Saturday, July 23, 2011

Steve McQueen : Living On The Edge - Michael Munn

 The name Steve McQueen needs no introduction. Through the late 1960's, and into the early 1970's, his name symbolised 'cool' like no other and he became one the biggest movie stars of his era. But he was a man with demons who spent his life trying to run from himself and his past. Along the way became difficult to handle and yet against all the odds rose to the top of a profession he was seemingly ill-suited to be a part of.

 He rose to the top from the very literal bottom. Only Charles Bronson is acknowledged as having had a more difficult childhood, and both he and McQueen on the set of The Magnificent Seven used to sit alone and attempt to out-do one another with hard luck stories. James Coburn, who's views on McQueen are copiously used, states this was McQueen to a tee, as no matter how hard someone else had it he had it worse. But this was the root of McQueen's success as it bred in him from an early age the desire to be better than anyone else at anything he attempted in life. He just had to be the best.

 When you look at his life and his difficult nature you wonder how he came to be an actor. He can't be regarded as one of the greats, and it is difficult to gauge his abilities because everything about him screams, 'not an actor'!! He became an actor after driving in a get-away that went wrong, and one of his companions dying from a gun shot wound. The surviving hood said to McQueen he was too good for that type of racket and why not become an actor since he liked movies so much. McQueen was partial to Bogart/Cagney gangster movies, so that is what he did!

 He started out at a local drama theatre and within a year or so attained entrance to the method school of acting a certain Marlon Brando had previously attended. This is a key thing to look at in McQueen's career because entrance to this school was very prestigious and McQueen was one of only two accepted that year. He wasn't a model student but he did land theatre roles and had some success, which enabled him able to buy better quality motorbikes, his life long passion, ( by the time he died he owned 170!! ). His rise in Hollywood came not off his back as much as it did his marriage to Neile Adams who gained parts in Hollywood films well before he did.
 But being Neile Adam's husband saw him slowly enter Hollywood, and he got his start in television. Right from the start he was difficult, throwing his lack of stardom around before he had any!! His loner persona saw him unadjusted to team work, and he gave no end of troubles. This was a reputation that followed him until his death, and director Don Siegel said of him he wasn't the most difficult actor he worked with but was damn close! And here this biography comes into its own because Steve McQueen was a difficult personality, and whilst it may be easy to point out his faults, what comes through very clearly was that he was a very well liked man. He could be very charming, especially with woman, who he had no trouble with sexually,  but with his deep seated anger could turn on people very quickly.

 In essence he was his own worst enemy, and it is staggering that a man with his personality flaws ever became one of the biggest names in Hollywood. I read this biography flabbergasted that with his upbringing he still had an intense desire to succeed, and be number one. Sure he was difficult but he never forgot where he came from, and he did much for delinquent boys. He himself had spent time in an institution for young delinquents, and right throughout his career he went there to speak to the boys, and donate money. When in Taiwan he and his wife stumbled on a girls orphanage where some of the very youngest had been forced into prostitution. He donated $25,000 in aid, and to the end of his life kept in contact with the orphanage.

 He also wrote to youngsters in prison, but anonymously. It is startling that he kept most of his charity work secret as he wanted to keep his past quiet. No matter his flaws, and difficulties, Steve McQueen did an untold amount for young boys in trouble, and donated large amounts of his own money in an attempt to rehabilitate them. He is known to have said if it helps just one boy then it was all worth it.

 He was married three times as he was a constant philanderer. Neile Adams was his great love, and even though they divorced, remained life long friends. He was also very devoted to his children, and even though divorced, looked after them no end. Again his reputation, and outer skin hid a much deeper man than we realise. He had difficulty expressing himself, and hid behind a rough exterior. As stated he was actually a well liked man even though he could be difficult and un-predictable. His ultimate problem to was he was hyper-active, and probably suffered from ADD his whole life. He literally couldn't sit still, and he used copious amounts of cannabis, and later on cocaine and acid, to relax. This only led to his mood swings, and general mental health deteriorating even further.

 He died after marrying his third wife, a model almost thirty years his junior after Ali MacGraw divorced him for his womanising. He could never accept that a woman was no more than a play thing there to do his bidding, and certainly MacGraw's intellect wasn't going to mix well with McQueen's attitudes. He died of a cancer caused by breathing in asbestos dust, most likely from the brakes of the cars, and bikes he raced, and also from the flame proof facemasks of the era. He turned to Christianity two years before he died, and many believe he found peace in himself through spirituality. He certainly mellowed as he aged and before his death graciously made up with all those he had fallen out with over the years.

 For me Steve McQueen is the anti-thesis of an actor. He could act to be sure but he can never be rated as one of the greats. But without question he was one of the greatest movie stars ever, and I think there is a difference between an 'actor', and a 'movie star'. As an actor McQueen knew his limitations, and tried to take roles in which he felt he could be play himself. His great strength, and the fount of his 'cool', was in that he hated dialogue, and knew he could say more with body language than with words. Most agree his two best roles are The Great Escape, and Bullitt, because it is McQueen really being himself, in other words a character he could identify with. He also did a lot of research for his roles. He could be a real pain on set, and very un-professional, and yet he could put in an amazing amount of work into his performances.

 This is an exceptionally good biography. It perfectly balances out McQueen's strengths and weaknesses without character assassination or hero worship. When studying McQueen it is impossible to ignore his character as it was central to how he lived and dealt with those around him. He was selfish and an arsehole, without realising he was selfish and an arsehole. His generosity to friends, family, and those in need more than counter-balanced his up and down nature. He did have a hard upbringing, and became a loner who trusted very few people. But his flaws were exasperated by probable mental illness and drug use. But through it all he was never a bad guy, and most people who met him said he could be incredibly charming, and his philanthropy cannot be ignored.

 He kept people at a distance but that is all he knew how to do, and it spread into his acting career where he is the most unlikeliest movie star ever, but his incredible will and drive saw him succeed despite the odds, and for me that is what makes him so interesting. His intense drive even saw him obtain a red belt, one under black, training with Bruce lee. When he wanted to he could show self discipline!!

 Highly recommended. But it is a shame that it is riddled with spelling mistakes because it cheapens an other wise very fine biography of a man who you would think should never been an actor, let alone made a name for himself out of it. It is a very easy biography to read, and accessible to all without being too detailed, or overly simplistic. I'm sure all who read it will find it a fine biography, and Steven McQueen an interesting man to read about, whether a fan, or in just showing a general interest.

Click here for wikipedia's page on Steve McQueen for more on his filmography and family life. His background is looked at, as are other interesting facts, etc:

1 comment:

  1. I don't think anyone can have a childhood like Steve Mcqueen did with out have severe emotional problems. He never sought medical help, unfortunately.
    I speak from experience. Not being loved leaves a scar on your soul that never heals. Difficult to trust anyone and even harder to accept love as you don't really know what it is. Being abused cripples one's ability to ever have a healthy relationship. You have to fight those demons forever. The desire to kill…..the need to isolate is always a battle. So many famous actors were the victims of sexual abuse, abandonment and a rage deep within them that rises like a flame if ignited. You learn to wear many masks to appear normal but there is always that hole you cannot fulfill, inside you. As I have aged I completely stopped feeling. Not healthy I know but it does allow you to survive and pretend to be normal. People who grew up being loved could never, ever understand how difficult is really is to keep those demons under wraps instead of them overtaking you completely.