HOLLYWOOD -- If it's true, as director Steven Spielberg once said, that there are only seven genuine movie stars in the world and that Sean Connery is one of them, one could go on to make the case for Mr. Connery -- who receives the Seventh American Cinematheque Award tonight -- as first among equals.
His James Bond series was one of the most hugely successful in movie history (in its time, 1964's "Goldfinger" was the fastest money-maker ever, grossing $10 million in just a few months). Yet he dropped it after six films (excepting his tongue-in-cheek return in 1983's "Never Say Never Again") in the unusual reverse-metamorphosis in which -- at least as far as the public perception is concerned -- he went from being a star to becoming an actor.
"It's been a unique and extraordinary career in being two careers," says Gary Essert, artistic director and CEO of the American Cinematheque, in explaining why Mr. Connery was chosen for the award. "He had one as James Bond, and then he totally reshaped himself as a leading man in 'A' pictures that have had international box office success. He's had a tremendous impact on film."
Through more than 50 films (whose varying quality he concedes), he's never shown the need for bandoleers of city-leveling ordnance -- he brandished a shotgun in "The Untouchables," but the steel was all in his voice when he said, "It's simple. They put one of ours in the hospital, we put one of theirs in the morgue."
Mr. Connery, 61, will receive his award tonight in the company of an estimated 1,200 industry figures, and Audrey Hepburn, who is honorary chair, has flown in from Switzerland to present it.
Mr. Connery has been in Los Angeles the past few weeks shooting "The Rising Sun," the controversial Michael Crichton novel that has been adapted for the screen by Phillip Kaufman, who directs. "The Rising Sun" is the story of a woman who is found murdered in the Los Angeles office of a Japanese corporation, and Mr. Connery plays a detective -- expert in Japanese mores and culture -- called in to handle the case (Wesley Snipes plays his partner). Between takes, Mr. Connery popped into his trailer to talk about the film industry in general, and to reflect on his career.
"I'm not of anywhere," he said by way of partially explaining his longevity. "Somehow my career has spread thinner on wider ground. The films I've made are diverse, and I'm at home wherever I'm working. That's why the deterioration of the British film industry hasn't affected me -- it's sad what Thatcherism has done, allowing such a huge number of talented people to become lost. John Major is trying to do something, but the industry needs a billion-pound injection."
Mr. Connery's international following has also allowed him to escape some of the worrisome tendencies, as he sees them, of the American film industry, as well (he notes that "The Name of the Rose" made $2 million in America and $63 million abroad).
"The American film industry is like Broadway -- it's always dying," he said ironically. "But it's still got an entrepreneurial sense. I think what's hurting it now is that they're locked into sequels, and the energy that should be channeled into product is now channeled into making money back as soon as possible. It used to be people were more willing to let time go by before turning a profit and concentrated on the nuts and bolts of making the movie. But now you have a lot of people in positions of control who have absolutely no idea of what filmmaking is about."
Asked what determines a project's appeal to him, he replied, "One's response is always to the writing. There are fewer and fewer top writers now who can deal with the nuances of character. I was absolutely caught by 'Name of the Rose' (by Umberto Eco), even if it was a long read. The same is true of Michael Crichton. I've stayed friends with him ever since we did 'The First Great Train Robbery.' As soon as I read the galley for 'Rising Sun,' I agreed to do the script. There's a dramatic line through different levels of expression. It's a detective story, but it's also a story about black and yellow and white cultures, and new technology, and Japanese-American relations.
"That's what I liked of 'The Untouchables' too -- David Mamet's quality writing. I thought Kevin Costner was exceptional in the film, though he took some bricks for it. But all the elements were justifiable."
"The Man Who Would Be King" is also among Mr. Connery's favorites. "John Huston had been trying to make that movie for 25 years. It was based on a story that was only 22 pages long. He did a lot of switching around between Michael Caine's character and mine -- he wanted to make two people one. I think the movie worked very well."
Mr. Connery doesn't hold with the notion that fame inhibits an actor's freedom to observe. In Los Angeles, he drives himself to the set in a Lincoln Town Car, and he explained: "I made a decision to be in the public plane because I don't feel uncomfortable there. I go everywhere, soccer games, boxing matches, restaurants. I make my own arrangements."
What's important to Mr. Connery at this stage of his career? "I have more of a sense of responsibility when I have a sense of direction. It's important for one to be happy in one's skin. I really try to treat everyone the way I like to be treated, and since I have the capacity to influence the environment I work in, I try to do just that."