Watch Matt Zoller's Seitz's video essay here.
Steve McQueen, whose work is being celebrated this month
by the Film Society of Lincoln Center
, is the gold standard for movie tough guys — stoic, street-smart, unfussy, supercompetent and absolutely, positively not to be fucked with; the consummate man of action. He's the guy every guy secretly wants to be — unassuming but deadly, and always in charge. McQueen's grace isn't the deliberate, predmeditated grace of a ballet dancer, but of a footballer spotting an opening and slipping through it for a goal.
He's one of the most sheerly pleasurable physical actors in movie history. Even in repose or when performing mundane tasks, he seems charged with energy. The camera loves him, and directors acknowledge this by serving up seemingly obligatory scenes of McQueen donning and divesting himself of his character's uniform (the bulletproof vest in The Getaway
, the shoulder holster in Bullitt
), giving viewers a chance to admire his lanky physique and a demeanor that would seem insufferably smug if he weren't a working class guy playing working class guys — a peasant prince who earned his royal title. McQueen doesn't join the club, he just visits, always keeping one eye on the exit.
This self-willed aura of confidence is the source of my own early admiration for McQueen. He was everything I wasn't — everything almost no one is; as much a cinematic demigod as Burt Lancaster, but humbler, more human scaled. Nevertheless, at some point second thoughts on McQueen took root in my mind and made it difficult to adore him uncritically, and made even his most acclaimed star turns feel unsatisfying. And at the risk of inviting a flood of angry email from dudes with subject headers along the lines of "Dear McQueen-hating pansy," I'll attempt to explain why.
First off: there's only one McQueen film that I think qualifies
as more a curiousity or a diversion: Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway
(1972). Adapted from Jim Thompson's novel by future action auteur Walter Hill, the movie kicks off with a deer unexpectedly and eerily freeze-framed, as if sensing it's in an unseen hunter's gun sights. The rest of this intricately edited prologue is a subjective montage of McQueen's character, robber Doc McCoy, going stir-crazy in the joint. Many prison films include this type of sequence, and we're usually meant to take away nothing more than, "The hero hates prison and wants to be free." But Peckinpah's presentation complicates any simplistic reading. The whole sequence is a moment out of time — Doc's mind jumping around during a particular moment in the prison's license plate factory, thinking about the grinding routine of prison life, his lame attempts to puncture it by building a model, and his fantasies about his wife, Carol, played by Ali McGraw.
We're reminded of how often McQueen is pictured behind bars or in shackles — in addition to The Getaway
, he did time in The Great Escape
(1963), Baby, the Rain Must Fall
(1965), Nevada Smith
(1966) and Papillon
(1973) — and how differently that image reads here than those other films. Rather than a man itching for a chance to rejoin society, a man chafing at isolation and dehumanization and taking pleasure in whatever pitiful facsimiles of love and friendship that prison allows, The Getaway
's opening tells us that Doc is not merely a stereotypical maverick loner but a man so damaged for whatever reason that he can't respond to the world, or to other people, in anything resembling a normal way.
There's no warmth in the images of his interaction with other prisoners, only the most animalistic comfort in the images of Doc with Carol, and no sense that prison robbed Doc of some essential humanity that other inmates, however brutal, may possess. Part of The Getaway
's brute brilliance is the way that it makes McQueen's reluctance (perhaps inability) to show emotion and his technical inadequacy as an actor into strengths. Peckinpah treats McQueen as a piece of kinetic sculpture, seeming to indulge his carefully cultivated facade of impenetrable cool while hinting at the existential terror that must lurk beneath. The Getaway
implies that for all Doc's lethal ability, he's just a dumb animal like that uncomprehending deer. That's a far cry from most of McQueen's other films, which tend to treat him as a grinning God and invite us to worship him.
Screenwriter William Goldman's cynical classic Adventures in the Screen Trade
sets out some basic rules for making a handsome living as a Hollywood writer. Rule number one is "Give the star everything" — meaning you have make the star's character the toughest, sexiest, most unflappable, wryly funny hombre in recorded history. You have to give him every good piece of business in the script — Every badass move, every laugh line, every brilliant inspiration. For much of his career,
McQueen was that kind of star. While Goldman was writing one of McQueen's last films, 1980's Tom Horn
, Goldman tried to infuse the title character with a bit of depth and nuance, maybe even some internal conflict that he had to overcome. McQueen put the kibosh on all that, telling Goldman, "I don't want to be the guy who learns. I want to be the guy who knows."
