Film: Too much female Bonding

It's that time of year again. A new James Bond film, full of girls and gadgets, gags and more girls. Sarah Gristwood asks why it is that the hero, J Bond himself, is losing his virility while the girls are gaining power? Maybe that's the point.

"If Goldeneye gave the Bond girl brains, then Tomorrow Never Dies will give her balls," writes the film magazine Empire admiringly. "The notion of a simpering beauty trailing the victorious Bond around variously exploding gigantosets is long gone..."

The Bond Girls (no-one has ever tried to call them "women") have always been a basic ingredient of the glamour. Positioned somewhere between the gags and the gadgets, the new girl's distinguishing marks are slowly revealed, newspaper story by newspaper story; the fuel which drives each film's publicity.

Pretty little things, no doubt, will be there at tonight's premiere of Tomorrow Never Dies. "Thou shalt pose for publicity stills" has always come right after "Thou shalt wear lip gloss" in the Bond Girls' litany. But the species may be changing. They need to, fast. Not just because their particular brand of lusciousness had begun to look a little antiseptic. But because they need to step in and fill the void where a superhero used to be.

No disrespect to Pierce Brosnan, widely hailed as a successful Bond. Everyone likes Pierce, but were we supposed to like Bond, really? Brosnan's Bond is, as they say, more "feminised". He has been given emotions and a personal history. It's fine, it's good, it's Nineties, no doubt. But Bond as a masculine ideal got lost for good between Connery's tough and Moore's tailor's dummy. In Tomorrow Never Dies the character Wai Lin is a Chinese operative and martial arts expert - "a female Bond" in Brosnan's words. The performer, Michelle Yeoh, is an Asian superstar in the mostly- male world of the martial arts movie. She has represented Malasia in squash, diving and swimming competitions. (OK, so she is also a former Miss Malasia. You can't change everything that quickly.)

It goes without saying that Bond will at some stage have to rescue Wai Lin - but she does kick-ass world saving work along the way. Unlike, say, Tiffany Case (Jill St John) in Diamonds Are Forever, knocked off the oil rig platform by the recoil of her own gun in a pantomime of female inanity. Or Mary Goodnight (Britt Ekland) in the Man With the Golden Gun, whose work in the intelligence service was a contradiction in terms.

In today's movies, of course, the British Secret Service boasts a female M in the shape of Judi Dench, teamed with Samantha Bond as Moneypenny. Two actresses who, in Amy's View at the National Theatre, have this year memorably explored the dynamics of a female relationship.

When Judi Dench as "M" first appeared on the scene, the Bond team wisely rewrote a line which seemed to suggest she might have succumbed to Bond's "boyish charms" at some point in their history. But the roll call even of actresses prepared to play real Bond girls has been more honourable than you might think. Enough to make further evolution seem a possibility.

Ursula Andress, Honor Blackman, Diana Rigg, Carole Bouquet. Indeed, Brigitte Bardot, Julie Christie, Raquel Welch, Faye Dunaway and Catherine Deneuve were among the prospectives who only just got away. Kim Basinger, if you count Never Say Never Again, the unofficial Bond movie; `Jacky' (sic) Bisset in the David Niven spoof Casino Royale. Joanna Lumley among the bit parts, Lotte Lenya among the villains, not to mention the female artists behind the songs: Tina Turner last time around, Sheryl Crow today.

What appearing in a Bond movie did for these actresses varies. Got what they deserved, maybe? "All I did was wear this bikini in Dr No - not even a small one - and whoosh! Overnight I've made it", said Ursula Andress back in 1964. "There was a stigma attached to the Bond girls. Because a woman was good-looking and had a good body the feminists assumed I was trash," said Britt Ekland after The Man With The Golden Gun. Actually, it would seem the feminists can't be bothered to hate Bond that passionately.

The case against the Bond Girls is too much like shooting sitting ducks - a waste of firepower on irrelevancy. "If you take From Russia With Love seriously you've probably got to give it a cert double-X," said John Trevelyan of the British Board of Film Censors (as then it was) explaining why, instead, they'd given it an A. The portrayal of women absurd? Of course it's absurd. What do you expect? It's a Bond movie.

Looking back, it seems all right to like the early Bond girls. Not only do they have, now, a kind of gutsy kitsch but they stacked up better by comparison to other screen women of the day. If they had the choice between being victim or villain, that was still more interesting than being arm candy. The girls from the middle period Bonds are mostly unsalvageable, but, by contrast, a two-pronged attack on Bond's old chauvinism is what we are seeing today.

In Tomorrow Never Dies the tough Wai Lin is complemented by Teri Hatcher as Bond's old flame, bringing out his softer side while getting him to admit his fear of intimacy

"Did I get too close?"

"Yes"

M plays her part in the process, needless to say. In the last film, Dench called Bond a "sexist, misogynist, dinosaur". This time it's Geoffrey Palmer as the bellicose admiral who tells M: "I don't think you've got the balls for this job".

"At least that means I don't have to think with them all the time," retorts M. The line gets a laugh, of course. But in the old days they were what we liked Sean Connery for. Now maybe Mr Bond - and his girls - should be allowed to die off. Tomorrow.

The new James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, opens this Friday

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