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Steve McQueen - Career Retrospective


By Rachel Sexton


Cool. Tough. Handsome. Could there be any doubt which actor I’m describing? Steve McQueen is the iconic king of cool from such films as The Getaway, The Magnificent Seven, and Bullitt, who to me bears an unexpected comparison to a certain classic film star, which I’ll get to later. Taken from the world too early, McQueen’s legacy as a movie star deserves some discussion.


March 24, 1930 was the day Terence Steven McQueen was welcomed into the world. Though his father left in his infancy and he was raised by other relatives, McQueen was in a sense saved by acting after reform school and a stint in the Marines. He auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s exclusive Actor’s Studio in 1955 and was accepted out of 2000, with one other actor: Martin Landau. Soon came supporting roles in films, a marriage to Neile Adams, and his first lead in the 1958 sci-fi horror camp classic The Blob, the standard of tacky 50s sci-fi. Then McQueen made a mark on TV with Wanted: Dead or Alive for three seasons from 1958 to 1961, during which he filmed a few movies. One of them was 1960’s The Magnificent Seven. Parts of ensembles like The Great Escape (1963) slowly led to true solo leads like The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and The Sand Pebbles (1966), for which he was nominated for an Oscar, and his only straight comedic turn in The Reivers, for which he was golden Globe nominated.


Then he entered the iconic phase of his career with The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt in the late 60s up through Papillion in the early 70s. McQueen was so popular in his own time that he won the old Golden Globe category World Film Favorite’s Male twice during these years. This is when his real-life hard living including motorcycle and car racing-- seeped into his strong, physical characters. After two children, Chad and Terry, McQueen and Adams divorced in 1972. He married his The Getaway costar Ali MacGraw in 1973 and they divorced in 1978. At the end of 1979 we was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a rare form of lung cancer linked to asbestos exposure. Less than a year later, he was dead, with third wife Barbara Minty at his side.


For a full experience of McQueen’s career, start with the following ten films.


1.     The Magnificent Seven (1960) - The Seven Samurai gets an American West update as a Mexican town, beset by an evil thug and his henchmen, hires the titular group to protect them. McQueen’s character reveals his goodness from the beginning as he helps a man get a proper burial and he’s the first to sign up for duty, alongside Yul Brenner, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and others. Scene to See: McQueen cutely comments on women in the village.
2.     Hell is for Heroes (1962) - War, war, and more war. This film is straight up action and drama as McQueen’s Private John Reese joins a platoon about to go to the front lines in World War 2 to fool the Germans into thinking a whole battalion is defending a large piece of land. Bobby Darin provides comic relief. Scene to See: The finale as McQueen sacrifices himself to grenade the Germans.
3.     The Great Escape (1963) - A blockbuster that began the icon phase, as McQueen is part of a gang trying to escape a POW camp in World War 2. He did the famous motorcycle chase mostly himself. You don’t even mind that it’s long or that they end up imprisoned again. Scene to See: That other indelible image: McQueen throwing the baseball against the wall.
4.     Love With the Proper Stranger (1963) - One of my personal favorites of all time, McQueen gets to be funny and the romantic lead while still a tough guy. He and Natalie Wood try to get an abortion after a one night stand leads to a pregnancy. Don’t worry, they fall in love and the baby stays, but give them props for tackling the subject that was then illegal. Full of nice moments and McQueen reveals subtle humor. He got a Golden Globe nomination for it. Scene to See: McQueen comforts Wood after she can’t go through with the obviously cut-rate abortion. “ll kill ‘em before I’ll let ‘em touch you,” he says.

5.     The Sand Pebbles (1966) - The only Oscar nomination McQueen got was for his role as Jake Holman in this tale of a U.S. Navy boat’s experiences in ‘20s China. Holman’s seen-it-all weariness is clear on McQueen’s face, making his opening up to Candice Bergen’s nice teacher and that ending all the more heartbreaking. A long but good movie. Scene to See: Holman slumps in tears after being forced to shoot a Chinese man that had become his friend.
6.     The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) - The remake was great but there is a reason the original warrants it: it’s a memorable meshing of a caper and romance. Faye Dunaway is the insurance officer tracking Crown’s thief. McQueen in dapper mode, though a bit dated. And yes, they end up apart. Scene to See: The leads kiss for a rotating camera after an erotic chess game.
7.     Bullitt (1968) - This may be THE definition of the cool icon. Lieutenant Frank Bullitt leads a witness protection job that goes wrong (does it happen any other way?). He hunts down the bad guys and deals with a jerk politician in cool '60s turtleneck-under-blazer ensembles. A solid action film that set the stage for all the serious cop dramas to follow, with the procedural feel we’re so used to today. Scene to See: Do I even have to write the words “car chase” in relation to this film?

8.     Junior Bonner (1972) - Sam Peckinpah was the director for two of McQueen’s ‘72 films. This one features McQueen as a rodeo star past his prime coming home for a rodeo and reconnecting with his family, especially his father, played by Robert Preston. Excellent direction guides McQueen to a quiet, layered characterization. Scene to See: McQueen romances a brunette in a booth while a bar fights rages around them.
9.     The Getaway (1972) - The other Peckinpah film, filled with more of that visceral violence he was known for, featuring McQueen and Ali MacGraw as a married couple. He’s just out of jail and she helps him with one last heist that goes very wrong (is there any other kind?). Doc McCoy is typical McQueen hardened and in control. Scene to See: McQueen slaps MacGraw around after fully realizing she slept with a politician to get him out of jail.

10.    Papillon (1973) - Dustin Hoffman costars with McQueen in this bleak prison tale. The title is the nickname of McQueen’s Henri Charriere, meaning “butterfly.” In a French Guiana prison wrongly convicted of murder, Papillon meets Hoffman’s Louis Dega and they try escape after escape before finally making it. Uneven pacing is really the only problem in the slightly long film. Hoffman is great. Scene to See: McQueen breaks down mentally in solitary confinement.
 McQueen’s other films mostly all deserve one look, though the ten above are vintage McQueen. Oh, and that classic star I’d compare him to? Cary Grant. Told you it was surprising, but think about it: both never won Oscars, perhaps because they cultivated one type of persona; Grant the debonair and suave, McQueen the tough and cool. Believe it or not, if he had lived McQueen would be 75 today. It’s a shame to think of what he might have done. I know I miss him.


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