Tuesday 27 September 2016

Film: Troubled soul of the king of cool - Steve McQueen

Published 20/09/2015 | 02:30

Driving ambition: Steve McQueen behind the wheel of his XK-SS Jaguar in Los Angeles in 1962.
Driving ambition: Steve McQueen behind the wheel of his XK-SS Jaguar in Los Angeles in 1962.

The Irish Film Institute's annual documentary festival kicks off next Wednesday, and opening proceedings will be a revealing new film about Hollywood legend Steve McQueen. Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna's Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans examines the chaos and madness that surrounded McQueen's doomed pet project - a 1971 motor racing picture he hoped would give him the power to run his own career.

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Following the success of Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen was top of the Hollywood pile by the end of the 1960s, and free to choose whatever project he wanted. Motor racing had long been his driving passion, and he dreamed of creating the "ultimate racing picture", a movie so visceral and immersive it would allow audiences to understand what it was like to compete at the highest level.

McQueen would produce and star in the film, which would be filmed on location at the gruelling Le Mans 24-Hour event. He asked John Sturges to direct, and hired his favourite screenwriter, Alan Trustman, to pull together a script.

But before shooting had even begun in the summer of 1970, McQueen fell out with Trustman over the film's ending. As a result, Le Mans was shot without a working script, a fatal flaw in a visually interesting but formless movie that shot way over budget and bombed at the box office.

McQueen himself helped bump up costs by living it large in a huge château in the Loire where he was visited apparently by a steady stream of females. Things got even more interesting when his wife Neile Adams turned up: tired of her husband's constant indiscretions, she'd recently embarked on a sexual adventure of her own. Apparently unfamiliar with the concept of hypocrisy, McQueen was not amused, and became an even darker presence on set.

As Le Mans' budget spun out of control, McQueen fell out with his co-producer and close friend Robert Relyea, an exasperated John Sturges quit, and the film was eventually removed from its star's control. McQueen was deeply shaken by the experience, and by Le Mans' subsequent commercial failure: thereafter he retreated to the safety of projects like The Towering Inferno and Papillion, less risky productions that would guarantee his position as a major star.

In The Man & Le Mans and numerous biographies, Steve McQueen emerges as a dark, difficult and sometimes unpleasant man, who fought constantly with directors and producers and was rather paranoid about his status. But then, if you take a look at his background, all of this becomes a bit more understandable.

While near contemporaries like Paul Newman and Robert Redford hailed from ordinary and relatively stable backgrounds that gave them every chance of coping well with super-stardom, McQueen survived a disastrously dysfunctional childhood.

Terence Steven McQueen was born on March 24, 1930 in Beech Grove, Indiana. His father, William McQueen, a circus stunt pilot, left for good when Steve was six months old: his mother, Julia, was an alcoholic and possibly an occasional prostitute. She was unable to care for him, and by the time Steve was one his mother had abandoned him to the care of her parents and older brother: for a time the boy bonded with his Uncle Claude.

But whenever Julia found herself a new man she'd remove Steve from this relatively stable environment so she could play happy families. This happened several times, and one of McQueen's stepfathers took to beating the tar out of him. He became a tearaway, and by the age of 14 he was a gang member and petty criminal.

He was sent to a boys' home at 15 after a brush with the law, and at 16 ran away from home and joined the US Marines. Though McQueen's rebellious nature initially got him in trouble with his superiors, he eventually came to value the discipline and camaraderie of the Corps, and later said the Marines had been the making of him.

In 1952, the newly demobbed McQueen decided to try his hand at acting, financing his studies at Sanford Meisner's Neighborhood Playhouse in New York by racing motorbikes for money. His striking appearance and famously soulful stare soon got him film parts, most notably in Somebody Up There Likes Me, during which he met his friend and lifelong box office rival, Paul Newman. But that was only a bit part, and like Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, McQueen initially made his name on television.

After he played a bounty hunter in a TV pilot for a show called Wanted: Dead or Alive, the series was picked up and McQueen became a household name. Then, in the late 1950s, he got an even bigger break when Frank Sinatra suggested him as a co-star for his new war film, Never So Few. Sammy Davis Jr had been down to play the part, but after a tiff Frank dropped him and purposely replaced him with the whitest person he could find.