A shallower attitude toward the craft of acting is hard to imagine. Where did it come from? It could have been the defensive posture of a businessman protecting himself. There were occasions when McQueen strayed outside his popular persona — for instance, Robert Mulligan's Baby, the Rain Must Fall
, about an ex-con trying to take care of his wife and daughter, make it as singer and manage his hot temper; Sam Peckinpah's gentle 1971 rodeo drama Junior Bonner
; and a 1978 adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People
, which McQueen did for union scale, partly to prove that he really could act. Whether McQueen seemed engaged and lively or outmatched and out of his element, the fact that he wasn't busting heads and telling people what to do meant that his star wattage dimmed a bit.
McQueen's inarguably charismatic screen presence is often praised as textbook example of minimalism. That seems accurate up to a point. He is nothing if not economical, and in an era where the Oscar for best acting in a lead role often goes to the person who delivered the Most Acting, there's something to be said for keeping it simple. But there's simple by choice and simple by necessity, and a rather appalling percentage of the time, when McQueen is called upon to express anything resembling complex or powerful emotions, he comes up short, or protects himself to keep us from realizing that he doesn't have the chops to really bring it.
A moment in the opening section of Nevada Smith
is a good example. McQueen's character, a half-breed on a mission of revenge, has just burned the family homestead where his mom and dad were tortured and murdered. While histrionics are neither required nor advisable, one expects the hero to communicate feeling something, anything. McQueen just stares blankly, and when he bows his head — with a hand gesture presumably indicating that he's wiping away a tear — it's so non-heartfelt that he might as well be flicking a stray eyelash from his contact lens.
But when you look at some of McQueen's tough guy ancestors, contemporaries and descendants, McQueen comes up conspicuously short. Humphrey Bogart could be tough-as-nails, a take-charge action hero that could blast mobsters out of their dress socks in The Big Sleep
and slap the smirk off a henchman's face in The Maltese Falcon
. But he also had the guts to stretch, and the common sense to do it with material that he could master — a knack illustrated by his performance as The Caine Mutiny
's Commander Queeg, a cowardly tyrant forced to squirm before a military tribunal. And when Bogart played opposite women — to my mind, the challenge that separates acting's real men from its overgrown boys — he could play flirtations, even smitten, confident that because he was Bogart, he would always read as "strong." The flirtation between Bogart and his offscreen mate, Lauren Bacall, in To Have and Have Not
and The Big Sleep
is more playful and engaged than almost anything McQueen attempted.
Paul Newman, with whom McQueen competed for lead roles and fat paychecks in the 1960s and '70s, was likewise able to take chances and be vulnerable — even take roles like Hud
(1963) that amounted to critiques of machismo — without worrying about looking like a sissy. It's hard to envision McQueen playing the scene in Hud
where Newman, clutching a single flower, lies on Patricia Neal's bed in an amusingly feminine posture and charms his way past her defenses.
In the present day, Harrison Ford's credentials as an ass-kicking he man are beyond reproach, but like Bogart and Newman, he has more to give than McQueen and is secure enough in his masculinity to give it. The barn dance in Witness
, Indiana Jones' ecstatic kissing of Marion in the tent in Raiders of the Lost Ark
and Richard Kimball's interrogation room breakdown in The Fugitive
confirm Ford's willingness to admit romantic need onscreen.
McQueen was too cool to show the level of anguish over a woman that Ford summoned in The Fugitive
. With a couple of exceptions — including 1963's Love with the Proper Stranger
— he rarely played men who were head-over-heels. Although McQueen was an offscreen stud, luring Ali McGraw away from her then-husband, Paramount executive Robert Evans, during the production of The Getaway
, onscreen he rarely gave women anything, and usually made a point of letting us know that he needed nothing from them but momentary pleasure. This is confirmed by that odd moment in Bullitt
where McQueen kisses Jacqueline Bisset post-coitus and the director, Peter Yates, shows us the back of his head. A director doesn't show the back of his leading man's head during a love scene unless there's nobody home.
That's why my own McQueen infatuation got downgraded to affection and respect. A masculine code that insists on always being right and in control, and that withholds affection from women for the sake of seeming cool, is neither real nor useful, and ultimately ruinous to viewers who uncritically embrace it. That's why, even though McQueen is a terrifically entertaining fantasy object, calling him a great actor, or even a great leading man, is a bit of a stretch. It seems altogether fitting that McQueen spent a fair part of his screen career behind bars. Over the years, he built himself a lucrative and comfortable onscreen prison, and unlike his characters, he lacked the skills, or the will, to break out.