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Film Review: ‘Becoming Bond’

Variety logo Variety 5/17/2017 Peter Debruge
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An Australian car mechanic turned male model, George Lazenby had the hardest job of any James Bond actor: He had to follow Sean Connery. Lazenby made just one 007 movie, 1969’s “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,” and then walked away from the role that would have made him one of the world’s biggest stars. Why did he quit? Or was he fired? And just who was the mysterious man behind the mole? Intimate, irreverent and at times laugh-out-loud funny, Josh Greenbaum’s made-for-Hulu documentary “Becoming Bond” answers all these questions and more in the space of 92 mind-blowing minutes.

Part of the James Bond allure has always been the character’s status as a connoisseur, and to this day, some fans consider Lazenby to be the best Bond — an opinion that is empirically untrue for myriad reasons (not least of which is the fact that his dialogue had to be re-dubbed by another actor for a good portion of the film), but chic to drop all the same. But even Lazenby detractors can’t help but be charmed by the man himself, who may not have been much of an actor, but turns out to be a bloody good storyteller, and an awfully salty one at that — revealing sexual conquests that would make even Bond blush (including an endearing erectile dysfunction anecdote that definitely “never happened to the other fellow”).

Somehow, despite the fact that Lazenby has long declined to tell his side of the story, Greenbaum has convinced the still-dapper ex-actor to spill. And spill he does, staring directly into the camera as he candidly shares stories that make him out to be more of a hot-to-trot Austin Powers-style swinger than cool James Bond-esque ladykiller.

To Lazenby’s credit, time seems to have given him perspective on the love story that powered it all. As we soon learn, many of his early decisions were motivated by an infatuation with a rich Australian girl named Belinda, who was the reason he moved to London (to follow her) and, in a roundabout way, the reason he started modeling (a more lucrative way to afford their more pricey London lifestyle).

Conducted over the course of four full days, the solid-gold interview is so entertaining, Greenbaum divides it into a dozen cheekily-titled chapters (e.g. “From Australia With Love,” “The Road to Pussy Galore”). And while “Becoming Bond” suggests the entire film will be all about the 007 segment of Lazenby’s life, his early years are too good to ignore — meaning he doesn’t even audition until nearly an hour into the movie. Astonishingly, Lazenby had never acted before in his life, though in some ways, he was a natural, stealing a suit from Connery’s tailor and conning his way into producer Harry Saltzman’s office.

To amplify the humor of these and other wild stories, Greenbaum writes corny reenactments around Lazenby’s running voiceover, which occasionally spills directly from the mouths of different characters. Rather than aiming for the earnest style of ’60s-era Bond movies on a shoestring budget, Greenbaum (who also directed kiddie golf doc “The Short Game”) embraces his limitations, going for the stage-bound, spoofy look of “Pillow Talk” and the relatively kitschy “OSS 117” series.

It’s a playful way to deal with Lazenby’s colorful stories (as well as his tendency to exaggerate), while offering plenty of room to insert additional jokes at the star’s expense — none less flattering than the choice of Australian TV actor Josh Lawson to play young George (minus his signature mole). On one hand, Lawson’s goofy sensibility all but neuters Lazenby’s incredible sex appeal, though it serves to make his stories seem far less smarmy, even when he’s admitting to doing acid and having threesomes with best friend Ken.

In a sea of serviceable performances, the film does give Dana Carvey an excuse to reprise his Johnny Carson impersonation. More inspired still, Greenbaum taps former Bond girl Jane Seymour to play casting agent Maggie Abbott. It just goes to show that appearing in a Bond movie — even just a single Bond movie — is something that follows an actor for his or her entire life, which helps to understand why Lazenby decided not to renew his license to kill. Come to find, he never even signed the original contract for “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” — and a good thing, too, since the Bond producers micromanage every little detail about their stars’ lives, making it hard for them to break character, even when the cameras aren’t rolling.

By contrast, Lazenby wanted to avoid the paparazzi, to grow a beard and possibly to repair things with Belinda. But as in “OHMSS,” the romance was not to last (for decades, Lazenby was the only Bond to fall in love). Daniel Craig’s character came close at the end of “Spectre,” nearly walking away from the job for a woman, but if this surprisingly poignant account is to be believed, Lazenby was the only one who did it in real life.

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