Rediscovering a screen legend: some thoughts on Steve McQueen

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When the filmlinc blog asked me to write something about Steve McQueen, I jumped at the chance without even thinking about it.

Then I started thinking about it. What if they meant the other Steve McQueen, the very much alive, Afro-British visual artist who made Hunger, which I haven’t even seen? Because I don’t know anything about that one.

They assured me that it was the Steve McQueen, the one with the motorcycles and fast cars and stunts—the one I know, the King of Cool. The anxiety turned to relief in my belly, then bloomed outward with a sigh. Right then I began to comb my brain for Steve McQueen. I remembered that my dad once told me he was the coolest movie star in the world. I went to middle school with his granddaughter, I saw him thwart the amorphous gelatin threat of communism know as the Blob. I saw him help Yul Brenner bury an Indian, bed Jacqueline Bisset, save Natlie Wood from an abortionist, escape the Nazis in the biggest, most memorable of ways, and star in a Ford commercial twenty years after his death.

I got my pen out. I realized didn’t know who they were asking me to write about.

I began thinking about how Steve McQueen compared to the other cool guys. Kinghood is something else entirely though, something reserved for Elvis, or Michael Jackson, or Jesus Christ, and being the king of cool is akin to being the king of ‘men.’ So what makes Steve McQueen the king, among the Newmans and Brandos and James Deans? Our “culture of cool” is not as saturated with McQueen’s image as it is with, say, Dean’s. His cool is not one that inspires the millions to buy sunglasses, or his hometown to construct a Steve McQueen Museum. His cool won’t print a billion shirts (though it did inspire some cars), or paint lunchboxes for children in Asia. It’s rather the angst-less, emotionless sort of cool that makes us think he wasn’t acting at all, that came so easily that we think we can be the same. Thus, the kind of cool that might inspire a film like The Tao of Steve, a vapid indie rom-com about a fat and unintelligent stoner who uses a Steve McQueen state of mind to lay lots of beautiful women. Because everyone believes in Steve McQueen. And why not? Motorcycles and fast cars, women, movie studios and the men in charge of them—Steve McQueen could get them to do whatever he wanted them to do.

I went and learned some more about Steve McQueen. That he wouldn’t be in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid because he couldn’t get them to put his name ahead of Paul Newman’s on the poster (thankfully he’d let the Blob take top billing ten years earlier). Yes, lots of actors turned down lots of famous parts, but McQueen’s turndowns reads like an AFI list. He was the Hollywood star that supported the Vietnam war, and refused to back the Kennedys. Clearly a man who didn’t much care what people thought. Words like “rebel” and “detached” spring to mind. But even those leave something out. If that was all he was, I doubt he would still matter to us today.

Legend has it that McQueen removed some of his own lines in The Towering Inferno, because he thought he was better than Paul Newman, and wanted to show that given the same amount of time and dialogue, he could outshine his co-star. It wasn’t that he didn’t care what people thought of him—he cared tremendously—he just didn’t much care to do what they wanted him to. He never pandered, and always seemed outside of the system somehow, while always in and further sought by it. He was our hero because he said he wasn’t, and couldn’t and wouldn’t be. He once said that he wasn’t sure if he was an actor or racer first. But he also said that he believed he was beautiful (his words) and cool. He didn’t know what exactly he was, but it didn’t matter. Because whatever it was, he believed in it. Which was enough to make everyone else believe too. Cool.

-Jason Lee

ED.’S NOTE: You can catch tons of the McQueen classics, from Towering Inferno to Bullitt to The Getaway, starting this Wednesday at the Film Society. Yesterday’s Loner: Steve McQueen runs May 20-26, 2009, see full schedule.

Explore posts in the same categories: just for fun, on @ the walter reade

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