Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon
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
“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