Lawrence Kasdan has it right when he says that no one was cooler in the performance of mundane activities than Steve McQueen. And after watching TCM’s docu on Hollywood’s ultimate bad boy, there’s no room for argument: Whether he’s getting out of a car, sitting around in a bathrobe or just lighting up, McQueen oozed manliness and made every woman tingle like nobody since.
It’s McQueen’s month, with a new DVD boxed set out from Warners and TCM rolling out 10 of his films between tonight and Friday. This project is nothing more than a clip reel brought to life by some nifty little stories and a technology that takes two-dimensional stills and transforms them into 3-D. But it does offer a full-circle treatment for an actor who often gets lost among the great inspirations of Brando, Pacino and De Niro, who are always cited by today’s thesps as monster influences. McQueen seems to straddle a line: Is he someone who mattered or someone who just looked great on a motorcycle?
Highlighted here are all the faves, including “The Cincinnati Kid,” “Bullitt” and “The Sand Pebbles,” for which he received his only Oscar nom (as lead actor). For “The Blob,” first wife Neile Adams recounts how McQueen chose a modest payday of $2,500 instead of 10% of the profits. For “The Towering Inferno,” he chose to play the smaller role of the fire captain instead of the more prominent architect (eventually taken by Paul Newman); and McQueen called Faye Dunaway “Done Fade-away” on the set of “The Thomas Crown Affair” because, at the time, she was a nobody, and he didn’t want to work with her.
The ego was always there. McQueen took notice that James Garner was more prominent in “The Great Escape” and actually skipped out on the pic’s production sked for two weeks until he worked things out with the creative team. He couldn’t stand Yul Brynner on the set of “The Magnificent Seven” and purposefully brought some nervous ticks to his small role in order to steal scenes. He succeeded, and of all the pics trotted out by interviewees as McQueen’s “arrival” moment, it’s that one.
Among those who shaped his career were Martin Landau — he and McQueen were the only entrants chosen from 2,000 applicants to the Actors Studio in 1955; McQueen’s mentor John Sturges, with whom he worked on three movies; and Adams, who was more of a presence than many remember. But even she got fed up after, as she said, “people started disappearing from his life … and I was just next in line.” (For all the interviews, some prominent and important people, like second wife Ali McGraw and “Papillon” co-star Dustin Hoffman, are missing.)
After a little too much fawning and discussion of stunt work, pic gets deeper, recalling how cancer ravaged McQueen’s spirit and turned him into a recluse. He had been the poster man for bravado, and his inability to control his health before he died in 1980 takes on more significance than it would have had he been a less macho guy’s guy.
As for his legacy, the last roles he took on — “Tom Horn” and “The Hunter” — combined with the holistic efforts to heal and his decision to become a born-again Christian erased from Hollywood a unique presence that many argue has only been filled, a little bit, by Russell Crowe.