Agents of change

In newest Bond films, feisty women offer more than just dangerous curves

November 09, 2008|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,

In Dr. No, the film that started it all, she's a seashell collector, rising Venus-like out of the Jamaican surf, filling out a white bikini in all the best ways. Forty-six years later, in Quantum of Solace, she's a slinky double-agent every bit as dangerous as Bond himself. Hard to believe, but she never even goes to bed with 007!

My, how those Bond girls have changed.

To be sure, their primary function is still eye candy. Quantum's Olga Kurylenko may never achieve the notoriety that Ursula Andress did in Dr. No, but that's only because the times have changed, not the standards. Bikini-clad actresses are a dime a dozen these days, but there are still certain aesthetic standards to be met. Plain Janes need not apply.

And while Kurylenko's Camille doesn't wind up in 007's bed, another female agent, Strawberry Fields (Gemma Arterton), does. Some traditions die hard.

But Bond girls - and let's agree that henceforth, at least within the confines of this article, we shall refer to them as Bond women - do far more these days than simply supply a shapely leg for 007 to leer at. Ever since Michelle Yeoh's Wai Lin practically wiped the floor with Bond in 1997's Tomorrow Never Dies, matching him leg-kick for leg-kick, Bond women have been able to take care of themselves just fine, thank you. True, Bond may rescue them a time or two, but chances are, they'll pull his butt out of the fire a few times as well.

"They're stronger, more independent-minded," says David Black, chairman of the 2,000-member James Bond International Fan Club, on the phone from his home in York, England. "They've definitely tried to make the girl on a par with Bond."

Kurylenko, the 28-year-old Ukrainian actress who plays Camille in Quantum of Solace (which opens Friday), understands that three decades of Bond women have brought some changes to the franchise. In Casino Royale (2006), the first film with Daniel Craig as Bond, Eva Green's Vesper Lynd was clearly his equal - in ways that 007 clearly understood, and appreciated. In Quantum, which begins just days after the events of Casino Royale, Bond's thirst for vengeance over Vesper's fate propels the film.

"Casino Royale inspired me to try for this role," Kurylenko says. "I thought, 'This is a new era, and they won't be going back.' So I talked to them about the part. If she was anything like Vesper, I'd want to play her. She's strong, she's not looking for Bond's help. She's feisty."

Feisty may not be the word that immediately comes to mind when the subject turns to Bond woman No. 1, Andress' Honey Ryder. Drop-dead sexy? Sure. Exotic? Absolutely, especially with that sultry Swiss accent. Vulnerable? You bet, which is why she was so lucky to have Sean Connery's 007 around to keep an eye on her. But Honey was never able to give as good as Bond could take.

None of which is to suggest that Bond women have always been helpless, simple accessories with whom Bond could display his masculinity. Andress, after all, had that dagger, and as early as 1964's Goldfinger, they were beginning to show a bit of an independent streak. Honor Blackman's Pussy Galore might have been the name that launched a thousand quips (double entendres have long been a Bond staple), but she was no pushover. It's her double-cross of bad-guy Auric Goldfinger, after all, that makes it possible for Bond to play the hero.

"The women were unique for their time," Quantum producer Barbara Broccoli, daughter of long-time Bond producer Albert "Cubby" Broccoli, told the London Telegraph. "Pussy Galore, for instance, was a female pilot. A lot of them were sexual predators who gave as good as they got. They had professional careers and did extraordinary things. I think the early women were very progressive."

Conferring the title of "feminist icon" on the early Bond women is probably stretching things beyond the breaking point. Indeed, in the same article in which Broccoli is quoted, writer Fay Weldon sniffs that "these films were attempts by men to keep women in their place and to ensure they still ironed their shirts."

Film critic David Thomson, author of the just-published Have You Seen ...? A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, hasn't seen much change in the Bond women at all. "I am tempted to say that, actually, they've moved in the contrary direction than that of feminism," he says. "You would have thought that, in the age of feminism, the Bond girls might have become better-educated, better-spoken and better-able to stand up for themselves. I don't think there has been much progress."

It's certainly true that the Bond women went through a fallow period, especially during the Roger Moore years. The only George Lazenby Bond, 1969's On Her Majesty's Secret Service, was blessed with the coolest and classiest of all 007's femmes, the great Diana Rigg as Tracy Di Vicenzo - the only woman Bond ever married (and the rare Bond woman not to be seen wearing a bikini or other revealing get-up).

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