Review: ‘Steve McQueen: The King of Cool’

Unlike such legendary personifications of "cool" as Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, whose cults grew after their deaths, Steve McQueen seems to have experienced a considerable decline in his reputation since his death in 1980 at age 50.

Unlike such legendary personifications of “cool” as Humphrey Bogart and James Dean, whose cults grew after their deaths, Steve McQueen seems to have experienced a considerable decline in his reputation since his death in 1980 at age 50. This is probably because the actor appeared in only three or four films — “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Great Escape,” “The Getaway,” and, perhaps “Bullitt” and “Papillon” at a stretch — that are seen and well regarded today, as well as to the sad slide his career evinced during the last seven years of his life.

But cool he was and cool he remains, as documented in this hour-long portrait that begins airing on AMC Tuesday. Docu offers up a wealth of testimony by an impressive array of 20 friends, coworkers and close relations, the gist of which is that McQueen was a gifted but troubled man who never got over a childhood defined by neglect and abuse. He was, it seems, a star not entirely equipped to handle the responsibilities of life in the public eye, “a pain in the ass” who tested the tolerance of everyone in his vicinity, and an actor whose emotional guardedness helped heighten the enigmatic quality of his attractive screen presence.

If anything, writer-director-exec producer Robert A. Katz overloads his film with psychological assessments and speculation by others at the expense of screen time of McQueen himself. Fortunately, much of this comes from people in a good position to know something worth hearing: Longtime first wife Neile McQueen Toffel is refreshingly frank in weighing her husband’s pros and cons — “A black hole was there constantly,” she observes. Son Chad and late daughter Terry are good to see, and others, including former manager Hillard Elkins, directors Mark Rydell and Norman Jewison, and Martin Landau, the only other applicant accepted with McQueen into the 1955 class of The Actors’ Studio, offer telling anecdotes.

McQueen’s sad early life is quickly traced: The almost immediate total abandonment by his father, whom he never met, and general absence of his mother; the rough reform school upbringing in the Midwest, where he was tormented by other boys and left alone during holidays; the nomadic life and odd jobs until he wound up in New York and picked acting as a profession over linoleum laying because of the superior prospects for meeting girls; the early discipline problems which resulted in his being fired from the Broadway success “A Hatful of Rain” after three months; his intense sense of competitiveness with James Dean.

As Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart points out, McQueen was the first TV star — “Wanted Dead or Alive” made him one — to cross over to comparable status on the big screen. Docu stumbles at this crucial juncture, however. In a move undoubtedly done for the sake of economy, docu only includes material from the trailer of “The Magnificent Seven” rather than including a scene from the film that could have shown McQueen to strong advantage, such as his superb “No Prospects” monologue.

Survey of his steady rise through the ’60s is serviceable, climaxing with a blunt account of his personality change, via drugs, drinks and guns, after he learned that he was on the Manson Family hit list and of his out-of-control behavior in France on the racing drama “Le Mans,” a personal project that flopped.

Notably absent is any commentary from McQueen’s second wife, Ali MacGraw, along with any mention of Sam Peckinpah, McQueen’s fine work on the latter’s “Junior Bonner,” or the thesp’s last two films, “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter.” McQueen’s demons are duly noted throughout, but one suspects that there is quite a bit concerning his troubled final years that remains unexplored here.

Flatly narrated by Kevin Spacey, pic has visuals and music that give it a blandly electronic feel. Widescreen films are not letterboxed, with print quality variable.

Steve McQueen: The King of Cool

Documentary; AMC, Tues., March 31, 10 p.m.


Filmed in Los Angeles, New York by Myriad Pictures and American Movie Classics in association with NVC Arts. Executive producer, director, script, Robert A. Katz; AMC executive producer, David Sehring; producer, Kirk D'Amico.


Narrator: Kevin Spacey.
With: Peter Bart, Jacqueline Bisset, Charles Champlin, Hillard Elkins, Freddie Fields, David Foster, Loren James, Norman Jewison, Pat Johnson, Martin Landau, Chad McQueen, Neile McQueen Toffel, Terry McQueen, Suzanne Pleschette, Robert Relyea, Mark Rydell, Marshall Terrill, Robert Wagner, Haskell Wexler, Peter Yates. Camera, Vincent Toto (L.A.), Dave Goldsmith (N.Y.); editor, Jordan Mokriski; music, Nenad Bach; sound, Jason Cooley. 1 HOUR.
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