If you grew up in my generation, whenever you had a conversation about James Bond, it ALWAYS eventually boiled down to one question:
"Who do you like better, Connery or Moore?"
Such a casual question, so innocent seeming. But it was really a landmine. Because in the 70's and early 80's, this was a question that defined you as a person.
This was Coke vs. Pepsi. Michigan vs. Ohio State. Boxers vs. briefs. Matter vs. anti-matter.
This was a time of binary decision making...it had to be one or the other. You weren't allowed to straddle the fence. Make a choice, and be forever defined by it. And at the time, there were no other choices.
No one had ever seen Barry Nelson, and George Lazenby was a footnote most people hadn't seen but had heard terrible stuff about. Nope, you only had two choices...and for a lot of people, Connery vs. Moore became the stuff of arguments, fist fights, jihads (OK, I exaggerate slightly). If you took a position you were suddenly in somebody's enemy camp, and they would spend hours trying to convince you why "their" Bond was better. But that was still preferably, in those days, to trying to say you liked both--than both sides would harangue you for being an idiot.
And when Octopussy and Never Say Never Again came out in the sane year, well, those arguments and debates went into overdrive.
Here's the thing, though. As the years have gone by, new perspectives--and respect--have crept into this discussion. Some of it is just that we're all (slightly) more mature now, and able to get away from our simplistic black & white view of this (and other) issues. Some of it is the arrival of several other Bonds during the intervening 25 years; it's no longer merely a binary Coke vs. Pepsi world. We have a lot more choices, and that in turn has caused us to be more careful consumers, more thoughtful of our choices, and less disdainful of people making different choices.
But the biggest thing may be availability. Up until the mid 80's, most of us only had memories of these movies to go on, or the once-every-few-years-cut-up-to-include-commercials network viewing. Now? Any Bond fan who doesn't already own all the films herself can just hop over to Blockbuster or wait for Netflix to ship it. Plus, just about all of the movies turn up on basic cable stations at least 3 or 4 times a year. In this brave new world, we don't have to rely on hazy memories...and we can see that some things we thought we terrible really aren't so bad, some stuff we thought wonderful maybe looks a little less so, and lots of shades of grey have crept into our "X is better than Y" debates.
Which is a long-winded way to say that, upon my mammoth rewatch-one-Bond-a-week project, I've come to something of a greater appreciation for Roger Moore than I had before. Full disclosure: I'm a Connery man, always have been. And I still am. But in my re-viewings, Moore comes across better--sometimes much better--than my memories had be believe.
Aside from the above reasons, there's also my greater awareness of how the movies were made, and who made them. As my reviews have me paying more attention to writers and directors than I ever have before, I realize that some of what we in the past have disdained Moore for may not have been anything he could control. It's a chicken or the egg problem: Did they write most of his movies as "less serious" affairs because that's what he wanted, or did he just play it that way because that's how they wrote them? Were they writing to his perceived strengths, or was he molding himself to the scripts? Were Moore or the writers just trying to give the public what they wanted? Was Sir Sean the better ruthless killer type, or did the writers just give him more scenes in which to do it?
I come up empty on many of these questions. Sadly, on this go around I don't have time to listen to all of the commentary tracks (3 on some of the DVDs!) or do tons of research on the behind the scenes scuttlebutt. So I don't know how much input Sir Roger had over scripts, and stunts, and how Bon d was portrayed. But we can't hold him responsible for "stainless steel delicatessens," can we? Moore didn't write his own scripts, didn't decide to do Moonraker after The Spy Who Loved Me because space was "hot," and didn't pick Rita Cooledge's "All-Time High" as the theme song for Octopussy. As the visible front man for the franchise, therefore, I think it's unquestionable that Roger Moore took too much of the blame for things that people didn't like about that era (and, unquestionably, Sean Connery gets too much credit for the things people like about his run).
So what DID each actor bring to the role? Can we separate the actor from his movies, from his screenwriters and directors?
Sean Connery's biography reads much like what his portrayal of Bond came across as. A kid from a hard-scrabble background, thrust into a world much more upper-class than he was used to. (Note that this is consistent with the way Daniel Craig's Bond was portrayed in Casino Royale (2006), as an effective agent, but one who had to be taught about how to mingle and fit in among the "higher" classes). Connery's performances seem to carry with them a certain zest, giving us a Bond who enjoys the woman and liquor and gambling all the more because he hadn't been exposed to them before. He's comfortable at the baccarat tables, he looks good in the tuxedo. But to some extent that's just camouflage, to cover up what's beneath, the hard man who can drop the veneer and kill immediately.
As a middle-class American, I may be poorly positioned to judge English class warfare issues, but I do see some of it there. From the very first movie, when Dr. No disses Bond as "just another policeman," there's an undercurrent of snobbery amongst the Bond villains, a "we're better than you working class schlub" attitude towards 007. Perhaps that's one of the reasons Americans have latched on so hard to the Bond series: we love to see the snobs put in their place by the regular joes. And in some way I can't define, Sir Sean manages to project "regular guy" in his Bond performances.
Roger Moore, however, comes across as anything but a regular guy. Better educated than Connery, his Bond is definitely from the upper classes. He comes across as if he had been born into that upper class world; he's not a visitor, and therefore can't be as much of an audience surrogate as Connery was. Note in TSWLM he can have a casual conversation with the Minister of Defence and call him "Freddy." It's a surprise they don't whip out the secret handshake and compare school ties. His gait is usually slow and measured, his posture ramrod straight. His delivery, whether purposely or not, often sounds condescending to this American's ear, as if explaining things to those not as well educated as himself.
