Posted: 05/26/2005


Steve McQueen: The Essence of Cool


by Dianne Lawrence

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Steve McQueen, one of the few actors in American cinema to perfectly embody both Very Hot and Very Cool will be celebrated on the 75th Anniversary of his birth and 25th Anniversary of his death with an exceptional new documentary, Steve McQueen: THE ESSENCE OF COOL, premiering Wednesday, June 1, at 8 p.m. (ET) on Turner Classic Movies . Written and directed by the inventive and talented Mimi Freedman of the Greif Company, McQueen’s life is gently laid bare through a series of beautifully interwoven interviews with the people who really knew him.

A deeply troubled childhood produces a lack of self worth that either leads to a path of endlessly wrong choices or the desire to prove everyone wrong and get up on top. For most of his adult life McQueen chose the latter. Abandoned by a mother who later reclaims him only to subject him to an abusive stepfather, he starts on the low road and ends up in Boys Town. An eventual stint in the army gives him discipline and access to that homegrown sponsor of American Culture in the 50’s, the GI bill. He decides to study acting (mostly because that’s where the chicks are) and discovers he’s good at it and he likes it. It’s something he can take seriously and sink his obviously deep intelligence and talent into. Plus, it’s a ticket to stardom, a place he really wants to get to. After getting noticed in a few small productions, he moves into the hallowed halls of Strasbergs Actors Studio and he’s off and running.

There are marvelous interviews with co-stars Suzanne Pleshette, LeVar Burton, Richard Attenborough, Martin Landau, Eli Wallach and Robert Culp, directors Robert Relyea, Lawrence Kasdan, Norman Jewison and Peter Yates, his first wife Neile Adams and their son Chad McQueen. The interviews are cleverly and often humorously illustrated with appropriate clips from his films and wonderfully researched pictures from his past. Neile Adams was there from the beginning and her stories about him are entertaining and revealing. Their successful marriage lasted a good fifteen years until the demons McQueen was able to keep at bay while rising to the top take over once he gets there. His addiction to the attention of women and drugs get the better of him. Neile was a beautiful, successful young theater actress when they met and recalls him riding his motorcycle through Greenwich Village with his shirt off and blonde gorgeousness shining. She caught his eye and soon they were a happy loving couple eventually marrying and producing two children. When she shares a story about how she convinced him to take a role he wasn’t interested in, one could see why she was able to hold on to such a desirable star for so long. I don’t want to give it away but the clever story illustrates that she really knew how to handle her man. Son Chad describes an attentive loving father others kids envied. Information about his sister is curiously missing from the documentary.

On the one hand he liked to think of himself as just one of the guys preferring to hang out with the stunt men who gave him their hard earned respect. On the other he seemed to enjoy the power his elevated status afforded him and he didn’t hesitate to do what he needed to secure that position. There’s a comical moment in the Magnificent Seven where he is co-opting a scene he shares with Yul Brynner, the big kahuna he felt obligated to top dog. They are sitting together on a horse drawn funeral carriage and Yul has the reins. As they prepare to get going, Steve grabs the attention by rattling his rifle shells (just to make sure they are active) and adjusting his hat with a flourish (gotta keep the sun out of his eyes). It’s not such an easy grab in a scene with Edward G. Robinson from the film Cincinnati Kid. A wonderful clip illustrates the gravity of Robinsons dignified power against McQueen’s natural scrappiness in a scene where McQueen challenges him in a card game and loses.

During the 60’s his demons surface and he detours into sex and drug addiction. There’s a respite when he finds love with Ali McGraw but he’s unable to hang on to it. Old friends begin to let him go as his personality gives way to the drugs. He eventually marries a beautiful young model he summons from a magazine photo and retreats to the simple and peaceful country life surrounded by his memorabilia, animals, new wife and visits from his son, Chad. He makes a few last films and finds out he has cancer. Its not going to get better.

Sharp editing and cool, stylish computer graphics add just the right amount of hip rhythm to the whole piece. The skillful collage of images are key to Freedman’s expert ability to connect the audience with the full expression of McQueen’s vulnerability, tough minded street smarts, joyful sexy expression of his masculinity, dancer like grace and aggressive ambition. Very hot, very cool and highly recommended.

Dianne Lawrence is an artist, writer, and film critic living in Hollywood. You can learn more about her works here.

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