In the roughly 25 years since his death at age 50, Steve McQueen has enjoyed a vibrant afterlife in the American pop consciousness. Including memoirs by two ex-wives, biographical treatments have come out at a pace of at least one every three years. Remakes of his movies—Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger’s turn at The Getaway in 1994, Pierce Brosnan and Rene Russo in 1999’s The Thomas Crown Affair—goose interest in the originals and, muezzin-like, issue a call for a new round of genuflections to McQueen’s signature variety of narcissistic masculinity. Many of these show up in hagiographic profiles in men’s magazines. Donal Logue’s overweight, slacker, 30-something Dex bends the McQueen mystique into an everyman formula for scoring chicks in 2000’s The Tao of Steve. McQueen the tabloid persona is made to breathe again in 2002’s The Kid Stays in the Picture, movie mogul Robert Evans’ attempt to cement his legend in a rollicking, hep-cat autobiographical documentary that, in its account of the ebb and flow of Hollywood fortune, covers the downer of Evans losing his wife, actress Ali MacGraw, to McQueen during the filming of the original Getaway, in 1972. And this week the Virginia Film Festival will screen the McQueen movies The Great Escape and Bullitt and host a tribute to the latter’s seminal car chase scene with stuntman Loren Janes in connection with this year’s theme of “Speed.”
The kinds of things McQueen actually did in the roughly 25 major motion pictures that made up his film career—a narrowly consistent sequence of cinematic images, gestures and actions—establish the persona that made McQueen one of the top box-office draws of his time and which continues to resonate today. And his off-screen biography, a compelling tandem, variously gave the persona a certain depth or authenticity and conditioned the performances themselves.
There was, for one thing, McQueen’s affinity for machinery—cars, motorcycles, aircraft—and, indeed, speed. McQueen was an accomplished racer and genuine sportsman, amassing a credible resume in national and international competitions. The action set pieces that anchor his movies were often conceived and incorporated at his behest, and McQueen was behind the wheel for much of the stunt work.
Additionally, McQueen’s dialogue was stripped to a bare minimum, again often at the insistence of the actor, a notorious prima donna who exercised an overweening grip on his productions even before establishing superstar clout. Spare, self-contained, wounded and distrustful, a loner ensnarled in vaguely alien systems marked by ambiguous, superficial corruption and hostility, McQueen’s characters were taciturn men of action, forceful and even bullying in restless, solitary pursuit of expansive needs—for love, respect and freedom, for victory over a system that had drawn first blood by being so inhospitable. They seemed to emerge from the same rough childhood that shaped McQueen, or some variation of it.
The cycle of abuse begins
McQueen was born in 1930 in a suburb of Indianapolis. The son of a teenage alcoholic mother and stunt pilot father who abandoned the family when Steve was an infant, McQueen was left to the care of his uncle, a successful Missouri farmer, for most of his early childhood. This period of relative tranquility ended when, at age 12, McQueen reunited with his mother in Indianapolis, and then moved with her and a new stepfather to wartime Los Angeles. Disinterested in school and suffering from abandonment by his parents and a deeply unstable home life as well as physical abuse at the hands of his stepfather, McQueen joined street gangs, committed petty crimes and wound up in a Chino reform school in 1944.
While McQueen was at the reformatory, his stepfather died unexpectedly and his mother moved to New York’s Greenwich Village, where she was able to meld with her bohemian environs, according to a memoir by Neile McQueen Toffel, McQueen’s first wife. McQueen’s mother summoned him east from Chino after he finished ninth grade, and put him up in a rented room while she shacked up with a cinematographer she’d first met in Los Angeles and with whom she was trying to cultivate a long-term relationship. McQueen soon quit the situation and joined the merchant marine for a brief spell before jumping ship in the Dominican Republic and finding work as a towel boy in a brothel. Stints as an oil-field laborer in Texas and a logger in Canada followed. At age 17, McQueen joined the Marines and trained as a tank driver, earning an honorable discharge (after a couple of stays in the brig for going absent without leave) shortly before the outbreak of the Korean War.
McQueen returned to New York and scraped by on a series of jobs and small-time confidence scams, and attended night school on the GI Bill. According to biographer William Nolan, McQueen was still casting about when a girlfriend suggested he apply for training as an actor at the Neighborhood Playhouse. Sanford Meisner, the school’s impresario, admitted him, and remarked later that McQueen struck him as “both tough and childlike—as if he’d been through the wars of life but had managed to preserve a certain basic innocence.”
Stage work followed, and then admission to the more exclusive Actors Studio and indoctrination in the Method school of acting. After that, various television appearances and his silver screen debut: a walk-on in the 1956 Paul Newman boxing flick Somebody Up There Likes Me.
