I have to admit something unpleasant: I used to hate On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. As a child, the film grates on the feral adolescent mind. Why is James Bond wearing a kilt so much? What’s with the interminable bobsledding sequence? What’s with all the romantic stuff? Can’t he punch more people? And who the heck is George Lazenby? It was rarely on during those glorious TBS Thanksgiving marathons, and when it was, it moved me to watch anything else.
Like so many other hardcore Bond fans, I’ve learned to love the film for many of the reasons I hated it in the first place. It’s slower. It’s more emotional. James Bond wears a kilt. It’s a glorious outlier directed masterfully by Peter Hunt. Of the teeming multitude of reasons why On Her Majesty’s Secret Service faded into pop culture obscurity for decades after its theatrical release, maybe the most compelling is that it’s the only James Bond film where Bond is truly vulnerable. These films are, above all else, a power fantasy about a guy who throws punches in a three-piece suit. Seeing James Bond as an emotional wreck is like watching your dad cry when you’re six. The feelings just don't jibe with the pedestal you’ve placed him on.
By marrying Tracy, choosing to give up the spy game, and then having it all taken from him by a vengeful Blofeld, OHMSS does more to humanize Bond than any film before or since, save for the Daniel Craig Casino Royale. So, it’s only fitting that the new Hulu documentary Becoming Bond humanizes the actor who had to bring this radically different 007 to life.
The film — part-monologue, part-dramatic reenactment — screened at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily earlier this week in a double feature with OHMSS and a Q&A with director Josh Greenbaum (who previously directed the documentary Behind the Mask for Hulu, an episode of New Girl, and some well-received shorts), Lazenby, and the actor who plays Lazenby, Josh Lawson.
The reenactment is a peculiar device, one that Greenbaum described as an “inspiration-slash-ripoff” of Comedy Central’s Drunk History. Film audiences are light years away from the hubbub surrounding Errol Morris’ use of reenactments in The Thin Blue Line and it’s become an accepted tool in the documentarian’s repertoire. But, the figure Lawson cuts as Lazenby doesn’t really match the man you see in severe close-up telling the story behind the chaotic journey from small town Australia car dealerships to starring in a massive blockbuster or the man in archival footage from the OHMSS press tour. He plays Lazenby as almost purely comic nebbish in the vein of Rhys Darby’s character from Flight of the Conchords. Known actors like Dana Carvey, Jane Seymour, Jake Johnson, and Jeff Garlin make cameos, which is equally jarring.
None of that would work if the tone wasn’t so carefully managed by Greenabum. Much of the film is hilarious and Lazenby is a remarkable storyteller. Unlike Drunk History, our narrator seems to remember every little bit of his life, all the way down to little details like the names of his schoolteachers. During the Q&A portion of the evening, he even pulls out the license plate number of his first car. When the film aims for pathos — Lazenby’s regrets over a lost love, his complicated relationship with the Bond franchise, etc. — it clicks, even when Greenbaum spends so much time reveling in the farce of scenes like Lazenby’s first sexual encounter.
An abiding love of women seems to define Lazenby, who recalled his misery on the secluded mountain set of OHMSS because, as he put it in the Q&A, “I was up there with eight girls for nine months. It doesn’t make sense to me.” As someone who’s not much of an international playboy, it didn’t make much sense to me either, until I realized he was lamenting that he didn’t have one girl to sleep with every month of the shoot. Lazenby reveled in the Bond lifestyle, partying and sleeping around for much of the OHMSS shoot, which makes his sudden decision to turn down a six-picture deal with a million dollar signing bonus to continue playing 007 all the more mystifying.
Despite all the carousing, the finely tailored suits, and the perfect head of hair, Lazenby swears he’s just a lower middle class guy from the middle of nowhere and simply wasn’t cut out for the Hollywood lifestyle. Footage of him from the OHMSS press tour paint a picture of a dour, exhausted man who grew a beard partially to piss off Bond producer Harry Saltzman. Becoming Bond does quite a bit to soften the reputation of this being one of the worst business decisions in cinema history. Lazenby bluffed his way from selling cars to male modeling to playing James Bond through sheer force of will (and maybe a little good old fashioned naivete). Perhaps he just got tired of the ruse.