Steve McQueen: The Life and Leg­end of a Hollywood Icon

Pasatiempo - - In Other Words - by Mar­shall Ter­rill, Tri­umph Books, 610 pages

Steve McQueen was to 1960s (and early 1970s) cin­ema what Humphrey Bog­art was to 1940s (and early 1950s) cin­ema: the cool, in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic an­ti­hero who could dis­pas­sion­ately turn his woman over to the cops or show up at the last minute to save the day with some well-aimed blasts from a .45. Though he ap­peared in a few duds and mis­fires, McQueen gave us a fil­mog­ra­phy that re­mains im­pres­sive over­all, and one would like to be­lieve that even young folk with short mem­o­ries of cul­tural his­tory would be fa­mil­iar with some of these ti­tles: The Blob, The Mag­nif­i­cent Seven, The Great Es­cape, The Sand Peb­bles, The Thomas Crown Af­fair, Bul­litt, and The Get­away — as well as the goofy but en­ter­tain­ing dis­as­ter flick The

Tow­er­ing In­ferno.

“This is a film legacy that only a few will ever at­tain in mo­tion pic­ture his­tory,” Mar­shall Ter­rill proclaims near the end of his well-re­searched, vo­lu­mi­nous bi­og­ra­phy of McQueen. That’s an ar­guable point, but most of McQueen’s ve­hi­cles wear well to­day. The char­ac­ters he played in the 1960s and the style in which he played them re­main con­tem­po­rary.

Ter­rill’s work sug­gests that the aloof re­serve McQueen usu­ally dis­played in his roles wasn’t much of a stretch for the man be­hind the mask. McQueen was an in­se­cure, wom­an­iz­ing loner who didn’t treat peo­ple par­tic­u­larly well un­til late in life, when he fi­nally came up against a wall he couldn’t drive his mo­tor­cy­cle over: can­cer. The dis­ease took his life late in 1980, when McQueen was 50.

Yet that in­se­cu­rity — fu­eled by an un­happy child­hood in which he was passed from home to home as his al­co­holic mother took one new lover af­ter an­other — drove McQueen to work over­time to be the best and in­fuse his char­ac­ters with an in­ner angst. He was fiercely com­pet­i­tive and didn’t for­give slights eas­ily, as shown by his con­tin­ual ef­forts to one-up Paul New­man, who got the lead in 1956’s Some­body Up There Loves Me — a part McQueen cov­eted. It’s un­for­tu­nate, as the book makes clear, that McQueen tried to fill that hole of un­cer­tain vul­ner­a­bil­ity with an over­dose of sex, drugs, rac­ing cars, and mo­tor­cy­cles. Ter­rill — who wrote Steve McQueen: Por­trait

of an Amer­i­can Rebel some years ago — has done his leg­work, con­duct­ing in­ter­views (or ac­cess­ing in­ter­views by oth­ers) with ev­ery­one from film artists who worked with McQueen to for­mer lovers to bar­tenders to passersby who man­aged, in the span of a few min­utes with the ac­tor, to glean in­sight into his psy­che. The book makes an ex­cel­lent case that McQueen’s trou­bled child­hood led him to for­ever dis­trust adults and author­ity — an at­ti­tude that took a toll on those around him, par­tic­u­larly when it came to women. McQueen was mar­ried three times, in­clud­ing to ac­tress Ali MacGraw, and he wasn’t faith­ful to his first two wives.

The de­tails re­gard­ing the mak­ing of the films are well writ­ten and in­clude fun bits of trivia, like the fact that McQueen so en­joyed rac­ing mo­tor­cy­cles that he agreed to play one of the Nazi bik­ers in the mob pur­su­ing his char­ac­ter in The Great

Es­cape. McQueen also pulled off some anony­mous mo­tor­cy­cle stunt work in the lit­tle­known B movie Dixie

Dy­na­mite in the mid1970s. As a McQueen fan, I’m in agree­ment with much of Ter­rill’s crit­i­cal as­sess­ment of his movies — in­clud­ing his praise of the much-ma­ligned, though im­per­fect, 1980 Western

The book’s biggest draw­back is its re­liance on in­put from Peter O. Whit­mer, a writer, clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist, and “first drum­mer for the Tur­tles” (as noted in his mini-bio in Ter­rill’s book). It’s one thing for Whit­mer to write a four-page fore­word opin­ing about how the chaos of McQueen’s early days set off a psy­cho­log­i­cal pat­tern of im­bal­ance and dis­trust. It’s an­other mat­ter when Ter­rill re­lies on Whit­mer to chime in with psy­chob­a­b­ble through­out the en­tire text to ex­plain McQueen’s be­hav­ior. Speak­ing of McQueen’s film Love With

the Proper Stranger, for in­stance, Whit­mer notes that the ti­tle is an apt com­men­tary on McQueen’s promis­cu­ity: “More satyr­i­a­sis, this is an un­bri­dled need for con­stant sex­ual ac­tiv­ity, named af­ter the mytho­log­i­cal Greek beast the satyr, con­stantly in heat, con­stantly rut­ting. Here is the steamy side of in­dis­crim­i­nate so­cial­iz­ing. This goes on with no im­pulse con­trol and no sense of de­lay of grat­i­fi­ca­tion. The de­sire is ever present. So, too, is the ‘ ob­ject.’ And in cases such as this, that is all they are.”

I’d just as soon jet­ti­son this non­sense and hear more spe­cific dirt about McQueen’s se­duc­tion of his many fe­male co-stars. Though Whit­mer’s com­men­tary some­times threat­ens to cap­size the book, it’s not enough to de­rail the ve­hi­cle. De­spite our hero’s faults, you may find your­self em­pathiz­ing with McQueen as he tries to tackle the world. “Such a com­pli­cated man,” his co-star Robert Wag­ner notes in the book. “Al­ways look­ing for con­flict and never re­ally at peace.”

— Robert Nott

Tom Horn.

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