Actors We Miss is a weekly column that celebrates the career of a notable star who's passed off the scene. Look for it every Friday night.
As with any smart, modern-day helping of motorized mayhem, 'Drive Angry 3D,' which stars Nicolas Cage and opens wide today, pays tribute to the great car chase pictures in history. That includes the hill-jumping, fender-bending, pedestrian-frightening thrill ride through the streets of San Francisco in 'Bullitt'... and there any comparisons between the new (Cage) and the old (Steve McQueen) must stop."Punch it, baby!"
For one thing, McQueen did his own driving in 'Bullitt' and he was never angry. He was always cool under pressure; when he lost his temper on screen, it was apparent in the tightening of his facial features and the straightening of his posture. More often, he communicated disappointment with others or frustration with himself, rather then boiling anger. He exercised self-control; his emotions flowed most often from his eyes.
He cut a great, supremely focused, figure on two or four wheels, stealing away from Nazis in 'The Great Escape,' chasing killers in 'Bullitt,' enduring 24 hours in a race car in 'Le Mans,' riding motorcycles for sheer pleasure in 'On Any Sunday.' Even when he wasn't behind the wheel, he controlled the vehicle, as in 'The Getaway,' where, sitting in the passenger seat as his wife Ali MacGraw drives, urges her to "punch it, baby!" during a frenzied flight from the authorities.
After the jump: His early iconic roles; man in a three-piece suit; "forgotten" flicks; films with Sam Peckinpah; McQueen vs. Newman; the McQueen legacy; plus video clips!
His three early iconic roles:
- 'The Blob.' McQueen, age 28, plays a teenager in love. The film was a hit during its initial run in 1958, but the role became iconic for latter-day McQueen fans who saw it for the first time in the 70s and beyond, provoking the reaction: "How could such a big, cool movie star ever have consented to appear in such a goofy little monster movie?" Putting aside the nostalgic glow of watching McQueen play an earnest teen, 'The Blob' is actually ... not horrible. Yes, it's goofy for us to watch it today, yet it moves at a good clip and features several nicely-directed scenes. McQueen, however, is pretty much the best part of the movie. Without being post-modern about it, he's clearly above the material.
- 'The Magnificent Seven.' Perhaps drawing upon his experience as a bounty hunter on TV's 'Wanted: Dead or Alive,' McQueen seemed entirely comfortable as a gun for hire. Though he looks good (and cool), he stands out more for our knowledge of what would come later for the actor, as opposed to a stand-out performance.
- 'The Great Escape.' Working again as part of an ensemble for director John Sturges ('The Magnificent Seven'), McQueen stood out as a cool cat nicknamed "The Cooler," so called because he spends so much time in solitary confinement at a Nazi prison camp. What we remember most is the spectacular motorcycle chase, which was supposedly McQueen's idea and which featured McQueen donning a Nazi costume to, in effect, chase himself. (The jump over the fence is the only thing he didn't do.) What also sticks in the memory, is McQueen bouncing a baseball against the wall of his cell, over and over again, pounding his glove and punishing the ball for its sins as a way to work out his anger.
Man in a three-piece suit:
- 'Never Love a Stranger.' Everyone forgets this awful picture, and for good reason. Adapted in part by Harold Robbins from his own novel, McQueen appears in a supporting role, initially as a teenager who doesn't know how to box! Frankly, he's terrible and unconvincing; he's much better after his character starts working in the Manhattan district attorney's office, gets more serious, and begins wearing three-piece suits. The movie's still pretty awful, but McQueen looks sharp and elegant, if not exactly cool.
- 'The Thomas Crown Affair.' He looks even more elegant as the wealthy title character in Norman Jewison's robbery romance. The movie stands in contrast to McQueen's previous picture, 'The Sand Pebbles.' where he played a tough guy sailor, and his next effort, the gritty, street-level 'Bullitt.' Even in well-tailored outfits, however, he looks comfortable in his skin as Thomas Crown, whether he's directing his office minions, orchestrating a bank robbery, or flirting with insurance investigator Faye Dunaway. Really, for a man who would seem more at home in dive bars, he's completely at ease as a high-rolling thrill-seeker.
The early '60s were, in general, not a period in which great movies were being made. Of course there were exceptions, but, as Hollywood studios fell out of touch with audiences and directors still suffered under the remnants of the classic "system," war movies, comedies and romances reigned.
Between 'The Magnificent Seven' and 'The Great Seven,' McQueen finished his run on 'Wanted: Dead or Alive' and then made the comedy 'The Honeymoon Machine' and war flicks 'Hell is for Heroes' (directed by Don Siegel) and 'The War Lover.' The latter two show McQueen's potential ripening, which probably explains why he made such a splash in 'The Great Escape.'
After that, he made the (peacetime) war comedy 'Soldier in the Rain,' the dramatic pregnancy romance 'Love With the Proper Stranger,' opposite Natalie Wood (nominated for an Academy Award for her performance), and the straight drama 'Baby, the Rain Must Fall.' The latter two, both directed by Robert Mulligan, showcased McQueen's growing strengths as an actor.
