Sunday 31 October 2010

The curse of the Bond girl - fact or fiction?

For actresses, James Bond films should a carry health warning: ‘Starring in a Bond film may cause your career to go down as well as up.’ There is a persistent view, most recently expressed in a paper by Claire Hines,* that being a ‘Bond girl’ is damaging to careers. Despite the usually high-profile and successful appearance in a Bond film, the actress rarely seems to achieve anything comparable subsequently, and is becomes confined to the television treadmill or pops up from time to time in low-budget sub-Bond thrillers. But is this really the case, or is the Bond girl curse an idea – a meme – that is replicated with little connection to the evidence?

We can test the validity of this successful meme, transmitted in books and cyberspace, with the help of the
Internet Movie Database (IMDb). First, we must establish the relative merits of the Bond girls’ post-Bond films – and their pre-Bond films to better trace career trajectories – and compare the values against Bond films. Box-office receipts is a useful measure, but the data are unavailable for older and obscure films. The alternative is the IMDb rating, which gives for each film an average of website users’ scores out of ten. The average score for Dr No, for example, is 7.3.

For convenience, I have limited my dataset to up to five films before or after Bond, giving me a potential series of 11 films for each actress. Of course, each film usually has a number of Bond girls – Roald Dahl famously stuck to a three-girl formula – but for my purposes, the Bond girl in all cases is the main ally of Bond, the girl who is in Bond’s arms at the end of the film (yes, I know Olga Kurylenko was not in Bond’s arms at the end of Quantum of Solace, but she did survive the film, which comes to the same thing).

Let us examine the main trends. In chart 1, we see the mean score for each film (-5 being the fifth film before Bond, 0 the Bond film, and 5 the fifth post-Bond film). On average, Bond films have the highest scores, enjoying a mean of 6.84. Films before and after Bond films rarely achieve comparable scores and consequently their means are lower, largely scoring between 5 and 6 out of 10. Is there a curse of the Bond girl? The answer must be no, because the level of film success that Bond girls enjoyed after their Bond roles was generally no different from the level of success they had before Bond.

Chart 2 shows the difference between the overall mean for each actress and her Bond film rating in Bond film order. For many actresses, the difference is relatively large, highlighting the fact that the sort of success the actresses enjoyed in Bond films was rather exceptional. Lois Chiles, Michelle Yeoh, and Halle Berry, however, featured in non-Bond films which were on average as successful as Bond or in fact more successful. (To be fair on all actresses, some of their pre-Bond films were so obscure or otherwise little seen and were not rated on IMDb. This unfortunately lowered their averages. We should note too that celebrated stage careers, for instance that of Diana Rigg, are not reflected in the scoring.)

What can we conclude from this analysis? Looking again at chart 2, we see that in chronological terms the gap between non-Bond and Bond success becomes smaller with time, suggesting that the Bond producers were increasingly prone as the series progressed to select actresses who had been in films as well regarded as Bond films. Possibly the factor of beauty became less important through time, while acting ability became more important. We can now see the ‘Bond girl curse’ as a successful, but false, meme, which has been propagated well to become deeply embedded within popular culture. In reality, the pattern fits a phenomenon known as ‘regression to the mean’. In his book, Bad Science, Ben Goldacre, explains the phenomenon with the example of a cold. Colds tend to have a cyclical pattern. People feel fine most of the time, get colds, feel terrible, then improve. Some people do seek remedies, though, usually when they’re feeling at their worst, and credit their improvement to the remedy, rather than the fact that the cold would in any case disappear naturally. This is regression to the mean. The mean in terms of Bond girls is mediocre or poor film success. Bond films represent a blip – the once in a while cold – that punctuates that trajectory.

*Hines, C, 010 ‘For his eyes only? Men’s magazines and the curse of the Bond girl’, in James Bond in world and popular culture: The films are not enough (eds R G Weiner, B L Whitfield and J Becker), Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle, 167-175

Sunday 24 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American origins of 007. Third and final part.

Of course, Fleming had other influences, taken most notably from his wartime experiences. He recalled how, during the war, he controlled No. 30 Assault Unit, comprising a rough bunch of ‘courageous, amoral, wayward’ Royal Marines. Fleming’s intention was clear: not so much to draw James Bond as an American hero, though the parallels are close, but to disassociate Bond from the ‘stage Englishman’, returning virtues to the character that were gained in the war, but rapidly lost with the onset of peace and the dismantling of Empire. The solution was to combine the confident swagger of the American detective with the resolve and resourcefulness of the British Commando. With this in mind, the clues become obvious.

