Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part Two)

GREAT ESCAPE, THE

(Tuesday, March 24 is the late Steve McQueen’s 85th birthday. To honor this charismatic actor, here is the second of my two-part commemoration of the man and his films)

There’s a scene in the movie THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) where American POW Virgil Hilts, known as “The Cooler King” due to his repeated banishments to the isolation box, squats on the dirt in his cramped cell, smiles, and begins to bounce a baseball against the opposite wall. There’s no dialog. But the character’s actions imply “You bastards may be able to kill me. But you can’t eat me.”

This scene is one of many examples of why Steve McQueen earned the title “The King of Cool.”

THE GREAT ESCAPE served notice that a new matinee idol had arrived in Hollywood. As film critic Leonard Maltin observed, “The large international cast is superb, but the standout is McQueen; it’s easy to see why this cemented his status as a superstar.”

After this movie, McQueen was offered one juicy role after another. He was paired with some of the most ravishing starlets in Hollywood: Natalie Wood, Lee Remick, Ann-Margret, Suzanne Pleshette, Faye Dunaway, Jacqueline Bisset. He commanded top dollar for his films. In 1968, his peak year, he starred in two blockbuster films that perfectly exploited his antihero credentials: THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR and BULLITT.

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Getting passionate with Faye Dunaway in “The Thomas Crown Affair”

In THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, McQueen portrays a wealthy playboy and sportsman who dabbles in high-stakes crime on the side. He’s an ultra-intelligent, smooth operator who enjoys playing chess, riding his dune buggy, reading the Wall Street Journal, and – just for kicks – robbing banks. After masterminding one multi-million-dollar bank heist, an insurance investigator (Faye Dunaway) is hired to trip him up. She comes close to nabbing him in an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse, but of course, she eventually succumbs to his charm. The split-screen scene where McQueen and Dunaway compete in a sexually charged game of chess, then kiss rapturously while the camera whirls around them, is one of the great moments in cinema history, and it assisted Michel Legrand in winning an Oscar for the song “The Windmills of Your Mind.”

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Classic photo of McQueen and shoulder holster, from his quintessential film, “Bullitt”

McQueen’s next movie, BULLITT, which was produced by McQueen’s own Solar Productions company, has an even more iconic sequence. The storyline is nothing exceptional: a police lieutenant appropriately named Frank Bullitt (McQueen) is hired to protect a government witness, who is eventually killed, and Bullitt has to contend with both the Mafia and a vengeful politician (Robert Vaughn). But the film is special for its on-location camerawork, the piece-de-resistance being a high-speed car chase across the hills of San Francisco. This 10-minute chase is considered one of the most exciting ever filmed, with veteran racer McQueen doing the close-up driving scenes himself, including a classic spinout in a turbo-charged, 1968 Ford Mustang GT (the high-speed scenes were done by several well-known stunt drivers, one of whom had doubled for McQueen during the motorcycle jump over barbed wire in THE GREAT ESCAPE). During filming, the two cars reached speeds of an astonishing 110 mph. The BULLITT car chase scene became the model for dozens of other similar chases peppered throughout commercials, comedies, and action films. But other than maybe THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) starring Gene Hackman, none have come close to McQueen and BULLITT.

After BULLITT, McQueen had enough power and a big enough bank account to race cars and bikes whenever he felt like it. He not only made sure his films had at least one car scene (at least, those set in the automobile age), he also made documentaries about racing, most notably ON ANY SUNDAY (1971), a motorcycle documentary partially produced by and featuring McQueen, and which critic Roger Ebert said “does for motorcycle racing what THE ENDLESS SUMMER did for surfing.”

But McQueen’s film output slowed down considerably after 1969. On the night of August 9, two close friends, actress Sharon Tate and hairdresser Jay Sebring, became victims of the Manson Family murder spree. McQueen had been invited to Tate’s house that same night, but had turned it down because he had a date. He was also supposedly on Manson’s hit list after his production company rejected a Manson screenplay. McQueen’s first wife, Neile, claims that Steve was so spooked he started carrying a concealed handgun everywhere.

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Dressed for speed in LE MANS

In 1971, McQueen realized a dream and produced a movie about the renowned 24-hour road race in Le Mans, France. Racing fans love LE MANS for its authenticity – and McQueen never looked “cooler” – but the film plot was fairly opaque, and it was essentially a vanity project for McQueen (he’d turned down the lead role in the earlier racing film, GRAND PRIX (1966), the role eventually going to fellow race enthusiast and friend James Garner).