'The Cincinnati Kid' was a true breakthrough, allowing McQueen to combine his abilities as an actor with his nonchalant charm as a "Movie Star" of the first order. It also played to his strength as a brooding type, an iceberg with his full emotional dimensions only hinted at on the surface, while not neglecting his sex appeal. (See this video clip for evidence.) His immediate follow-up, 'Nevada Smith,' delivers entertainment without substance.
McQueen received his only Academy Award nomination for 'The Sand Pebbles,' a historical epic directed by Robert Wise. Set in China during the 1920's, McQueen plays an engineer on a U.S. gunboat trawling the backwaters of a country none of the foreigners seems to understand.
It's a bravura performance in a sturdy, well-intentioned film. Richard Attenborough plays his best friend on ship, who falls in love with a Chinese girl, and Richard Crenna is very good as the eminently reasonable captain. But it always comes back to McQueen, whether he's romancing a schoolteacher (19-year-old Candice Bergen), sticking up for fellow crew members, or fighting bravely in battle, while saying as few words as possible. (Wise said McQueen was the only star he knew who actually wanted less lines rather than more, attributing it to the actor's instinct that he could do more by suggesting than by spelling things out.)
The film as a whole is not exceptional, but it is worth seeing, especially for McQueen and the unexpected emotion that surges out of him as he delivers his last line.
Three films with Sam Peckinpah:
- 'The Cincinnati Kid.' Four days into production, director Sam Peckinpah shot a nude scene without the permission of producer Martin Ransohoff, who hated all the footage the director had shot and fired him. (See the excellent book 'Pictures at a Revolution' by Mark Harris, p. 144.) On short notice, Norman Jewison stepped into the breach. Interestingly, both McQueen and Peckinpah refer to 'The Getaway' as their "third" film together, so it seems likely that they very much enjoyed the time they spent in pre-production and during the scant few days of shooting before Peckinpah's departure.
- 'Junior Bonner.' After 'The Wild Bunch,' Peckinpah made the mellow 'Ballad of Cable Hogue' before seesawing back to the harsh 'Straw Dogs' and following that up with the gentle, elegiac tale of a rodeo rider watching a honorable way of life disappear in the face of "progress." McQueen is rather good, again using body language, facial expressions and, especially, his eyes, to communicate his sorrow at how things have changed -- and not for the better.
- 'The Getaway.' McQueen as action hero, and probably my personal favorite out of all his films. He has the coiled-up energy of a career criminal who's been imprisoned for several years; there's a great scene where he wanders with bemusement through a riverside park in his "parole suit" before jumping into the water. But there's also the realization that his wife (Ali MacGraw) had sex with the crime gang leader who secured his early release from prison. What are you going to do with that type of information when you're on the run from the police and the other members of the gang? McQueen's character is not honorable -- at one point, he slaps his wife around on the side of the road -- yet he's also portrayed as cool and confident, which is a disturbing vision.
McQueen vs. Newman:
- 'Somebody Up There Likes Me.' (1956) Paul Newman starred as real-life boxing champion Rocky Graziano. McQueen got his first speaking role in a movie as a member of Rocky's gang, a knife-wielding thug named Vito; he did not receive credit, however.
- 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' (1969) Newman first appeared on the list of top 10 money-making stars, as determined by movie theater exhibitors, in 1963; McQueen had to wait until 1967. Of greater interest, McQueen "felt a kind of rivalry with Newman as a real man who didn't stand for Hollywood cant and gloss," according to Shawn Levy in his exceptional biography, 'Paul Newman: A Life.' (Page 231.) Reportedly, McQueen got "hung up" on the idea that Newman would get billing over him, which eventually led to McQueen not doing the picture.
- 'The Towering Inferno.' (1974) McQueen and Newman, together at last! Unfortunately, it was in this Irwin Allen disaster flick, which somehow was nominated as Best Picture. Citing Shawn Levy's book again, he says that McQueen still had a "genuinely neurotic relationship with Newman, whose career and stature he frankly envied" and "was cross to learn that he would have to carry his rival's kid [Scott Newman, who had a small role] through a big scene." Happily, McQueen took a shine to the young man, "praising his work."
The McQueen legacy:
After 'The Towering Inferno,' four years had passed before McQueen would make another movie ('An Enemy of the People'), and he only completed two more ('Tom Horn' and 'The Hunter' ) before passing away from cancer in 1980, at the age of 50.
When I was a kid, 50 sounded ancient, but not anymore. Steve McQueen left the scene far too soon. We missed out on years and years of potentially great performances by McQueen. (Next month, March 24, would have been his 81st birthday.) He had already delivered numerous impressive dramatic performances; he refused to be imprisoned by his star persona, and actively worked against it.
Health permitting, he could easily have worked into his 70s, perhaps following a career trajectory similar to Newman's. I can't help but think that he would have followed his own counsel, the stubborn persistence that led him to make Ibsen's 'An Enemy of the People' despite all advice to the contrary. Maybe he would have made as many failures as outright successes, but he would have made a distinguished mark no matter what he did.
Steve McQueen was cool, calm and collected. He was sexy and distinguished and knew his strengths and weaknesses. Most of all, he was the finest driver in the history of movies, whether he was behind the wheel or not.