Beyond his anti-aristocratic name and un-gentlemanly way of killing, Bond is an arch-consumer, deliberately selecting and remaining loyal to brand-names – Hoffritz razors, Palmolive toiletries, Ronson cigarette lighter, among others – in defiance of post-war ration-book austerity. Instead of tea and beer, the most English of beverages, Bond drinks strong coffee and hard liquor. In an American bar, Fleming describes Bond paying for the check, not the bill. And, as if to reinforce his credentials, Bond reads the latest Raymond Chandler.

Another crucial element in reorientating the English hero was the locations. Just one novel – Moonraker ­– is set extensively in England. Of the remainder, five of Bond’s adventures are set to lesser or greater extents in the United States. Fleming was at pains to get the Americanisms right, especially the dialogue, and had an assistant librarian at Yale to check his text. The result is an authenticity that, if a little ridiculous in a modern light, nevertheless takes the reader far away from the milieu of the English gentleman-adventurer produced by the likes of Buchan. Fleming’s efforts brought their reward. Though sales were slow to begin – Casino Royale initially failed to find a US publisher, and both this novel and Moonraker were later retitled for the first paperback editions – his books became enormously popular in America. He was surprised at this, but admitted that Bond ‘must seem very American in so many ways – his likes, his dislikes, and his rather full sex life’.

This must have been deeply satisfying for Fleming, a patriotic Englishman determined to keep Britain at the top table with the US. At last there was a tough British hero stripped of stereotypical English traits who could compete on equal terms with Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade or Mickey Spillane. Fleming gained the admiration, famously, of Jack Kennedy and, more significantly for him, of Raymond Chandler. In a review of Diamonds Are Forever, Chandler wrote, ‘the scene is almost entirely American, and it rings true to an American. I am unaware of any other [English] writer who has accomplished this’. Chandler had deduced Fleming’s aim of writing an American-style thriller, recognising that, unlike other British crime stories, Fleming’s had a ‘hard, clean style’, devoid of waffle. Chandler, though, had his reservations. He noticed that Fleming wrote ‘of brutal things, as though he liked them’, but advised that ‘the best hard-boiled writers never try to be tough, they allow toughness to happen when it seems inevitable for its time, place and conditions’, pleading for Fleming not to ‘become a stunt writer, or he will end up no better than the rest of us’.

Saturday 16 October 2010

James Bond PI: The American Origins of James Bond. Part 2.

Bond’s adventures were immediately familiar to Fleming’s readers, though perhaps not from British literature. The first paragraph of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep reads, ‘I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them’. Later on, Marlowe orders two black coffees, ‘strong and made this year’. As in the Bond books, there is an attention to detail and exactitudes – the facts that ground the character in reality; and like Bond, Marlowe knows what he wants. Then there is the violence, which sparsely punctuates the narrative, but is distinctly Bondian in tone when it occurs:

‘Perhaps it would have been nice to allow him another shot or two, just like a gentleman of the old school. But his gun was still up and I couldn’t wait any longer. Not long enough to be a gentleman of the old school. I shot him four times, the Colt straining against my ribs. The gun jumped out of his hand as if it had been kicked.

Compare this with a passage from the pages of Fleming:

‘Bond’s right flashed out and the face of the Rolex disintegrated against the man’s jaw. The body slid sluggishly off its chair on to the carpet and lay still, its legs untidy, as if in sleep.’

That Fleming’s spare description and journalistic prose resembles Chandler is unsurprising. Fleming certainly admitted the influence of Chandler and other ‘superb masters of the modern thriller’, including Dashiell Hammett, creator of the brutal Sam Spade. Both were from the ‘hard-boiled’ school of writing, which Joseph T Shaw described as hard and brittle, with authentic characterisation and action and a very fast tempo. Chandler in particular was noted for raising the genre from pulp-fiction to literature by writing ‘genuine drama…in a very vivid and pungent style’. The results were generally met with approval; a review of The Big Sleep published in The New Statesman admired the ‘full strength blends of sadism, eroticism and alcoholism’ (a description remarkably similar to Paul Johnson’s rather more pejoratively-meant epithet, ironically also published in The New Statesman).