“Short sentences and short words”
It was in his New York period when McQueen met his first wife, then named Neile Adams, an ascendant dancer and actress whose career began to take off just ahead of McQueen’s. In her memoir, Neile wrote, “Later on, as a movie star, he would conclude that his personality, projected onto the screen, was the most important element in his acting technique.” And, for the rest of his life, McQueen’s personality never appeared to stray appreciably from the patterns and experiences of his first two decades or so.
McQueen’s marriages to Neile and Ali MacGraw were intensely volatile, roiled by McQueen’s wanton philandering and determination to assert his primacy, and held together in large measure, it seems, by extraordinary docility in each wife and the deep attraction each felt toward him. While his mother exhibited a bruising disregard for her son, McQueen pressed both MacGraw and Neile to give up promising acting careers in favor of a singular spousal role, telling Life magazine in a 1962 profile, “I dig my old lady, not the maid, serving me dinner.”
In her memoir, MacGraw wrote, “With Steve and me, confrontation was the norm.” She recounted how, just as their affair began during filming of The Getaway, McQueen would “very flagrantly pick up one or more of the stream of bimbos who were always around on the set” when he was angry with her, and one incident where she nevertheless cooked breakfast for him the next morning.
According to Neile’s account, her marriage finally foundered after 15 years amid McQueen’s profound mid-life crisis. His drug use intensified dramatically, and affairs he formerly conducted with discretion he would now flaunt, she wrote. Plying her with cocaine one night, she wrote, McQueen lured her into confessing an infidelity with the actor Maximilian Schell, leading to a sequence of recurring jealous rages and terrifying physical abuse.
In a 1999 biographical sketch in Premiere magazine, Andy Webster quoted McQueen friend and karate instructor Pat Johnson on the wariness that McQueen’s streetwise history had engendered in him. “[The idea that] you can never trust people—that’s what he lived by. Life was a scam. It was always, ‘What does this person want from me? They’re acting nice, but what’s behind it?’ He couldn’t accept people at face value,” Johnson told Webster. “You had to con people. It was all about survival, which you learn in the street…He was constantly fighting between ‘I’ll prove I’m somebody,’ and ‘I’m not worthy; I’m going to destroy this.’”
Indeed, his avid pursuit of stardom, his famous ego clashes and the artistic control he demanded over his onscreen persona echoed the drive and frantic energy of McQueen’s itinerant youth.
McQueen’s first big paycheck came with a three-year stint, starting in 1958, as bounty hunter Josh Randall on the western TV series “Wanted: Dead or Alive.” He had taken the job with some trepidation at the possibility of being marooned in television for the rest of his career, and, despite his lack of tenure in the Hollywood firmament, immediately proved to be a fractious star. Later, he expressed some regret about the way he handled himself on the show to Nolan, the biographer: “One mistake I made was forgetting about the dignity of my directors. I’d get into a scene, and I’d suddenly be tellin’ the other actors how to play it. Then I’d have to go over and apologize to the director. But one thing was for sure, I understood the character of Josh Randall.”
Producer Ed Adamson recalled for Nolan his formula for getting along with McQueen, which centered on making sure his lines were made up of “short sentences and short words,” in deference to McQueen’s sensitivity about his lack of education. “When some director refused to shorten a speech for Steve he could turn into a real mean son of a bitch,” he said.
Walter Hill, the screenwriter for The Getaway, recalled something similar about McQueen’s penchant for lean dialogue. “He was concerned about every scene, down to the smallest plot point,” he told Nolan. “Steve tended not to like dialogue, especially long speeches, and preferred to convey thought through body language. In my opinion, he was the best actor in the last 25 years at getting real emotion across without having to say a word.”
“Watch his eyes”
With top billing in 1963’s The Great Escape, McQueen reached a new level of stardom and box-office credibility. The behind-the-scenes story contained some characteristic elements: McQueen is credited with the idea for the climactic motorcycle chase and performed many of the stunts for it; the script was mostly improvised during filming and McQueen wrestled with John Sturges, the director, over his part, walking out on the production at one point.
In the finished product, McQueen’s character, Captain Virgil “The Cooler King” Hilts, did many McQueen-esque things. At first instinctively working apart from the hierarchy of British Royal Air Force prisoners, who are planning a major break from their Nazi prison camp with the hope of diverting significant enemy resources from the front lines, the American Hilts walks the yard’s perimeter searching for weaknesses. With his blue eyes and flaxen hair, and his head poking out of his sweatshirt and leather jacket in the shape of an inverted teardrop, McQueen’s movements are marked by a lithe athleticism. Hilts earns his nickname with a couple of solo escape attempts that land him in solitary confinement, where he makes a tentative alliance with a British prisoner with his own reasons for an early escape. And, of course, there is McQueen’s hijacking of a Nazi motorcycle for use as an off-road escape pod at the end of the film.