During the 1970s, McQueen only made five feature films. Two of them, the lighthearted rodeo homage JUNIOR BONNER (1972) and the crime thriller THE GETAWAY (1972), were done with infamous director Sam Peckinpah, who had an affinity for antiheroes and how they cope in a brutal world. In THE GETAWAY, McQueen portrays an ex-con who robs a bank and goes on the lam with his girlfriend (played by Ali McGraw). High on style but low in substance, THE GETAWAY was a much-needed hit for both McQueen and Peckinpah. But it also broke up McQueen’s marriage to Neile, as he and McGraw became lovers during the film, and eventually married (then divorced in 1978).

In 1974 McQueen was reunited with Paul Newman, one of the few actors who could compete with him at the box office. They headlined the Irwin Allen disaster epic THE TOWERING INFERNO, with McQueen playing a fire chief, and Newman portraying an architect. Both actors wanted lead billing… but which one would get it? The producers solved the dilemma by putting McQueen’s name first, on the left, but Newman’s name slightly higher, on the right! Additionally, both actors received the same pay and had the same number of lines. Poor William Holden, also in the film, had evidently become too old to compete with the other two!

McQueen’s last film of the ‘70s was another vanity project: AN ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE, based on a Henrik Ibsen play, and in which McQueen played a principled doctor who has a feud with his materialistic neighbors. The McQueen everyone knew and loved was practically hidden behind a beard and spectacles, and the film had an extremely limited theatrical release.

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Taking a break on the set of TOM HORN, his second-to-last film

McQueen returned to familiar territory for his last two films, TOM HORN (1980) and THE HUNTER (1980). The former is a period piece based on true-life cowboy bounty hunter Horn, who was controversially hanged for murder in 1903. In THE HUNTER, McQueen played a contemporary bounty hunter, and was reunited with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN co-star Eli Wallach. Although both movies were up McQueen’s alley (recalling bounty hunter Josh Randall in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”), both were unfortunately critical and commercial disappointments.

It was during the filming of TOM HORN that McQueen started to have trouble breathing. He was eventually diagnosed with malignant mesothelioma, an aggressive type of lung cancer (though McQueen was a heavy smoker, Neile cited the cause as asbestos exposure, possibly received from Steve soaking his racing facemask in the chemical, which was an oft-used fire retardant… it was long before the dangers of asbestos were known). McQueen fought valiantly against his cancer. He even resorted to controversial treatments that involved coffee enemas and injections of live cells from cows and sheep. But on November 7, 1980, after surgery in Juarez, Mexico to remove a massive tumor, he died of cardiac arrest. He was only 50 years old.

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Layin’ back with James Coburn in pickup truck. Note the Castrol motor oil and Lucky Lager beer bottles

Since McQueen’s death 35 years ago, he’s been the subject of many biographies. He’s been name-dropped in songs by the Rolling Stones, Leonard Cohen, Jimmy Webb, Sheryl Crow, UFO, and many others. The English band Prefab Sprout named an entire album after him. According to Wikipedia, possessions by the late actor sell in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. He had a collection of 130 motorcycles that sold in the millions within four years of his death. Lines of expensive clothing and watches have been inspired by him. Most tellingly, his estate is in the top 10 of highest earning deceased celebrities. Long after his death, the King of Cool remains a hot property.

And how many actors have been inducted into both the Motorcycle Hall of Fame and the Hall of Great Western Performers?

For a brief moment in the ‘60s and ‘70s, a rugged, blue-eyed ex-reform school punk named Steve McQueen burned like red lava flowing from an active volcano. Even in ensemble films, McQueen was so magnetic a presence you couldn’t tear your eyes away from him. If you were born too late to catch him the first time around, his films are still easily available. Below is a short list of what I consider his best flicks (I’ve already discussed three of them).  So grab some popcorn, turn down the lights, and enjoy a Great Escape with the King of Cool.

1. THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963)

2. NEVADA SMITH (1966). Based on a character in Harold Robbins’ novel “The Carpetbaggers,” this is a compelling Western about revenge. McQueen plays a half-Indian teenager (you heard right) whose parents are brutally murdered by three outlaws. One by one he tracks them down. McQueen gets to display his athleticism in some great action scenes, including a tense knife fight with his former Actors Studio buddy, Martin Landau. The final scene with Karl Malden is killer.nevada smith

3. THE SAND PEBBLES (1966). McQueen was nominated for four Golden Globe awards during his career, but this was his only Academy Award nomination. sand pebblesHe plays a rebellious, Brooklyn-bred machinist’s mate stationed on a Yangtze River gunboat in 1926. He’s not only convincing in his role, but the film has a great supporting cast, including Candice Bergen, Richard Attenborough, and Richard Crenna.

4. THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968)

5. BULLITT (1968)

6. THE REIVERS (1969). One of the best all-round movies McQueen made, THE REIVERS is based on a lesser known novel by William Faulkner. It’s a totally winning slice of rural Americana, with McQueen stepping out of his comfort zone and playing Boon Hoggenbeck, a conniving roustabout who cons a young boy into “borrowing” his grandfather’s 1905 Winton Flyer automobile for a trip down the backroads of Mississippi. mcqueen_reiversThe film comes a little close to Disney territory, but there’s enough sobriety to keep it honest, and McQueen never looked happier. And this time he gets to goof in the mud with an antique set of wheels!

7. PAPILLON (1973). McQueen shares the spotlight with another Hollywood legend, Dustin Hoffman, in this tale (based on a true story) about two Frenchmen who are exiled for life to Devil’s Island prison off of French Guiana in the 1930s. No need to worry about Hoffman, though: McQueen is the whole movie. This film is full-fledged action-adventure, and it’s both long and intense. It deals with the indomitability of the human spirit (think of it as THE GREAT ESCAPE on acid). Like so many McQueen films, this one features several classic scenes: a skillfully photographed slow-motion sequence of McQueen stumbling into a jungle river while trying to escape; and the final shot, when he catapults himself off a massive cliff into the ocean. Characteristically, McQueen insisted on doing this dangerous stunt himself. The King of Cool got his way.

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Steve McQueen: The King of Cool (Part One)

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One of the fun things about hosting a blog is you get to share with others your fave hobbies and heroes. Most of my childhood heroes were either musical or athletic. But some were delivered via MGM or 20th Century Fox.

In my last post I took a swipe at the Academy Awards ceremony. But as crude and ostentatious as Tinseltown can get, it’s not all bad news. In its defense, the film industry does provide (fairly) affordable diversion for a large demographic. And moving pictures do have a way of making our lives just a little less drab.

Ray Davies of The Kinks sang that “Celluloid heroes never really die.” If that’s true of anyone, it’s true of actor Steve McQueen. McQueen’s heyday was the 1960s-70s, when he was the biggest draw in Hollywood. He left us way too young, but he’ll always be alive in celluloid. He was my favorite actor, bar none. “Cool” is real important when you’re young. And McQueen virtually defined the concept of cool.Bullitt jacket

But to be cool, McQueen didn’t need sunglasses, fast cars, or a stable of foxy women (though he had all that and more). It was more the way he moved and spoke both on and offscreen. He had a ruggedness and lithe athleticism that appealed to men as much as women. He rarely overacted, kept his dialog sparse, and emphasized a graceful physicality (plus, not every actor is lucky to be born with steel blue eyes and a winsome smile).

McQueen created a mold for numerous “action heroes” who sprang up in his wake – I won’t name them, you can probably guess. But these screen children of McQueen always looked stilted, plastic, mass-assembled. They just didn’t have McQueen’s naturalness and poise. Maybe because the line between McQueen’s art and life was often blurred. He was the anti-Hollywood anti-hero.

McQueen is a celluloid hero who was so riveting a presence, he’ll never fade from screen glory. March 24 will be his 85th birthday. Here’s my two-part tribute to the King of Cool.

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The first movie of McQueen’s that I ever saw was the WW2 POW escape film THE GREAT ESCAPE. In 1963 it had been a major box-office success, and it was soon scheduled to debut on television. This was in a time when there were only three TV stations: ABC, CBS, and NBC. One of the older kids on my block (either Mike Keefer or John Hire, I can’t remember which) had probably seen a television preview or a “TV Guide” advertisement. Well, the buildup to the televised airing of this film was almost as big as the annual showing of THE WIZARD OF OZ. Here’s how our curbside talk probably went:

“Man, you just gotta see this movie!”mcqueen_motorcycle

“Why?”

“It’s really cool! This escaped POW jumps a barbed wire fence with a motorcycle!”

(Obviously, the motorcycle stunt was the sole incentive for watching the movie).

Well, THE GREAT ESCAPE came on at 9 pm, and I did see a little of it before bedtime (it was the latest I’d ever stayed up – at least until the debut of the popular detective show “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.“). The much-anticipated motorcycle scene came toward the end, so I probably missed this tilting of the earth’s axis. But THE GREAT ESCAPE was my introduction to Steve McQueen, and over the years I would see almost all of his flicks.

