Six months before she died, an ailing Bette Davis walked gingerly onto the stage at Manhattan’s Lincoln Center in April 1989 to a standing ovation. As the crowd quieted down she surveyed the hall and brayed out her famous line from “Beyond the Forest:” “What a dump!” The audience erupted again, many of them standing on their seats. Even stricken with cancer, Bette Davis proved she still had the vinegar wit that had become her trademark.
At this year’s Gala Tribute at the Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall it’s Sean Connery’s turn to be feted. No word yet on whether he’ll make a similar entrance tonight, but if he does quote himself from one of his 50-plus movie roles, it won’t be anything to do with the perpetual also-ran Miss Moneypenny.
“He’s asked us to cool it on the Bond era,” says Wendy Keys, director of the annual tribute and executive director of programming for the Film Society of Lincoln Center. Connery appeared in seven Bond films in all and after he quit the series, spent a number of years trying to shake off the pithy Scottish spy.
“Sean Connery is a great star, with a great body of work,” adds Roy L. Furman, chairman of the film society board. “We want to make people aware of the breadth of his career.”
Connery can add this year’s honor to a long list. He has been given the Legion d’Honneur and Commandeur des Arts at des Lettres (the highest honor given in France), a British Academy of Film and Television Arts Lifetime Achievement award and, in 1988, an Academy Award for supporting actor in “The Untouchables.”
The film society has been honoring film artists since 1972, when Charlie Chaplin returned from a 20-year self-imposed exile for the occasion. Since then directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, George Cukor and Robert Altman have been honored as have actors Sir Laurence Olivier, Jimmy Stewart and Audrey Hepburn.
The selection process begins 10 months before the event and, according to Keys, is relatively simple. Staff members submit a list of artists to the board they think would be appropriate. Then at one marathon meeting, the board reviews biographies and filmographies and makes the selection. “The main criterion are that it must be a living artist with a career (showing) a large range,” says Keys. If nothing else, there have to be enough interesting films to cull 60 to 70 minutes of highlights for the audience to watch.”
With Connery, a man perhaps as laconic as James Bond himself, the consultations have been relatively light. “With most of them we just need to get a sense of what films they like,” Keys says.