Sounding like Walter Hill as previously quoted, director Sam Peckinpah said of McQueen, “If you really want to learn about acting for the screen, watch his eyes.” Doing this literally, of course, you see them twitter around in his sockets, depending on what he’s looking at; sometimes, in outdoor shots, McQueen’s gaze moves into the line of the sun, and he acts like he’s squinting.
But McQueen’s persona rests heavily on a cumulative effect: There are certain things McQueen would stand around and do, and certain things he wouldn’t.
In Bullitt, a 1968 police thriller built around a live-action car chase through the streets of San Francisco, McQueen instantly slides into the role of a hard-boiled, incorruptible, all-business cop simply by impassively listening to a pitch by Walter Chalmers, an on-the-make politician played by Robert Vaughn. “Sam said you were the man for the job, and I can’t see a flaw in that statement,” Chalmers tells Lieutenant Frank Bullitt, enlisting him to protect a prize witness. “A Senatorial hearing has a way of catapulting everyone involved into the public eye, with subsequent effect on one’s career. It’d be a pleasure to have you along.”
In addition to the contrast with Chalmers, Bullitt is established as a kind of rebel by the fact of his bohemian girlfriend, played by Jacqueline Bisset. In turn, his relationship with her, marked by a reserve on his part—a desire to conceal the violence that stains him on the job—is sketched in a couple snippets of dialogue. “It’s not for you, baby,” he says when she asks about a nighttime phone call he just received. “Everything you do is a part of me,” she responds.
Despite the lead’s Brahmin trappings in The Thomas Crown Affair, the role at its essence presents a familiar McQueen scenario. Thomas Crown, a wealthy real estate mogul, orchestrates a complicated bank robbery and becomes romantically involved with Vicki Anderson (played by Faye Dunaway), the viciously aggressive, femme fatale insurance investigator who gets on his trail. At one point, Crown asserts that his motive, as a rich man, for robbing a bank boils down to his view that, “It’s me against the system.” In the run-up to the final test of Anderson’s loyalty that serves as the film’s emotional climax—a choice between Crown and her commission for recovering the stolen money—Crown has a tryst with a casual love interest who had slid from view early in the movie, knowing he was under surveillance. Later, sitting together on beach chairs, Crown assures the wounded Anderson, “Hey, listen. She was just a way of putting you in touch with yourself.”
So The Great Escape has the frisson of the McQueen ideal, if not the wit or psychological drama of a POW-escape movie like Stalag 17, for example. And for many audiences, McQueen’s minimal approach makes him a sort of negative space, a forgettable cipher. But for those in the ticket-buying public that elected him a singular onscreen hero and sustain him as an ongoing concern, he has poetically congealed with a certain way of behaving and joined a pantheon of leading men with, ultimately, ineffable appeal.
Among his fans, critic James Wolcott, in a 2000 Vanity Fair tribute, aggrandizes McQueen’s lifelong relationship with machines: “Steve McQueen bonded with metal, making steel an extension of himself. Sports cars, guns, motorcycles—he handled them as if they were wedded to his fingertips, his sure control infused with charisma through a daredevil zeal for speed, tight corners, and sudden catapults.”
Likewise, the New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in reviewing McQueen’s penultimate film—Tom Horn, a Western released shortly before the actor’s death—finds an apotheotic stoicism in the roles McQueen inhabited: “But McQueen’s immense popularity rests on our view of him as the efficient, almost silent technician-soldier, who functions in a steadfast, uncomplaining manner within a larger, mostly corrupt structure that will grind him up in the end.”
Tough guy vs. the killer
McQueen, a lifelong smoker, was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in late 1979. The form of the disease with which he was stricken, mesothelioma, was associated with exposure to asbestos, which, notably, was used in protective suits worn by racecar drivers. McQueen famously sought alternative treatment under the care of a controversial former Texas dentist, but succumbed to the disease in November 1980, suffering a heart attack after an operation to remove massive tumors.
In her memoir, Neile recalled an episode in 1972 when McQueen was covertly hospitalized for the removal of throat polyps that she, in retrospect, views as the first sign of the disease that would kill him—a mournful note about the possibility for an early detection and a cure. In his last years there were other hints at how things could have been different: In 1975, for instance, he with little regret priced himself out of the lead role for Apocalypse Now. But in the end, McQueen was the thing he had worked so hard to invent, implacably McQueen.
What a man…
Sure, the name Steve McQueen conjures up ineffable cool,that whole strong-silent thing. But, McQueen ain’t alone. The movies bulge with real-manhood. C-VILLE’s scientific office survey reveals at least 10 other instances of cinematic virility incarnate.
- Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke
- Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction
- Denzel Washington in Glory
- Chow Yun Fat in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
- Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans
- Brad Pitt in Fight Club
- George Clooney in Three Kings
- Antonio Banderas in Desperado
- Sean Connery in Dr. No
- Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day