbusters. And he will surely be able to produce another big-budget feature as soon as he's ready to do so. When I ask Brosnan and St. Clair if Thomas Crown held lessons or surprises, St. Clair says they were only surprised by how strongly they were praised for Brosnan's casting Rene Russo as his co-star a decision that clearly helped to emphasize that the love story in their version is one about and between equals. (And further the possibility of there being more romantic roles for mature leading women.)

IN  MANY  WAYS,  BROSNAN  IS  A THROWBACK  TO  THAT  BREED  OF  MOVIE  STAR  WE  WOULD  LIKE TO  BELIEVE WAS  TYPICAL  OF SIMPLER  TIMES. MODELS  OF  DECENCY,  WHOSE OFFSCREEN  PERSONAE  SEEMED  TO  GENUINELY  MELD INTO  THEIR   ROLES  AS  ONSCREEN HEROES.  THAT  WAS  WHAT  MADE  THEM STARS  AND  NOT  JUST  ACTORS.
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By all accounts, Brosnan is a strongly committed, hands-on producer. And it was only through his determined effort, for example, that Thomas Crown secured Sting for a remake of Michael Legrand's famous Academy Award-winning theme song, "The Windmills of Your Mind." Despite his constant protests ("I'm just a bloody working actor that's what I am, and that is it."), it is likely that in the years to come, Brosnan's growth as a filmmaker will be fascinating to watch both as he becomes bolder and more confident in his choice and handling of material and as he becomes increasingly adroit at wielding his "clout." Meanwhile, it is hard to find anyone who seems more popular with colleagues, all of whom (including his Remington Steele co-star, Stephanie Zimbalist) praise his untemperamental, unaffected professionalism.

As for what's next, Brosnan says he wants time off after five very solid years of "working my ass off." To paint. Go to the beach. And spend time with his family, which now includes a two-and-a-half year old son (with current partner, Keely Shaye Smith) and a grandchild (the latter recently born to Harris' daughter). He also says he needs to take stock of his career and puzzle through how to be Bond without getting trapped in the role. Though he doesn't speak of his real life's good works himself, those around Brosnan are quick to point out his serious commitment to women's health issues (particularly the fight against ovarian cancer, which claimed Harris in December 1991) and his efforts to preserve the environment and to fight for marine mammals. Most dramatic was his decision to boycott GoldenEye's debut in France, as a protest against nuclear testing in the Pacific.

In many ways, Brosnan is a throwback to that breed of movie star we would like to believe was typical of simpler times. Models of decency, whose offscreen personae seemed to genuinely meld into their roles as on-screen heroes. That was what made them stars and not just actors. It wasn't just the pomp and sex and how-to materialism that made us want to live like they did. It was often their confident certainty about sticking to some straightforward code of right and wrong.

But then, for at least the last two and a half millennia, there has been considerable debate about what exactly it is that a "good life" involves. On occasion typically late at night and far from home, when the sky has been unusually clear and dark and bright with stars, and my day has been calm enough for a little amateur metaphysical rumination I've had the presumption to try my own ideas upon the subject.

Even if the ideal is usually impossibly elusive, two keys to a happy even exemplary existence are relatively simple. First, staying on an even keel, with grace and humor (becoming neither arrogant nor bitter nor unfeeling) regardless of what fortune's whims might dish out. And second, making the most of your gifts (whatever they may be) particularly over the long haul. Though, naturally, I have myself very rarely managed to live up to either of these impossibly simple aspirations, they are not too bad a starting place for understanding much about Brosnan.
 

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About how he has coped with a tough childhood and educated himself in all things. About the countless disparate ups and downs of roughly 30 years of acting in fringe theater and miniseries, as a popular TV detective, in arty foreign productions and finally, in mainstream blockbuster cinema, as a leading man. About raising three children and losing his wife after a four-year battle with ovarian cancer. And about beginning over again and having a third child after 40. About handling the demands of celebrity and starting his own production company and then actually making films. All the while living through the sheer bloody day-to-day stress of seven major feature film roles (and a number of supporting parts) in less than five years. You get the sense that if it's tough being Bond, it isn't all that much easier being Brosnan.


Guy Lesser was stirred, not shaken, by meeting Pierce Brosnan. He is devoting this winter to mastering suave phrases of Norwegian like "Hør na her!" and "Hva tror du?" from the first Oslo edition of Casino Royale. He interviewed writer and director David Lynch for the October 1999 issue of MADISON. Photographs by Nigel Parry


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