McQueen impressed Sinatra, and the film's director John Sturges, who decided to cast him in a big budget western he was planning based on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. Steve McQueen didn't say much in The Magnificent Seven (1960), but he stole the show from bigger stars like Yul Brynner by constantly fixing his gun-belt or staring soulfully at the lens with what he called his "shaggy-dog eyes".

He made an even bigger impact when he teamed up with Sturges three years later to make The Great Escape. As Captain Virgil Hilts, aka 'The Cooler King', McQueen embodied a kind of casually rebellious nonchalance that chimed perfectly with the early 60s mood. The actor even did some of his own motorbike stunts, though not the famous barbed wire leap, which was done by his friend Bud Ekins.

The Great Escape made McQueen a big star, but finding films that suited his laid-back style wasn't always easy. He was refreshingly frank about his abilities. "I am a limited actor," he said once. "My range isn't that great and I don't have that much scope. I'm pretty much myself most of the time in my movies, and I have accepted that."

For McQueen, comedy was pretty much out of the question, as were purely romantic dramas. Action films were his real speciality, but he worked in an era where good action movies were thin on the ground. When he got the right script, however, something special happened.

He held his own opposite screen legend Edward G. Robinson in the 1965 western The Cincinnati Kid, and was a dashing millionaire with a sideline in burglary in Norman Jewison's glossy and overrated romantic thriller The Thomas Crown Affair, in 1968. Later that same year, the perfect vehicle for his talent came Steve's way.

Directed by Peter Yates, Bullitt told the story of a San Francisco police lieutenant's quest to find out who gave away the location of a mob trial witness. It was moody, handsomely made, more style than substance, but that suited McQueen down to the ground (see panel). Bullitt and Thomas Crown Affair were big hits, and suddenly Steve had his pick of scripts.

"Stardom equals freedom," he once said. "It's the only equation that matters." He was obsessed with his standing in Hollywood, and haunted by the idea that it could all be taken away from him. His efforts with Le Mans were intended to give him autonomy, his own production company, and total control over his own career.

As we've seen that plan didn't work out too well, and in the 1970s he retreated into himself, became famously tight-fisted, and developed a reputation for being prickly, hard to work with. He turned down the role of the Sundance Kid because his and Paul Newman's agents couldn't agree who would get top billing, and for a time in the 1970s he turned away from acting altogether, concentrating instead on his beloved motor racing.

He returned to memorable effect in the mid-70s with the prison drama Papillon, and The Towering Inferno, a very popular big budget disaster movie in which he and Paul Newman agreed to share top billing.

But as the 70s wore on, Steve McQueen spent more time racing than acting, and the asbestos flame-retardant suits he wore so often are believed to have contributed to the lung cancer that claimed his life on November 7, 1980. He had married three times and had several children, but never seemed a man at peace. His last words, apparently, were "I did it".

McQueen's best: 'Bullitt'

Slenderly plotted but full of atmosphere, Peter Yates's stylish and downbeat police thriller is often credited with inspiring everything from Dirty Harry and The French Connection to Starsky and Hutch, but is mainly remembered for its famous car chase, one of the best ever filmed. Steve McQueen, cucumber-cool as ever, played Frank Bullitt, a San Francisco police lieutenant with a barely concealed contempt for authority who is asked by an oily politician (Robert Vaughn, and no one oilier) to mind a crucial witness in a mob trial.

When the witness's location at a seedy hotel is compromised and he is shot, Bullitt smells a rat and decides to pretend he's still alive in order to find out what's really going on. The story may be forgettable, but there's a commendable realism to Bullitt's terse dialogue, and Yates enhanced his film's gritty quality by shooting mainly on location in and around San Francisco. And then there's that car chase, perhaps the best ever filmed, which lasts over 10 minutes as Frank Bullitt bumps his Mustang over the city's famous hills in pursuit of two hit-men. The combination of McQueen's screen presence and those marvellous action sequences make this a very easy film to watch. It was his personal favourite.

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