Steve McQueen -
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.
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,
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
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
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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