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31 july 2016
Steve McQueen died young, and I realized he made relatively few films, but even so I was surprised to learn in Marc Eliot's biography that McQueen appeared in only about 25 features (not counting some small early roles in ephemera). But McQueen actually made one feature per year, on top of nearly 100 episodes of Wanted: Dead or Alive. For a star who was notably contentious, he stayed busy. Such was Hollywood in those decades, even after the studio assembly-line of the 1930s and '40s had broken down. You had to get your name in lights annually to keep your star status. Marlon Brando, the type of the hard-to-please superstar, made 23 feature films during the 25 years of McQueen's career. By contrast, Daniel Day-Lewis has made ten films in last 25 years.
I can't say that I'm a Steve McQueen aficionado. I've seen his famous roles, and like most people, I like Bullitt best. But Eliot got me rethinking McQueen's work as a whole. He is very high on McQueen's talent, but Steve McQueen is not a fanboyish effort. Eliot finds things worth watching in some obscure pictures. He's also quick to fault McQueen for uninspired work or counterproductive attitude.
Eliot quotes Sheila Weller: McQueen "had the kind of street cred Jack Kerouac would have killed for" (loc. 3880). He had little formal education, and his best childhood experiences came at the California "reform school" Boys Republic. (McQueen would remain a lifelong benefactor of Boys Republic, and his estate continues to benefit the school via an annual car show.) He was a Marine, not always a compliant one. His service time would eventually kill him, when exposure to asbestos during his Marine years brought on mesothelioma in middle age.
McQueen, from Eliot's account, seems to have been addicted to risk in general. He was an alcoholic, a notoriously reckless driver, a pothead, a dabbler in any drug that would rearrange his brain cells. He only stayed in shape during his film career because his addiction to working out exceeded his addiction to junk food. And when it came to sex, the always-married-to-somebody McQueen would have relationships with virtually every one of his co-stars, and helpings of one-night stands on the side. McQueen's first wife Neile said at the man's own funeral "Steve liked to fuck blondes, but he married brunettes" (loc. 4682). He lived life in the plural.
His artistic career yielded plural accomplishments. Always quitting the industry forever, he always returned to the set a few months later. Eliot charts an arc of insufferability in McQueen's career. When young he had no choice but to be minimally cooperative. This quality started to wear thin after he had big success in Wanted: Dead or Alive. The show was at best routine, but McQueen demanded more and more creative control over episodes. The problem was, doing thirty half hours a season gave no scope for creativity. McQueen ended up establishing not that he could be a TV auteur but that he was a big pain in the neck.
As the eye candy and action attraction in a couple of memorable ensemble films (The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape), McQueen's annoying habits were somewhat lost in the general chaos. Meanwhile he was establishing himself as a star in lesser pictures, where a pattern emerged: McQueen would test the director for dominance. His rising power (both psychological and executive, as he eventually founded his own production company) intersected that of his directors in the early 1960s. On Hell is for Heroes, Don Siegel maintained control by being simply more bloody-minded. McQueen's later directors couldn't match Siegel's nerve or his control.
The success of a McQueen production seems to have been dependent on the chance of finding a director that the star took a temporary fancy to. Henry Hathaway held Nevada Smith together, and Robert Wise just about managed to survive the shambles of the shooting of The Sand Pebbles. But after that, McQueen films typically went through multiple scripts and directors before they wrapped, and it's a wonder so many of them got made. McQueen and Sam Peckinpah worked together a few times and ended up nearly killing each other. The star only really seemed to click with Peter Yates, director of Bullitt, because both men were committed to making the coolest car chase ever. And they did.
Reading the biography of such an actor is like watching a long, slow, complicated train wreck. McQueen belongs near the top of lists of larger-than American lives. His rank in the history of appreciable films is lower. McQueen admired Humphrey Bogart's stoic toughness, but Bogart was a verbal tough guy. McQueen belongs in a category with older stars like Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Robert Mitchum, who could be tough without cracking wise. McQueen realized this and pressed his directors to cut his dialogue to a minimum. In Bullitt he says very little, and in Le Mans he says almost nothing. Eliot notes that along with his dialogue, McQueen jettisoned anything like a story from Le Mans, substituting car action and laconic facial expressions. Laconic became iconic, but there was a tipping point beyond which McQueen lost his box-office appeal to his own impenetrability. And then it was over.
Eliot, Marc. Steve McQueen: A biography. New York: Crown [Random House], 2011. PN 22287 .M547E45. Kindle Edition.