Both Chandler and Fleming placed an emphasis on toughness and the speed of the narrative. Chandler accepted the need for constant action: ‘If you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through the door with a gun in his hand’. Fleming agreed to the same demands: ‘The pace of the narrative gets me round tricky corners. You take the reader along so fast…that he isn’t thrown by…incongruities’.

Sunday 10 October 2010

James Bond PI: the American origins of 007. Part 1

The admixture in Ian Fleming’s novels of exotic consumption, available women and violence was famously dismissed by Paul Johnson in 1958 as ‘sex, sadism and snobbery’; Johnson saw Fleming instilling in Bond the characteristics of a schoolboy bully, a frustrated adolescent and suburban snob. Johnson admitted that these three ingredients were expertly crafted, but this was at the expense of plot and structure, which were ‘incoherent’ and ‘haphazard’. Fleming was, in Johnson’s view, a typically English writer whose writing was somewhat unhealthy and a product of his own Establishment background; Bond, a ex-Royal Naval commander and regular visitor to Blades, a London club, and exclusive French casinos, was no more than a fantastic, and rather nasty, projection of Fleming himself.

The problem that the critics faced was that they were comparing Bond with other English literary heroes, and found that Bond did not fit the mould. The differences between Bond and the standard clubman do-gooder were difficult to reconcile, and the solution for the critic was to dismiss Bond as the horrible little brother of Bulldog Drummond and the stories themselves as offering no more than fleeting escapism. This was to miss the point of Fleming’s creation; any comparison of Bulldog Drummond and Bond would have revealed that the two characters were cut from very different cloths.

It has been pointed out that Ian Fleming read Sapper’s Bulldog Drummond adventures as a child and was enormously fond of them; the exploits of the daring army captain fresh from the Great War and those of others, such as Rudolf Rassendyll from The Prisoner of Zenda, provided the young Fleming with a release from the unpleasantness of life at Durnford School, which he attended from 1917 at around the age of nine. While some aspects of those stories – the sense of adventure, moral purpose, and not a little wartime spirit – may have found their way into Fleming’s novels, there was no direct transference of their form or characters. Put simply, Bond was no Drummond. In the first of his adventures, Hugh ‘Bulldog’ Drummond, bored and restless at the end of the First World War, seeks adventure, possibly of a criminal nature. He accepts the plea of a pretty young woman to extricate her from marriage to an overbearing bully of a man and finds himself against master-criminal Carl Peterson and foiling a plot that threatens the very existence of England. Drummond tackles the villains with a cheerful recklessness armed occasionally with a gun, but mainly just his fists, and is helped by his ex-army batman James Denny, and a network of officer-friends, who leap into action like a over-enthusiastic pack of bounding labradors.

For Fleming, the lantern-jawed, stoical Bulldog Drummond types came from an imaginary past that lacked credibility and resonance: ‘I felt these types could no longer exist in literature’. Drummond is a thrill-seeker who pursues danger for its own sake; relying on his own resources and presumably substantial funds. His actions are framed by an unwritten gentlemanly code, and he tackles Peterson and his evil machine with the sportsman’s determination to play fair. This is an important point: the motif of a game or sport runs throughout the first novel. Drummond admired ‘a good sport’, and relishes the serious game. ‘The game has begun’, he remarks to his sidekick Denny, and, to keep them from danger, he tells his friends ahead of the final showdown with Peterson that there’s no call on them to remain in the game. He is even a member of the Junior Sports Club, where most of his friends reside.

Fleming rejects this utterly. Fantastical, certainly, but his novels are grounded in a reality that Sapper’s lacks. In Casino Royale, perhaps with his childhood reading in mind, Fleming has Bond recall that in school it was easy ‘to pick out one’s heroes and villains’, but in the real world the divisions were blurred. Killing was a necessary part of his job, but it could be messy and unpleasant where gentlemanly rules did not apply. Prompted by the words of Le Chiffre to reflect on the nature of his job, Bond considers whether is playing ‘Red Indians’. He does not like this thought – he takes no comfort from a description that recalls Drummond’s sporting metaphors – and by the end of his adventure, he has awakened to the dirty consequences of cold war espionage – evasion, killing, and betrayal. The end of Casino Royale marks a transition for Bond from wartime thrill-seeker to cold war killer, and in detailing this, Fleming severs any romantic connections Bond’s job might have had with Drummond-style escapades.