I could be misreading this, or making too much of it, but this is the comparison that always leaps to mind for me: Connery is like a panther, sleek but partly hidden, always stalking...Moore is a lion, walking proud and upright, showing off its power.
Another take on this is the in-depth knowledge each possessed. Connery's Bond loved to show off his knowledge of liquor, but that type of snobbery didn't extend to other areas. He was admittedly clueless about gold and diamonds, and was often just as bemused as the audience at some of the outrageous villains plans, or Q's gadgetry. Moore, however, was a goddamned know-it-all, often interrupting the person he was talking to in order to deliver a lecture designed to show off how much smarter he was. Orchid genealogy? Expert. Solar power plants? Expert. Obscure submarine control systems? Expert. The way that Moore/Bond has to lecture Scaramanga on what Scaramanga's own plan is perhaps the quintessential moment for this incarnation of Bond, as 007 is now more knowledgeable and sophisticated than the villains. Again, this may explain why Moore is less popular among some, because if there's one thing we Americans hate more than a know-it-all, it's a snobby upper-class know-it-all, and we're definitely not used to that type being our hero.
Sexuality is also a difference between the two Bonds. Connery shagged more birds than Moore, and seemed to enjoy the sex more for its own sake. Connery would make love to a woman first, and then worry about what she wanted afterward. Maybe it was a 60's thing, but Sean was a Playboy Bond, where sex was separate from the mission (unless, of course, he's "converting" Pussy Galore).
But Moore was more of a cad, a user. One of my biggest surprises when re-watching the movies in order was how often Moore, especially early on, would merely use sex to get what he wants. In Live and Let Die, he enjoys his opening romp with the Italian agent. But he makes love to Rosie Carver just as an interrogation tool, and he's ready to get dressed and drop Solitaire after it's clear that she doesn't have any information he needs (he relents when she offers more sex, of course). In TMWTGG, he's an absolute bastard to Andrea Anders in their first meeting, and in their second he won't make love to her until he secures her promise to get the solex. In TSWLM he's again using the promise of sex just to get information from Felicca. Later in his tenure, he does became much more of a bird-dog, practically hounding Anya and Holly Goodhead for sex. But overall, Moore scored less often than Connery, and did it for pure pleasure much less often. For Connery, the sex was a fringe benefit...for Moore's Bond, it was more often a tool.
Connery has the reputation of being much more ruthless and dangerous...it's the panther/lion comparison, again. From day 1 Sir Sean was a ruthless son of a bitch, to sure. The extra bullets he pumped into the already dead Professor Dent showed us something we hadn't seen in our movies before. But how much of his reputation is merely from our memories? One is hard pressed to find many more examples of Connery killing when it wasn't in self defense. And, stunningly, Connery almost never got to administer the coup de gras to the villain in his movies! He pushes Dr. No into the reactor water, but his drowning is more a result of his fake hands than Bond's doing; Tatiana kills Klebb; Domino kills Largo in both version of Thunderball; Blofeld gets away at the end of YOLT, and we never see his death in DAF. Even Goldfinger dies in an accident caused by his own gun! Sir Roger, by contrast, gets to deliver the final blow to all of his villains except Kristatos.
Certainly, when called upon, Moore could be as vicious as Connery. His kicking Locque to his death, slapping Sandor to his death, shooting Scaramanga in the back, torturing Anders to get information...these are all actions that rank up their with anything Connery did. Sadly, the scripts didn't call on him to do so that often. Allowing Knick Knack and Jaws (twice) to live, going without a gun for the entirety of Moonraker...too often Moore was written as an action hero rather than a secret agent with a licence to kill. Whether or not that's Moore's fault we may never know. But certainly, the way Moore played the role most of the time, accentuated the problem. Unlike Connery, he rarely let his facade of urbane Britishness crack enough to let someone more dangerous peek out. Connery showed us the killer underneath more often than Moore.
The "death quip" is another good area of comparison. There's a balance in delivering these, which Sir Sean had and Sir Roger rarely acquired. Yes, they were jokes, but Connery never delivered them as jokes--they were ironic taunts at a fallen foe, a tension breaker. With rare exceptions, Moore usually delivered them as jokes...so of course they fell flat. Compare his delivery at Locque's death--"He had no head for heights." That's bitter and nasty and the equal of anything Connery delivered. Sadly, that was the exception. Blame the actor, blame the directors, but too often Moore plays it as a joke, and it falls flat.
There are other things to talk about...Moore's Bond very rarely gambles; Connery is given many more driving sequences; Connery's relationship with Monneypenny is very different than Moore's. It's tempting to try and wring meaning from every little difference, but I'll stop now.
With hindsight, with fresh viewing, "Connery vs. Moore" isn't the slam dunk case I'd always thought it to be in my youth. Oh, I'm still a Connery man, and I'll always think he embodied my vision of the role better than Moore did. But a lot of the differences between the two really weren't up to the actors. And in a lot of ways, I have a much better appreciation now for Moore than I did when I was younger.
And really, would we have wanted the next Bond to play things exactly the way Connery did? It's no longer a Connery vs. Moore world. It's now Connery vs. Moore vs. Lazenby vs. Dalton vs. Brosnan vs. Craig, and what the hell throw in Neslon and Niven world. There's a lot of flavors of ice cream out there, but even if there are some I like better than others, they're all still ice cream, right? I'll take a scoop of each, please (OK, not the Niven--even I have limits).