On-screen and off with the “King of Cool.”
Veteran celebrity biographer Eliot’s (Paul Simon: A Life, 2010, etc.) portrait of film star Steve McQueen (1930–1980) is a curiously sour reading experience. The subject emerges as a singularly petty and unpleasant personality, a minor talent who left a meager cinematic legacy completely out of proportion with his enduring status as an icon of mid-20th-century “cool.” In this telling, McQueen’s less-than-impressive filmography is the result of the star’s persistent small-mindedness, as he habitually gravitated toward working with directors he could dominate and turned down promising roles—he could have been the Sundance Kid, but walked when he couldn’t get top billing over rival Paul Newman—out of spite, laziness and easily injured ego. A hardscrabble childhood led to a period of small-time criminality and military service before McQueen drifted into acting, attracted to the profession for its many opportunities to smoke dope and sleep with pretty young actresses. He made a hit with the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, in which he perfected a sullen, wary, catlike screen presence that radiated charisma and danger, and he would keep sounding those same few notes throughout his career. Eliot praises McQueen’s iconic impact in such films as The Magnificent Seven, Bullitt and The Getaway, but these successes come off as lucky intersections of good timing and congenial material rather than the expression of a significant artistic talent. Eliot’s matter-of-fact recounting of McQueen’s gluttonous appetite for drugs, compulsive womanizing, sickening instances of wife-beating and petulant bullying are difficult to stomach, as they seem less like the torments of a complicated artist than the sordid habits of a profoundly spoiled, selfish, bitter man. The author writes of McQueen poring over the script of The Towering Inferno, counting his lines to make sure that co-star Paul Newman didn’t have more to do and childishly insisting on delivering the last line of the film. That about sums it up.
A dispiriting account of a great star and not-so-great human being.