D: Josh Greenbaum / 92m
With: George Lazenby
Cast: Josh Lawson, Kassandra Clementi, Jane Seymour, Jeff Garlin, Jake Johnson, Dana Carvey, Adamo Palladino, Sofia Mattsson, Landon Ashworth, Jonathan Slavin
George Lazenby will be known forever as the man who played James Bond once, and then refused to play him again. It’s a story that’s been told over and over again, and which gets another airing in Becoming Bond, an affectionate documentary-cum-reenactment of Lazenby’s life up to, including, and just past his time as 007. But this time the story is told by Lazenby himself, and even though you still might consider him to be incredibly foolish for abandoning the role, at least here you get a better, more convincing set of reasons for his having done so.
Lazenby recounts his early life as a child, talking to camera and occasionally prompted by director Greenbaum. His early life in Australia isn’t short of drama. At the age of three he was left with half a kidney, and his doctors advised his mother that he’d probably only live until he was twelve (maybe thirteen). Growing up he got into all kinds of mischief, from “stealing” his uncle’s car to bringing a snake to school. He recounts his first sexual experience (“I thought I’d blown my penis apart”), his failure to graduate from school, and his first job as a mechanic. From there, Lazenby (Lawson) becomes a car salesman, and he meets Belinda (Clementi), his first true love. He pursues her (despite the antipathy of her parents), but their relationship is severed when she goes to England to study.
But Lazenby is nothing if not persistent. When he doesn’t hear from Belinda he travels to England and tracks her down. But there’s no reconciliation, and soon Lazenby finds himself broke and in need of a job. He returns to being a car salesman, and hears from Belinda who wants their relationship to be platonic. However, this doesn’t hold for long, and the pair marry. Around this time, Lazenby is talent-spotted as a male model, and he begins to do photo-shoots and appear in adverts. As he becomes more and more in demand though, a photo-shoot in Spain leads to his making a huge mistake. A few years pass and Lazenby is introduced to an agent, Maggie Abbott (Seymour). A short while after that, and Maggie is calling him about a movie role she thinks he’ll be perfect for: James Bond.
What follows is largely well known, but Lazenby provides more than enough detail to keep fans of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) – and James Bond in general – happy in perpetuity. From Lazenby’s attempts to get to see casting director Dyson Lovell (Slavin) to his first meetings with director Peter Hunt (Palladino) and producer Harry Saltzman (Garlin), the making of the first Bond movie not to star Sean Connery is told with candour and charm by Lazenby, and the aftermath with sincerity and a certain amount of ruefulness. Lazenby is an avuncular screen presence, always ready to laugh at the antics of his younger self, but also willing to admit the mistakes he made and the harm they may have caused others.
The movie puts Lazenby front and centre, adopting a talking head approach that keeps the focus on the ex-model while his past is played out on screen in a lightweight, genial fashion that relies heavily on Josh Lawson’s amiable good looks and an overall tone that says, “hey, don’t take all this so seriously”. The recreations of Lazenby’s youth and early adulthood – he was twenty-nine when he played Bond, the youngest person to do so – are played out in a variety of styles and against a variety of poorly realised backgrounds, but it’s all so unremittingly charming that it doesn’t matter. It couldn’t look and feel more quaint if it was all shot in jerky black and white and everyone moved as if they were speed walking.
It’s clear from the start that Greenbaum and his crew are fans of Lazenby, and are relishing the opportunity to have their hero tell his life story, but if there’s a consequence to all that then it’s the lack of follow up comments or questioning when something happens that paints Lazenby in a negative light. Greenbaum seems content to let Lazenby tell his story unedited and unchallenged, and while there’s nothing to suggest that James Bond Version 2.0 isn’t telling the truth about his life and times, there are moments where it’s obvious that some degree of dramatic licence has been invoked. And while these moments are usually at the behest of the humour, there are other times when the more serious elements seem to get a free pass (particularly in relation to Belinda). It’s almost as if Greenbaum didn’t want to pry too closely in case Lazenby called to a halt to the whole thing.
But while a little more depth would have made the material resonate a little more, there’s no denying that Lazenby is an agreeable, pleasant companion to spend ninety minutes with, and that by focusing largely on his pre-Bond years, he has the chance to tell a variety of anecdotes which are both amusing and which are kept in context with the rest of his life. Whether he’s the face of Big Fry chocolate, or a stubbornly bearded star abandoning his image as a suave, globe-trotting spy, Lazenby is true to himself, and even if you think his decision to leave Bond behind was misguided, by the movie’s end you have a better understanding of his reasons for doing so. You still might disagree with his decision but it’s not as arbitrary or as ill considered as people thought at the time.
While Lazenby is an amusing, often self-deprecating “host”, and the re-enactments of his life are heavily stylised and redolent of a long-forgotten era (though the makers should have realised that in England a car’s steering wheel is on the right), there is still a sense that Becoming Bond is lacking in something vital. It’s amusing, it’s bright and attractively shot by John W. Rutland, it’s a nice blend of whimsy and historical faction, and it’s unrelentingly pleasant. And though it may seem churlish to criticise a movie for being pleasant – or even inoffensive, which it is – when Lazenby gets to the point where to say more might leave him wide open to complaints of narcissism (and there are many such moments), or insensitivity, then he’s allowed to stay quiet. But then this is as much an homage to the one-time James Bond as it is a chance for that same man to relive former glories. But even though Lazenby seems to have dealt with his past, there’s still the nagging sense that if he had it all to do again, then Lazenby himself would be in the record books for making the most Bond movies, and not Roger Moore.
Rating: 7/10 – neither a confession nor an exposé, Becoming Bond is instead a cheerful, engaging movie that – to paraphrase William Shakespeare – comes to praise Lazenby, not to bury him; he’s led an eventful life, certainly, and much of it is recounted here, but while it’s entertaining enough, Greenbaum seems too willing to let things pass for any objectivity to come into play.