[I’m pleased to debut The Cooler’s first video essay as my contribution to the Steve McQueen Blog-a-thon. As usual, the video plays best if you let it completely buffer before watching. Click here to see it on Vimeo's site in a slightly larger, but not too large, size. A transcript of the narration is below.]
In his first starring role, on TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive in 1958, and in his last starring role, in 1980’s The Hunter, Steve McQueen played bounty hunters. In between, McQueen played a host of characters who were on the run or behind bars – guys who had been to prison or seemed to be heading there. He played lawmen, too, and leaders, thrill-seekers and risk-takers. He played men of action – guys who always seemed to be cocked and ready. Not muscle men so much as tough guys. Not brave men, because they often seemed immune to fear, but determined ones. With rare exception, McQueen’s characters were strong, silent types, either intentionally or inevitably. Quiet strength was McQueen’s default setting.
Not quite 30 years removed from his death, McQueen tends to be remembered for his role in two of cinema’s most famous action sequences, in The Great Escape and Bullitt, and for his blazing blue eyes, his physical grace and his effortless swagger, which were the substance of several his films. These were the ingredients that helped McQueen earn the honorary title of “The King of Cool,” and rightfully so. But to come to the conclusion that McQueen’s success was simply the result of a handsome, athletic and naturally suave guy playing too-cool-for-school characters is to miss McQueen’s true cinematic gift: He was devastating in a close-up.
Of course, that wasn’t the extent of McQueen’s talent. McQueen was terrific behind the wheel of anything with four tires and he was even better on the seat of a motorcycle. He didn’t do all of his own stunts, of course, but his vehicular abilities allowed directors to get some magical shots that stuntmen couldn’t provide – shots that made action intimate. McQueen was also good on a horse – a skill that wouldn’t be worth much today – and he was terrific with props of all shapes and sizes. Guns. Food. Whatever. Even the engine of a ship. Give McQueen something to do and he was quietly captivating.
In other situations, McQueen seemed painfully out of his element. Thomas Crown Affair screenwriter Alan Trustman noted in Marshall Terrill’s 1993 biography Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel that when McQueen was uncomfortable “you could squirm watching him.” This is undoubtedly true. Many of McQueen’s particularly squirm-worthy moments came when the actor attempted to wear his heart on his sleeve. But that’s oversimplifying things. Given that McQueen was most comfortable when driving, manipulating a prop, or acting from the shoulders up, it should come as no surprise that he seemed least comfortable when forced to act with his entire body and with nothing in his hands. An apt example would be this scene from Nevada Smith, which Matt Zoller Seitz used to underscore McQueen’s limitations in his cogent 2009 video essay “Too Cool.” As McQueen squats down and looks at his character’s home in flames, he comes off less like a man distraught over the murder of his parents than like an actor who feels naked from the neck down and at a loss for what to do with his hands. It might be the most cringe-inducing moment in McQueen’s career. I mean, other than this one.
McQueen’s biggest fault as an actor wasn’t so much that he couldn’t play emotion but that he couldn’t play his emotions to the back row. McQueen needed the camera to get close enough that he could emote with his face, subtly but intensely, charismatically, powerfully. Some filmmakers had no trouble identifying the money shot and put McQueen’s face to good use, particularly Norman Jewison, who directed McQueen in The Cincinnati Kid, the poker flick full of tight close-ups, and The Thomas Crown Affair, in which McQueen and Faye Dunaway turned a game of chess into steamy foreplay. Other directors used McQueen’s best angle as a tease, intentionally thwarting our ability to look directly into his eyes in order to enhance the emotional unease of the characters. A good example is this scene from Sam Peckinpah’s mostly macho The Getaway, in which McQueen’s Doc McCoy is intimidated by intimacy after years of imprisonment. Also of note is this scene from Baby, the Rain Must Fall, in which McQueen’s Henry Thomas, also recently out of the big house, and now trying to figure out how to support his wife and child, realizes his dreams of being a country music star are just that: dreams.
