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By the mid-1960s, Sean Connery had played James Bond in four films, and was anxious to avoid being typecast. Between the Bond films, he looked for roles that were far different from the suave superspy: a mysterious Hitchcock hero in Marnie (1964), a cockney POW in The Hill (1965), and a mad bohemian poet in A Fine Madness (1966). Based on a highly praised novel by Elliott Baker, who also wrote the screenplay, A Fine Madness is very much a product of its time. Connery plays Samson Shillitoe, who lives in Greenwich Village, works at menial jobs while writing his epic poems, tries the patience of his slobby wife (Joanne Woodward) by seducing other women, and battles to remain a free spirit. Like the character, A Fine Madness is often very funny, but is also something of a mess.
At the time, the studio system was moribund, and Warner Bros., like other major studios, had reduced its production schedule, releasing a scant dozen films in 1966. Much of A Fine Madness was shot on location in New York, but when shooting moved to the Warner Bros. studio in Burbank, there was only one other film in production there - Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). Co-star Patrick O'Neal recalled that Virginia Woolf was shot on a closed set, and that he and Jean Seberg, who played his wife in A Fine Madness, sneaked onto the Woolf set to watch the filming.
In spite of the gloomy atmosphere at the studio, the cast of A Fine Madness became close. Joanne Woodward organized a movie club, and every Friday night, they and their spouses rented the screening room of the Beverly Hills Hotel to watch a movie one of them had selected. Woodward's husband Paul Newman provided the beer and popcorn. The films ranged from Singin' in the Rain (1952), O'Neal's choice, to Woodward's choice, the Hitchcock comedy Mr. & Mrs. Smith (1941), and Seberg's The Lady with a Dog (1960), a Russian film based on a Chekov story.
Connery kept things light on the set. When he and Seberg had a bathtub scene, she refused to do it nude. The flesh-colored body stocking wasn't working, and she was uncomfortable using pasties. Connery provided copious amounts of champagne, and when it was time to shoot, he stripped down, and a tipsy Seberg did the same.
Studio head Jack Warner, wanting a hit, had been delighted to sign Connery for A Fine Madness. But he thought he was getting a Bond-style action movie. Warner never understood the film's combination of drama and anarchic comedy, and continually ordered rewrites. When filming was finished, Warner barred director Irvin Kershner from the lot, ordered a new score, and re-edited it. Despite excellent performances, the film had problems finding a consistent tone.
Inevitably, critics picked up on the Connery character's compulsive womanizing, and compared him to James Bond. The Time critic referred to him as "a poet with a sex life as breezy as James Bond's," but added, "Though the resemblance of Madness to Bondomania is otherwise superficial, Director Irvin Kershner savors the joke to excess," and called A Fine Madness "a fitfully funny satire." The New York Times liked the film, in spite of its problems, calling it "an odd one indeed, ranging from rich to raucous to plain fumbling. At times, it's as funny as all get-out....Give it an A for effort and a brash B for impudence and originality. It founders, but it gleams."
Bond comparisons aside, critics praised Connery's performance, and applauded his efforts to avoid typecasting. The fans, however, wanted the macho-cool spy, not a lunatic poet, and they stayed away from A Fine Madness. The film was a box-office failure, and Connery followed it with another Bond, You Only Live Twice (1967), then walked away from the franchise. But he was wooed back twice -- in 1971, for Diamonds Are Forever, earning a record salary, which he donated to a Scottish charity; and in 1983, for the aptly named Never Say Never Again. In between, Connery played a wide variety of roles, proving once and for all that he was a fine actor as well as a superstar. He finally won an Oscar® for The Untouchables (1987), and retired following The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), recently refusing Steven Spielberg's plea to reprise his role as Indiana Jones' father in the latest sequel.
Director: Irvin Kershner
Producer: Jerome Hellman
Screenplay: Elliott Baker, based on his novel
Cinematography: Ted D. McCord
Editor: William H. Ziegler
Costume Design: Ann Roth
Art Direction: Jack Poplin
Music: John Addison
Cast: Sean Connery (Samson Shillitoe), Joanne Woodward (Rhoda Shillitoe), Jean Seberg (Lydia West), Patrick O'Neal (Dr. Oliver West), Colleen Dewhurst (Dr. Vera Kropotkin), Clive Revill (Dr. Menken), Werner Peters (Dr. Vorbeck), John Fiedler (Daniel Papp).
by Margarita Landazuri