The Good, The Bad & The Badass: Steve McQueen
Last week, we took a look at the career of legendary tough guy Gary Oldman. Great as he is, when it comes to being tough, this week’s retro actor could teach everyone in Hollywood a thing or two.
The King of Cool. When you hear that phrase, only one name could possibly come to mind, and that's Steve McQueen. It's a testament to the man's enduring legacy that over thirty years after his death, no actor has come close to taking that title away from him, no matter how hard they try. Remember in SAFE HOUSE how Ryan Reynolds was introduced bouncing a baseball against a wall GREAT ESCAPE-style? The attempt to turn him into a McQueen-style bad boy was laughable. Reynolds is fine, but he's no McQueen. The same goes for Aaron Paul in NEED FOR SPEED. In that one they seemed almost desperate the sell him as a taciturn McQueen-esque hero, but it didn't work, maybe due to the fact that Paul's too nice a guy. Maybe the only one that came close was Daniel Craig as the rough-edged Bond in CASINO ROYALE.
Part of McQueen's appeal lies in his faults. Typically, he played a loner who was often rough with colleagues, friends and lovers alike. Maybe McQueen was like that in real life too. On-screen, he could be selfish, both as a character and as an actor. For proof of that one need look no further than THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, where he mercilessly steals scenes from star Yul Brynner by playing with his hat, shaking shotgun cartridges, rustling dirt in his hands, etc. Maybe in another actor these aspects could be infuriating, but in McQueen they gave him mystique, as if no matter how often we flock to his movies and read about his life, we'll never really know what went on in his head.
McQueen's reign as a leading man was short, with it roughly kicking off with THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN in 1960, and ending with THE HUNTER twenty years later. In that time, McQueen probably turned down as many big roles as he accepted, but it didn't matter if he passed on SUPERMAN, SORCERER or CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. In the end, those movies got made with the person they were meant for, while McQueen did his own thing – brilliantly I may add – in whatever movie struck his fancy. Had he lived, McQueen would have likely had a Sean Connery/Clint Eastwood-style career as an enduring leading man. Sadly, that wasn't in the cards, but however short his career may have been, he left behind a body of work that makes him arguably the most influential action hero of all time.
I bet you're all expecting me to choose BULLITT. Without question, that's his most iconic film, laying the groundwork for all the loner cop movies to follow, including DIRTY HARRY just three years later. As much as I like that movie, to me McQueen had two unquestionably great roles. The first was THE GREAT ESCAPE. What's interesting is that despite McQueen being top-billed, he's in it less that many of the other stars, like Richard Attenborough or James Garner. In fact, McQueen spends most of the movie confined to “the cooler” where he iconically amuses himself by bouncing a baseball off a wall over and over. Still, when you think of THE GREAT ESCAPE, you think of it as a Steve McQueen movie. To me, this illustrates all of his best qualities. He's perfect as the rebellious American flier – who sticks out like a sore thumb amongst his European fellow prisoners – who does his own thing and is kind of inadvertently heroic. At the end of the movie, while all the other prisoners are paired up in their escape schemes, McQueen goes it alone, stealing a German soldier's motorcycle and hauling ass for the border. This illustrates the other thing we all associate with McQueen, his daredevil streak, with him doing a lot of his own stunt work in the climactic chase, even doubling for one of the Germans that chases him . However, McQueen did not do the bike jump as often reported. That was courtesy of his daredevil buddy Bud Ekins.
The other great McQueen performance is in Franklin J. Schaffner's PAPILLON. Here, McQueen plays perfectly to type as real life Devil's Island escapee Henri Charriere, with Dustin Hoffman as his friend Louis Dega. If you watch the movie, the contrast between the subtly of McQueen's performance and Hoffman's method approach are striking. Of the two, McQueen arguably gives the better performance, and he's rarely been better than during the long stretches of the movie where Charriere is put in isolation (for years at a time) where he alternately loses his grip on reality, and steels himself by refusing to give into the despair of his situation. It's a brilliant film.
On movie of McQueen's I never got all the love for was NEVADA SMITH. In it, he plays a half-breed teen intent on avenging his parents. For one thing, McQueen was about thirty-six when it was made, and he looks it. He's not at all believable as a sixteen-year-old, who's shy with girls and has to learn to ride and shoot. It's total miscasting, but I guess it worked as it went on to be one of his biggest box-office hits. Next to his other movies, this one seems awfully dated, although it has it's moments.
To me there are two that fit the bill. The first one is THE TOWERING INFERNO. While it was the biggest box-office hit of 1974, I'm annoyed that people remember it as some kind of camp classic. It's actually a terrifically exciting thriller, with a believable premise (people trapped in a burning high-rise) and half-a- dozen iconic actors, including McQueen, his friendly rival Paul Newman, William Holden, Fred Astaire, and a gorgeous Faye Dunaway. It's a thrilling piece of work, with pyrotechnics that are impressive mainly because they're real. What's interesting is that McQueen was initially approached to play the Paul Newman role, as the architect, which is really the lead. Instead, he figured he'd be a better fit as the fire chief, and he was right (although famously he had the role expanded until he got as many lines as Newman, in addition to “first” billing, although Newman got “top” meaning his name was higher on the posters).
Another great, unheralded McQueen movie is his last one, THE HUNTER. Here he plays real-life bounty hunter Ralph “Papa” Thorson. While it's a bit of a b-movie, McQueen is excellent, using his age to give the character some physical shortcomings that make the film even more exciting. In a nifty twist, he plays Thorson as a terrible driver, unable to even parallel park. It's clever, and also means that instead of a BULLITT-style car chase, we get a bad-ass foot chase that ends with a crazy car stunt out of a parking complex. Plus Levar Burton plays his sidekick. The tagline is also super cool: “He's not as fast as he used to be... That's what makes him human. He's a bounty hunter... And that's what makes him dangerous.”
No doubt, the Mustang-Charger chase from BULLITT is the only choice. Forty-six years later, this is still (arguably) the greatest chase of all-time, made even more exciting by the fact that McQueen does a lot of his own driving (with the aforementioned Ekins as the driver of the Charger). If you've never seen this, give it a look. Just remember to pick your jaw up off the floor.
5. THE TOWERING INFERNO
4. THE GETAWAY
1. THE GREAT ESCAPE
Hopefully, those of you that may not be familiar with McQueen's work will be inspired by this article to dig into his filmography. He really is the coolest of the cool, and worth remembering. In addition to the five movies above, I also highly recommend THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, THE SAND PEBBLES, THE CINCINNATI KID, THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR, and LE MANS.