To call McQueen a limited actor is accurate, but to suggest that his silence is evidence of emptiness is to imply that emotions must be verbally articulated to be deep. Beyond Hollywood’s frustrating habit of bestowing awards to those who act most instead of best, even hardcore cinephiles fall into the trap of praising acting in situations when the screenwriting deserves the lion’s share of acclaim, confusing amazing roles with amazing performances. This is unavoidable, of course. At some point the two cannot be separated. And just like great talkers need great dialogue, great physical actors, like McQueen, need a director with enough sense to point a camera where the action is. Still, one of the reasons that McQueen is thought of as a purely physical actor is because so few screenwriters gave him anything interesting to say. The most quotable line of McQueen’s career might be this one from The Magnificent Seven: “We deal in lead, friend.” Trouble is, McQueen’s would-be catchphrase is merely the punctuation on a conversation between Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach. It’s the first of only two lines for McQueen in a 10-minute span. Given the film’s wealth of heroes, it’s all to easy to come away remembering the line but not the cowboy who said it. “We deal in lead, friend” is a cool line, sure. But what it isn’t as this: “Yippie-ki-yay, motherfucker” – an instant classic.
And that leads us here. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about McQueen is that he’s entirely inimitable – not in the general, “Oh, there’ll never be another one like him” kind of way, but in the sense that he’s truly impossible to impersonate. Given the right props, sure, you could mimic his actions, but other than that you couldn’t “do McQueen,” the way someone could do Jimmy Stewart, Marlon Brando or Humphrey Bogart. McQueen didn’t have a distinctive voice or an unforgettable line. Some actors had both. For this, McQueen deserves a share of the blame. Woefully uneducated, McQueen found dialogue a physical challenge and cut it wherever he could. On the set of The Towering Inferno, he regularly complained that the dialogue was “shit,” but when the screenwriter pressed him for a specific example McQueen confessed that there was nothing wrong with the dialogue itself, he just couldn’t say it. It was because of this, as much as anything, that on the set of The Getaway, McQueen would read the script and say, “Too many words, too many words. I’ll give you a close-up that’ll say a thousand words.”
You have to hand it to McQueen: his arithmetic was usually correct. But sometimes McQueen took silence to the extreme. In Le Mans, the racing film that was the actor’s passion project, McQueen doesn’t utter anything resembling traditional dialogue for more than 37 minutes. Upon the film’s release, Jay Cocks of Time Magazine wrote that McQueen didn’t play a part, he just posed for it. He was right. Then again, there were also instances when McQueen’s terse approach wound up making an otherwise forgettable line of dialogue surprisingly potent. One such instance comes late in The Towering Inferno, when McQueen’s fire chief learns that the only hope for extinguishing the blaze is for him to be airlifted to the top of the skyscraper to blow up some rooftop water tanks with plastic explosives. In that scene, and so many others, McQueen’s magic was the expansiveness of his minimalism. Few actors ever conveyed so much without saying anything at all. McQueen’s physical acting was so efficient, in fact, that in the rare case one of his characters verbally articulated his thoughts, the dialogue usually seemed unnecessarily redundant.
In a way, it’s silly to criticize McQueen for so often playing to his strengths, but there’s at least one film that suggests he didn’t have to be quite so narrow, 1962’s often overlooked The War Lover, in which McQueen plays a womanizing hotshot pilot in World War II. In so many ways, it’s still the typical McQueen role: cocky, intense and tough. But in The Water Lover, McQueen is a little more emotionally vulnerable than normal, even when his character is on the attack. This is the film to recommend to anyone who insists that McQueen could only pose. And yet it’s impossible to overlook the way McQueen dazzles most in a close-up, his blue eyes blazing, even in black-and-white, flashing that visceral coiled intensity that’s so rarely duplicated.
Most actors who try to be as super-cool as McQueen come off like frauds. Every now and then, though, someone recaptures the silent swagger that was the essence of McQueen. Jeremy Renner’s Oscar-nominated portrayal in The Hurt Locker is evidence that McQueen’s brand of acting can be as potent as ever. Two of the film’s most powerful scenes are ones in which Renner doesn’t say a word. But just because McQueen’s acting style has endured doesn’t mean that it would have aged well with him as his star faded and he moved on to smaller supporting roles. Alas, we we’ll never know. McQueen was a top-of-the-marquee star until he died, all too soon, in 1980 at the age of 50 from complications due to cancer.
In a career just over two decades long, McQueen produced a collection of exhilarating films and performances, many of which are still cherished three decades after his death. And though it’s true that the most memorable thing that a McQueen character ever did was something McQueen didn’t do himself – stuntman Bud Ekin’s famous motorcycle jump in The Great Escape – it’s also true that McQueen thoroughly dominated the screen in a way that few other actors have before or since. He was “The King of Cool,” the king of the close-up, and his honorary reign continues.