When I die I don’t wanna go to heaven

I just wanna drive my beautiful machine

Up north on some Sonoma country road

With Jimmy Dean and Steve McQueen”

– Jimmy Webb, from “Too Young to Die”

McQueen was born March 24, 1930 in Indianapolis, Indiana as Terence Steven McQueen. His father, a stunt pilot in a traveling circus, abandoned the family when Steve was young. His mother was supposedly an alcoholic and prostitute. McQueen briefly lived on his great-uncle’s farm in Missouri, before moving to Los Angeles with his mother and an abusive stepfather when McQueen was 12.

In California, McQueen joined a gang and had frequent clashes with both his stepfather and the cops. He was eventually sent to California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. This reform school helped tame McQueen’s lawless ways a little (after he became famous, he made frequent visits to the school, and made secretive and substantial charitable contributions).

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Chilling out on the set of “The Great Escape” (1963) with Charles Bronson and James Coburn

At age 16, McQueen joined his mother in Greenwich Village, New York. He eventually signed with the Merchant Marine, and later the U.S. Marine Corps, where he served in the honor guard. In the Marines, McQueen learned discipline, and he was honorably discharged in 1950. He later drew on his military experience in several movies.

The G.I. Bill helped McQueen finance acting classes at Sanford Meisner’s renowned Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre, in New York City. Then he auditioned for Lee Strasberg’s famous Actor’s Studio. Out of some 2,000 actors, McQueen was one of only five who was accepted (Martin Landau was another). He acted in small theater productions, supplementing his income with winnings from weekend motorcycle racing on Long Island. In 1955 he starred in the Broadway production of “Hatful of Rain,” a story that dealt with heroin addiction (the play was later made into a movie, without McQueen). McQueen’s dramatic turn in “Hatful” spurred a move to Hollywood to try his hand at film.

Between 1955 and his breakthrough role in THE GREAT ESCAPE, McQueen popped up in many TV roles and movies, sometimes uncredited. Most are unmemorable, but some of the highlights include the following:

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Ready to fight, in his first film

Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956): a loose biography of boxer Rocky Graziano, this is McQueen’s earliest film role. He draws on his rebellious past for a bit part as a switchblade wielding pool hall punk. This movie is notable for being Paul Newman’s second film, and it’s very good (Sylvester Stallone had to have seen this at least a dozen times before he wrote ROCKY). McQueen and Newman would later become the top grossing male stars in Hollywood and, despite being friends offscreen, battle for top billing.

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Stalking slime with Aneta Corsaut in “The Blob”

The Blob (1958): a typical cheesy, 1950s monster movie, this was McQueen’s first lead role in a movie. Even though a wizened 28, he played a teenager who helps save his town from an alien slime that has a hunger for humans. The cult film is notable for the title song, an early and decidedly goofy composition by Burt Bacharach. Also notable for McQueen’s love interest, Aneta Corsaut, who later appeared as Helen Crump in “The Andy Griffith Show” (why the heck would she dump the King of Cool for a small-town sheriff??!!).

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Perfecting the cool quotient in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”

Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61): McQueen became a TV fixture in this series, playing a bounty hunter named “Josh Randall.” It was an ok show, running for 94 episodes, but it was overshadowed by another CBS Western, “Rawhide,” which starred another future film superstar (and professional rival): Clint Eastwood.

The Magnificent Seven (1960): this Western was based on Akira Kurosawa’s well-regarded Japanese-language film SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). Most critics agree that THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN falls short of Kurosawa’s film, but it did have a memorable musical score by Elmer Bernstein, it spawned three sequels, and it featured a posse of present and future stars: McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn (Bronson and Coburn later rejoined McQueen in THE GREAT ESCAPE). Steve would become the biggest star of all. Although Brynner had the lead role, McQueen quietly stole the picture. His smooth portrayal of a drifter/gambler/gunfighter, banding with others of his ilk to protect a small Mexican village from marauders, solidified his antihero credentials.

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Magnificent, in “The Magnificent Seven”

Here was a character who (like bounty hunter Josh Randall) lived on the fringes, alienated from conventional society. With THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, McQueen began to construct a movie persona of a flawed protagonist… an antihero, or a hero who lacks traditional moral attributes. While the antihero character had been around since classical Greek drama, until James Dean and Marlon Brando popularized him in the 1950s, he was largely absent from production-code Hollywood.

McQueen would vault himself to the highest rafters in Hollywood portraying antiheroes. And, like fellow speed freak and Indiana native Dean, he never lost an appetite for danger.

(Continued…)

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