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The Best of Steve McQueen

The Best of Steve McQueen

Articles - Directing


Something always Ate at Steve McQueen. Jabbed
at him, circled him, closed in. Some kind of penitent force
hovered over his life and career, waiting to pounce and make
him pay for his indifference to discipline, his laconic embrace
of fame, or the self-inflicted belief that he was pretending
and would be found out. Insecurities gnawed at him, though he
seemed to possess a congenital cool that made everything he
did look easy. He flew motorcycles over fences, collected the
stares of women, dismounted horses at a gallop and gobbled drugs
like potato chips, yet still a malevolent force pursued him.
After he became one of the richest and most popular stars of
the late ’60s and early ’70s, he opted for roles in
which he played the handsome loser, as if he knew that’s
what he was meant to be all along.

Abandoned by his father when he was a baby, ignored
by his alcoholic mother, raised in street gangs and juvenile
hall, McQueen joined New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse
in 1952, and began enacting on stage and screen the life-long
knife fight with his internal demons. He lost. They got him
in 1980, erupting out of his body in the form of mesothelioma,
a lung cancer linked to asbestos.

It could be argued that in all of his roles, McQueen
played a prisoner. As the Cooler King in The Great Escape, in
the title role in Papillon, as Doc McCoy in The Getaway, as
the ex-con in Baby, the Rain Must Fall, the walls were obvious,
but as Bullitt and Thomas Crown and Junior Bonner—the renegade
cop, the millionaire, the drifter—the barriers were rules,
responsibility, and family guilt. McQueen always seemed desperate
to escape.

He would have been 70 years old in March, 2000.
He appeared in 27 movies and one documentary, his movie career
lasting a short 24 years. Here are a few of the highlights.

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Great Escape (1963)

Director John Sturges gave McQueen a small role
in his WWII picture Never So Few, and then upgraded him to top
supporter in The Magnificent Seven, in which McQueen first showed
the special way he could tote a shotgun, as if it were an extension
of his crotch. Sturges’s western may be outdated now. The
Mexican peasants are heavily romanticized, the action turgid,
and Yul Brynner is truly ridiculous as a bald and black-hatted
gunslinger. But you can see the determined gleam of stardom
in McQueen. Three years later Sturges cast him as Hilts in The
Great Escape, and he created the wily and indelible image of
the misfit loner, bouncing his ball against the far wall of
the “cooler,” the confinement eating him inch by inch,
but his spirit resolute. He stole the film by embodying its
soul. He was the ultimate escape artist, going it alone, until
all private options failed him. Seventeen years later, when
he couldn’t find a cure for his cancer in the U.S., he
sought a wombat remedy in Mexico, determined to do it his way.

Love With the Proper Stranger (1963)
Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965)

He could have had his pick of action films, but
he chose several parts in a row in which he explored the emotional
interior of his characters.

Baby, The Rain Must Fall was directed by Robert
Mulligan, and co-produced by Mulligan, Alan Pakula, and Solar,
McQueen’s own company, and you can see why he was drawn
to this Horton Foote vignette about a paroled convict who just
can’t stay straight. The character, a honky tonk musician
named Henry Thomas, was raised by a tyrannical foster mother
who tells him on her death bed, “Henry, you’re no
good. You never have been. You ain’t worth killing.”
McQueen is unconvincing as a singer, but heartbreaking as an
orphan who was never taught how to grow up. At movie’s
end he is carted away in cuffs and a police car, his wife and
daughter passing by in the other direction. Even at this stage
of his career, on the cusp of worldwide fame, McQueen understood
the poignant metaphor of his life.

In Love With the Proper Stranger, McQueen has
what is perhaps his most likeable role. He’s a freewheeling
jazz trumpeter who “goes where the wind blows,” but
gets Natalie Wood pregnant in a one-night stand and then struggles
with the responsibility of finding her a “doctor”
to perform the abortion. As he falls for Wood, he endears us
to him with the remark, “I feel like I’m fourteen.”

Teaming again with Mulligan and Pakula, the movie
has a knowing feel for New York City locations and the heady
rush of young romance. McQueen and Wood make a lovely team.
He’s funny when his feelings are hurt, and appealing without
a hint of manipulation. Wood is casual about her beauty and
guileless in her portrayal of a Manhattan working girl. They
would both be dead in less than 20 years.

Bullitt (1968)
The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

McQueen swears once in Bullitt. He says “bullshit”
to Robert Vaughan’s duplicitous politician and it’s
as though he kicked him in the teeth. These were the days when
a single, well-timed expletive could delineate a character’s
point of view better than a string of foul-mouthed invectives.
These were the days when car chases were

The Thomas Crown Affair (with Faye Dunaway)

real, not computer-generated mock-ups.

