Discovering the King of Cool: Steve McQueen
Perhaps the quintessential American actor, Steve McQueen defied the standard “Hollywood” star-type and set his own course. In real life, McQueen was a loner and perfectionist when it came to his craft. And over 30 years after his untimely death, McQueen is still considered and icon of the “hip and cool” Hollywood star.
When he began his career in the early 1950’s McQueen struggled to get substantial roles and usually wound up playing bit parts in films and TV productions. His first real break, the starring role in the low budget horror flick “The Blob” certainly didn’t seem like a good deal for McQueen at the time.
But it led directly to a guest role in Robert Culp’s struggling series “Trackdown” as the determined bounty hunter Josh Randell. Producers were impressed enough with McQueen that they created the now legendary series “Wanted: Dead or Alive”. For three seasons, McQueen showed his range as an actor, not so much with his dialogue, but in reacting to all different types of situations. From coffee that’s a bit too hot to stopping a door with his foot, McQueen focused on the little things that fleshed out his character.
Not surprisingly, McQueen soon became bored playing Randell and took advantage of a break in filming (by claiming he was in an accident) to play a substantial role in “The Magnificent Seven”. The success of “Seven” lead him to forego a fourth season of “Wanted” and focus on his movie career.
Collecting the essential McQueen films is not all that difficult. His 20+ year career after leaving “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was filled with numerous gaps where he sometimes went years between making films. He even played an extra (riding a dirt bike no less) in “Dixie Dynamite” where legend has it no one knew it was McQueen until he picked up his check. Sadly, his final films, “Tom Horn” and “The Hunted” pale in comparison to his earlier, more energetic work. And soon after McQueen died from cancer.
What follows are three films I recommend you start with, they show the range and depth McQueen was capable of delivering. If you find those films enjoyable, then I’d certainly recommend “The Great Escape”, which firmly established McQueen’s rebellious character, “Bullet” and “The Getaway” which are great action films.
The Sand Pebbles
The only performance that got McQueen an Oscar nomination, “The Sand Pebbles” was an epic production steered by the capable director Robert Wise. McQueen simply dominates every scene he’s in playing the reticent engineer Jake Holman about the US gunboat San Pueblo. This three hour epic captures the scale of China’s internal struggles of the 1920’s, yet the focus remains steadily on McQueen and his personal evolution from cynical sailor who clashes with authority to the reluctant hero.
McQueen himself must have felt the importance of this film as he made rare public appearances to promote the picture, including a hilarious bit on the popular series “What’s My Line”.
The Thomas Crown Affair
No one could play an “anti-hero” better than McQueen and he proves it here in this dramatic effort. I say “dramatic” rather than “action” since those scenes are relatively few as most of the film is spent wondering if McQueen’s character will get caught by the lovely Faye Dunaway.
What I find interesting is when I look at the plot structure of the film, who else but McQueen could hold your attention all through the picture? His screen persona is so strong, yet so calm and secure that few other actors could do so much doing so little.
Despite McQueen’s popularity and director Franklin J. Schaffner’s recent successes (“Patton”, “Planet of the Apes”) this film was not a huge hit with the public despite two major releases by two different distributers (something highly unusual). Although to be fair it did do fairly well. The tough subject matter and homosexual overtones in some scenes certainly didn’t help it.
McQueen’s performance has been overshadowed somewhat by Dustin Hoffman’s excellent portrayal of Papillon’s friend Louis Dega. And some have criticized McQueen’s acting in certain, more quiet scenes as being too fidgety (though to be fair he had a well established reputation for that particular trait going back to “Wanted”), I find his performance to have aged fairly well, especially during the action scenes.
The location photography is gorgeous, the pacing top notch and Papillon’s steadfast belief in freedom pays off in a final, beautiful scene that ranks as one of McQueen’s finest moments.