Steve McQueen

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Steve McQueen

Post  BoG on Tue Mar 10, 2015 12:20 am

The above write-up was written 5 years ago, as McQueen would actually be 85 if still alive today.

Yesterday, the TCM Channel ran a marathon of McQueen films for some reason - I thought it might have been his birthday but that comes up only in a couple of weeks. Running film marathons of McQueen films is an easy thing to do - his filmography is a good collection of classics, near-classics and cult films. McQueen himself built up a sizable cult following since his death; some of this may have to do with his death at an early age, at 50 - it's not as extreme as James Dean, who died abruptly at an even much younger age, but mostly it has to do with McQueen's uniquely powerful film presence and that he lent a unique style to any film he was in which sharply differentiated the film from all others. There was always something oddly different about a McQueen film, at times almost mystical, and usually there was an edginess, a hint of danger that you didn't sense in most other big stars. Like Dean, McQueen was influenced by Brando, so there was that, but McQueen brought his own intensity, probably a function of his troubled younger days. There were other kings of Hollywood throughout the decades, but McQueen earned the distinctive sobriquet of the "King of Cool."  Cool
__ABOVE: McQueen in his earliest roles - Never Love a Stranger & The St. Louis Bank Robbery (wasn't too great)

He joined the U.S. Marine Corps in 1947, got demoted several times and got into other trouble due to his rebellious streak, but he redeemed himself by rescuing other soldiers in the Arctic and was assigned to the honor guard, responsible for guarding then U.S. President Harry Truman's yacht. McQueen served until 1950 when he was honorably discharged. He was into motorcycles since an early age and actually made money in  weekend races before becoming well known. He was one of two auditioning students accepted into Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio in 1955 (the other was Martin Landau). He did some minor work on stage in New York but quickly moved to California and early TV work was in the Studio One 2-part episode "The Defender" (McQueen, fittingly, played the troubled defendant in a trial, while the junior attorney was played by William Shatner). His first film part was a small role as a punk-with-a-knife in Somebody Up There Likes Me (56), starring Paul Newman as a famous boxer and this began the unofficial competition with Newman, culminating with the two finally starring together almost 20 years later in a big disaster pic. With this small start and the TV roles, McQueen's screen presence was noted and he graduated to a larger supporting role in a low budget melodrama (Never Love a Stranger) and his first lead in a very low budget crime caper (The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery), but these barely rose above Ed Wood material and reviews were poor. Release of the 2nd one was also delayed for about a year - probably after McQueen became a TV star.
McQueen then starred in his first hit, but it was the sci-fi/horror pic The Blob (58), which was then and now the object of derision, about a small American town invaded by an alien people-eating goo. McQueen was unremarkable in this, though the then 28-year-old was called upon to play a character who was about a decade younger, so some kind of Method-skill was needed to convey the fresh-faced innocence. McQueen chose to be paid an immediate straight fee of $3000 (he needed the money) rather than a 10% participation deal and he regretted this for the remainder of his career because the monster picture eventually grossed about $20 million. In any case, this scare-flic gained much of its fame or notoriety much later, after McQueen became a superstar; it didn't benefit him all that much at the time of its initial release. What did put  McQueen on the fast track to stardom was a TV role - a spin-off from the Robert Culp western series Trackdown called Wanted:Dead or Alive; McQueen played one of the many western tough guys on TV those days, but he was a bounty hunter, not the typical lawman or ranch hand. Brandishing a sawed-off shotgun dubbed the 'Mare's Leg,' McQueen's talent for playing deadly was on full display for 3 seasons.

McQueen's new-found fame on TV also afforded him the chance to take film roles in bigger films - Frank Sinatra picked him for a key role in the big war film Never So Few (59) after Sammy Davis Jr. was kicked off; McQueen played a resourceful young soldier. McQueen then played one of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and managed to upstage the big star Yul Brynner, sometimes using tricks like indulging in a distracting movement while the camera was rolling. The team of 7 gunslingers were mostly strong, silent types and played by future superstars, but McQueen had no problem being the focus of many scenes. The now-classic western made him a film star, graduating him from TV; the series ended and, from then on, it was strictly a film career. The Honeymoon Machine (61) was lightweight, with him as a soldier in comical mode, but Hell is For Heroes (62) was a gritty war film, with a still-memorable, downbeat finale. McQueen was in soldier-mode at this time - he went on to The War Lover and then hit the big time with The Great Escape (63).  As Hilts, the "Cooler King" in a prison camp, McQueen began to perfect his 'less-is-more' technique on the big screen; though he seemed to have less dialog than the other principal actors and not much more screen time (stuck in the cooler), he still managed to dominate most of the film, merely with his presence. It's also remembered now for his solo attempt at escape on a motorcycle; at one point, it seems like half the German army is chasing him.