McQueen is the intense detective by day and the
groovy bohemian by night, standing in a pool of blood at a murder
scene and later swinging with Jacqueline Bissett at a beatnik
bar in San Francisco’s North Beach. McQueen made the transition
believable and effortless. This is the movie that established
his supercool patina, but underneath is something malleable,
childlike. “He looks as eager as a fourth grader,”
is how my wife described it. And that’s it: McQueen, the
reform school grad, found the playfulness and innocence he missed
as a kid in his acting.

In The Thomas Crown Affair, he’s a rich playboy
who flies gliders, plays polo, races a dune buggy, and masterminds
a stunning bank heist, all for the fun of it. My favorite scene
is of Crown prancing around his living room after the robbery,
yucking it up with a drink and a cigar, like a kid let loose
in a Pokemon store. McQueen was never as remote as he wanted
to be. His vulnerability always gave him away.

Junior Bonner, The Getaway (1972)

Sam Peckinpah exploited McQueen’s abandoned
innocence in the two pictures they made together. Children often
frame the beginnings of Peckinpah’s pictures; they are
metaphors for loss, the childhoods his loners forsook for violence.
In The Getaway, McQueen’s Doc McCoy, just released from
prison, watches kids play in a river on a hot summer day, their
laughter echoing like some tune he remembers from a car radio
decades ago. At the end of the movie, Slim Pickens calls McQueen
and Ali McGraw “kids,” and you revisit their whole
flight as a game. In one scene, McGraw peels out of a drive-in
while McQueen blasts away with a shotgun. They both cackle with
glee, like they’re on a fast ride at the fair. As Junior
Bonner, McQueen willingly swallows his movie star pride as a
broke, adrift rodeo cowboy who’s a disappointment to his
father (Robert Preston), no great success himself. In one eloquent
scene, McQueen confesses his poverty to Dad, who knocks Junior’s
cowboy hat off in disgust, then retrieves it, dusts it off,
and hands it back to his son, his point made. McQueen was 41
when he made the film, lanky and lovable and stubborn, earnest
to a fault, and a tad bemused by the knowledge that his time
is coming to an end. Reports are that McQueen’s cancer
was already starting on the set of The Getaway.

Papillon (1973)

McQueen now saw himself in the role of a doomed
man, but one not without a few final gasps of will. He took
on the role of the irrepressible butterfly in Franklin J. Schaffner’s
brutal account of a French convict who refused to be contained.

As Papillon—McQueen’s only epic role—he
managed the delicate task of conveying a timeless spirit within
an aging, mortal shell. Papillon is a solid adventure with a
moving story at its core, and McQueen made the film work by
incrementally deconstructing his star persona. He wore shackles,
took a beating, ate insects, and even hugged Dustin Hoffman.
He allowed his hair to go gray and his body to stoop. By the
end of the movie he was walking like Kim Hunter in Schaffner’s
Planet of the Apes. A uniformed ape. But still he escaped, floating
to freedom on a raft of coconut shells.

Tom Horn

Tom Horn (1980)

James Coburn, in a recent interview in Premiere,
called Tom Horn McQueen’s finest film, but the movie that
we saw was not the one McQueen wanted to make. He planned to
direct, but since the DGA wouldn’t recognize him, he was
forced to hire a union man, William Wiard (a veteran of several
“Rockford Files” episodes). Then First Artists, to
whom McQueen owed a picture, took it away and butchered it.

The script was by Tom McGuane and Bud Schrake,
based on the true story of Tom Horn, a man who believed that
loyalty and violence were inextricably corded together, one
of the last of the frontiersmen who made the West safe for ranchers,
bankers, and bullies. It was the role McQueen was born to play—the
iconic loner running from his past, the man that other men want
to trap, kill and bury. There is great potential in the story
for elegy and myth-making.

The sadness and armor surrounding Horn was fit
for John Ford in the way that director idealized the man of
the West, or for Anthony Mann, in the way his cowboys tamped
down their psychic wounds until they exploded into violence.
McQueen’s Horn was defeated by greedy yes-men; the actor’s
passion for this last cowboy stood no chance against the politics
of Hollywood.

The movie’s romantic center is truncated;
its beautiful edges hacked up; its pace destroyed by a tedious
series of killings and random flashbacks. McQueen was beginning
to die during the filming. With each killing his walk becomes
stiffer, as if a new joint just seized up, as if another valve
in his heart has squinted shut.

Death by execution was a foregone conclusion for
Horn, who was ready to die when they hung him. Standing on the
gallows, looking into the faces of the men who condemned him,
Horn says to the sheriff (Slim Pickens), “Keep your nerve,
Sam. ’Cause I’m gonna keep mine.” Once again,
McQueen escapes. MM

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