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Steve McQueen should enjoy one of those celebrity death cults, like Janis and Jimi. He was a massive star—the most popular leading man of the late '60s and early '70s, furiously adored by both men and women, and he died relatively young (at 50, of cancer). But, 25 years after his death, he's more enigma than icon, and it's easy to wonder what all the fuss was about. Two new McQueen box sets (one from Warner, one from MGM, 10 movies in all) go a long way toward explaining his appeal: McQueen defined a fleeting moment in Hollywood's depiction of manhood, standing between the '50s kitsch of Sinatra, John Wayne, and Elvis and the post-Vietnam second-guessing of the pathological Eastwood, the sensitive New Age Redford, and Burt Reynolds. He was the first and maybe the last action hero to be neither absurd nor ironic.
McQueen cultivated his own mythology through a strenuously aloofstyle of acting that is not without its critics. David Thomson, for one, observes a certain "dullness" about McQueen. Perhaps, but it was an especially radiant sort of dullness. With McQueen, it's hard to decide whether you hardly notice him, or you hardly notice that you never take your eyes off of him. He had one of the greatest of all movie faces, even though he wasn't perfectly handsome. The broad masculine nose and deep leathery creases around his taut mouth didn't connect to those scary blue eyes. What brought his features alive on-screen were his wide cheekbones and a narrow tapering chin—the kind of triangular bonework more commonly associated with female beauty. Shot from certain high angles, McQueen could resemble an extremely macho elf.
In Never So Few (1959) and The Magnificent Seven (1960), McQueen seems almost spectral, a herald of an era he was about to create. Never So Few is an uninspired World War II picture with Frank Sinatra leading a band of guerrilla soldiers—McQueen appears on-screen about a third of the way through, and, after he shows up, Sinatra starts to look kind of silly. McQueen displays the animal grace and self-possession that he'd soon be famous for, while Sinatra is all campy affect in his Aussie slouch hat and his Dobie Gillis goatee. In The Magnificent Seven, McQueen is even more of an anomaly. Yul Brynner, as the affable hero Chris, is not unenjoyable in the Western setting, but he's still a little too … Russian. And Horst Buchholz, as the self-hating Mejicano Chico (say that to yourselves: "also starring Horst Buchholz, as Chico"), acts like he's just wandered in from the Stuttgart production of West Side Story. McQueen simply allows his icy blue eyes and his subtle winces and grimaces do the talking for him.
As an actor, McQueen seemed to emit no excess, no psychic surplus that might register as hamminess or irony. Yet he was a deeply insecure and conflicted man, and fanatically willful about his craft. Watching the laconic, slow-to-react title characters in The Cincinnati Kid (1965) and Bullitt (1968), it's easy to imagine that the performance is just Steve McQueen showing up and acting like himself. But when Steve McQueen showed up and really acted like himself, it wasn't pretty: He was a hothead and a paranoid, a grimly compulsive womanizer and a prolific druggie far ahead of his time (according to the biographer Christopher Sanford, McQueen was into LSD and peyote by the early '60s and later became a serious cokehead).
It's instructive to compare McQueen to a basically sane and well-adjusted actor like Eastwood, who played similar tough-guy roles, but a few years later. A large part of the fun in watching Eastwood play ("Dirty") Harry Callahan is catching that clownish excess in the snarl, the frisson of irony and bad conscience. By contrast, one of the remarkable things about McQueen's 1968 hit Bullitt, especially given its dubious plot and its loud cars, is how seamless it feels, how unspoiled it is by false notes or stagy self-awareness. Part of this, no doubt, is Peter Yates' elegant work against the San Francisco backdrop (including the growling, gorgeous, deservedly famous chase scene). But much of it is the weird magic of Steve McQueen doing nothing much at all. Norman Jewison said that McQueen was the only actor he ever worked with who liked to have lines taken away from him. Filming a scene with Dustin Hoffman for Papillon, McQueen interrupted his co-star: "Less, man, less!"
If Bullitt is McQueen at his laconic best, The Thomas Crown Affair, which came out the same year, shows his weakness. McQueen reportedly staked a lot on his ability to play Crown, an upper-crust Boston banker and bank robber very much against his rugged typecasting. He succeeds well enough, but paired with a game and seductive actress, Faye Dunaway, he manages little in the way of chemistry. This might owe to the director Norman Jewison's ridiculous stagings, but the same problem arises a few years later in Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway (1972), in which McQueen was paired with Ali MacGraw (whom he'd marry after leaving his long-suffering wife Neile). The Getaway is diverting, but McQueen's insularity alongside his future wife chills the entire film. I won't speculate on how this vaguely contemptuous vibe might have charmed female filmgoers, but, as a model for sexually harried young men, its appeal was pretty obvious.
It wasn't until Junior Bonner, also released in 1972 and also directed by Peckinpah, that McQueen finally creates palpable romance on screen, with, of all people, Barbara Leigh, whose only other major role was as one of The Student Nurses. The film is a gently funny portrait of an aging rodeo star, and it points toward the richer, sadder roles of McQueen's later work—such as his beautiful performances in Papillon (1975) and the underrated Tom Horn, which was released in 1980, the year he died. It's makes an obvious kind of sense to draw a bright line between McQueen's "cool" era and these later, more generous performances, but if you watch these films all together, as I did, you can't help concluding that, no, it's the same guy. The raw inner core of soulfulness and vulnerability was there all along, and the great McQueen mystique—the "cool" that was somehow so feverish, the poker face that was somehow so animated—came from his half-successful effort to hide it.
*The Essential Steve McQueen (Bullitt two-disc special edition, The Getaway deluxe edition, The Cincinnati Kid, Papillon, Tom Horn, Never So Few)
**The Steve McQueen Collection (The Great Escape, Junior Bonner, The Magnificent Seven, The Thomas Crown Affair)