Sunday 4 December 2016

Review: Biography: Steve McQueen: A Passion For Speed by Frederic Brun

Motorbooks, £25

Published 08/01/2012 | 06:00

It's a celebration of a driving legacy surrounding a legend, writes Sharon O'Neill

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Thirty years after his death, Steve McQueen remains an icon of cool and a fascinating subject for writers. In the past few months there have been two new biographies (including a major one from New York Times writer Marc Eliot), and another book which devoted a chapter to each of his films, to add to the mini-library that already exists on the man.

McQueen was no choir boy. He was insecure, big-headed, difficult and sometimes a nightmare to work with, a legacy of his chaotic upbringing and problem teenage years of petty crime and reform school. He continued to be a troublemaker for much of his time in the Navy but eventually his looks and an interest in acting saved him.

His own life had been much rougher than any of the tough guy roles he went on to play on screen. After he became a success he remained conflicted and quick to take insult. He did most things to excess; smoked, drank, did drugs, got into fights and was far from cool in the way he treated some of the women who threw themselves at him.

Underlying the tough guy image was a vulnerability, which women loved. But he was the ultimate man's man, with a background that made the other actors of his generation look like, well, actors.

An important part of McQueen's image (still visible in advertising) was his obsession with speed. He started young and was absolutely fearless, paying for acting lessons with winnings from motorbike racing. It is this side of him which is the focus of French journalist Frederic Brun's new book Steve McQueen -- A Passion for Speed.

In his movies, McQueen's character usually had a great motorbike or car -- from the "BMW" bike (actually a disguised Triumph) he rode in The Great Escape to the Ford Mustang GT Fastback he drove in Bullitt and the Ferrari Spyder in The Thomas Crown Affair.

His need for speed propelled him from Hollywood into top motorbike races. Always driven to be ahead of the pack, he maintained his body like a machine, weight lifting, running, and doing martial arts. He was one of the first actors to have a home gym. A Passion for Speed gives a comprehensive account of McQueen's constant need to live life in the moment and press the pedal to the metal.

It's a coffee table book full of rarely seen pictures of him with the bikes and cars he loved, as well as some of the women. The author is a film critic, sports writer and vintage car expert.

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