McQueen was also a Soldier in the Rain (63), paired with  Jackie Gleason as a pair of sergeants in a slice-of-life tale of army life. The Great Escape made him a big star but he veered towards small romantic drama at first, paired with Natalie Wood in Love With the Proper Stranger and with Lee Remick in Baby, the Rain Must Fall (65). He played weak, flawed characters in these to try and show his range; the big "cool" roles soon followed: he was the young expert poker player in The Cincinnati Kid (65), up against Edward G. Robinson as the card-playing master (and one of the few actors at this point who could still outplay McQueen). McQueen had to age from snot-nosed kid to hardened hunter of men in another western, Nevada Smith (66), sort of recalling his famous TV role. He was nimble in this, showing off his skill at movement (notably in his confrontation with old classmate Martin Landau - it seemed like McQueen didn't need a stuntman). Back as a soldier, a sailor, he got his only Oscar nomination in the huge historical adventure The Sand Pebbles (66), about troubles in China. McQueen seemed at home using machines - before, it was the motorcycle; here, it was the ship's engines.

McQueen then tried for what looked like a different type of role, as a rich businessman who plots a robbery out of boredom in The Thomas Crown Affair (68), and some thought that this would not be a good fit for the rough-and-tumble actor. But, it was still essentially McQueen, the cool dude, just dressed in a business suit - and noticeably older (not so much in years and looks, just in attitude).  He also played perhaps his most famous and successful role in Bullitt, as a San Francisco police detective. All the marketing emphasized how McQueen was the coolest actor on the planet and this time the machine was a Ford Mustang, involved in the famous car chase on the streets of the city. But, what 'made' the film and McQueen (as maybe the top star at this point) was McQueen's presence: the film was all style and little plot, and all McQueen did was say a few short lines here-and-there and give others various looks; that was enough - enough to transfix an audience.  Maybe it was that natural tension generated by McQueen, maybe it was just his eyes, but it was a rare thing that an average film could be turned into a classic of sorts by the actions (or non-actions) of one actor.

After the huge success of Bullitt, McQueen decided on personal, unconventional projects - the light period drama The Reivers (69), in which he dispensed with most of the coolness for simple quirky dramatics, and the racing picture Le Mans (1971), which had almost a documentary-like feel. It was slow and not a success (audiences may have got their racing fix in the earlier Grand Prix film, which McQueen probably should have picked instead). He was also an over-the-hill rodeo rider in Junior Bonner (72), directed by Sam Peckinpah. There were a lot of these rodeo films that year, for some reason, and the Bonner film got lost in the mix - but it was still vintage McQueen. He reunited with Peckinpah and returned to big box office in the chase thriller, The Getaway (72), as a bank robber on the run with his wife (Ali MacGraw, whom McQueen married in real life). He had even bigger success as the title character in Papillon (73), another escape epic that recalled fifties/sixties epic films and also starred Dustin Hoffman.  McQueen then topped himself as the commanding fire chief in the hugely successful disaster film The Towering Inferno (74). McQueen got first billing over other superstar Paul Newman and showed everyone that he was the undisputed top movie star in the world. Now accustomed to his mesmerizing presence, audiences felt assured and encouraged anytime he was on screen in this often frightening, nerve-wracking thriller.
After this, it might be argued that McQueen had nothing left to prove; he was at the pinnacle of an incredible career and one can't go up from the very top. Also, he became very choosy, declining work which didn't include his new wife. He may have also started to experience the illness which would eventually get him, such as coughing fits. He seemed to retire, got bored, did the unexpected by participating in the small film Dixie Dynamite (76) as an uncredited stunt rider and eventually (perhaps expected) selected a small personal project as his follow-up, a small film based on an old Ibsen play called An Enemy of the People (78).  He looked older, heavier, heavily bearded, trying to return to his acting roots in heavy drama, and the film was virtually unseen. He returned to conventional roles - contracted for his last western, Tom Horn (80) and finally a return to a bounty hunter role (in modern times) in The Hunter (1980). He died that same year of cancer, associated with asbestos exposure, probably from his Marine days. I heard it on the radio when it happened - a sad day for me. McQueen is my 3rd favorite male actor, after Heston and Rod Taylor; he always intrigued me - not just for his screen roles, but for for his odd personal phrases, such as "Are you twisting my melon?" Like Taylor, he was apparently genuinely tough - word got around at some point that if he really punched you, he'd put you through a wall.
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