Steve McQueen was, by most accounts, not an easy guy to love. He was selfish, immature, and ruthlessly competitive. He made the lives of those around him, the women in particular, miserable. But the one thing that’s always made me love McQueen—above and beyond our other maestros of masculinity—is that the dude refused to sell out.
Here’s what I mean. In 1968, McQueen starred in as a tough, fast-driving police officer in the thriller Bullitt. He was arguably the biggest movie star on earth at this time and, Bullitt was a smash.
McQueen was one of those rare articles in Hollywood: a genuine maniac, too angry and anguished to listen to the money people.
By all rights, McQueen should have been thinking franchise. That’s what his action-hero peers were doing even back then, guys like Clint Eastwood, who was soon to turn Dirty Harry into a high-caliber cash cow. And that’s what an entire generation of McQueen imitators are doing today, making endless iterations of the same movie—Mission Impossible 12 and The Bourne Identity: Spring Break Bloodbath—because that’s where the money is.
But McQueen was one of those rare articles in Hollywood: a genuine maniac, too angry and anguished to listen to the money people. He refused to make another Bullitt, and turned down roles in similar shoot-em-up pictures (The French Connection, A Bridge Too Far, even Dirty Harry) so he could star in ambitious flops such as Le Mans and An Enemy of the People, an adaptation of an Ibsen play.
Toward the end, he put on weight and grew out a Jesus beard, so that he was only recognizable by his famous blue eyes. When he got cancer, he went around apologizing to all the people he’d wronged, so he could settle up with God. Then he died, as he had predicted, at age 50.
In the years since, McQueen has been memorialized as a kind of paragon of badass style, the king of cool. This is what fame does to people; it flattens them out into images, because images make for better marketing. They place the focus on the saleable accoutrements—the sunglasses, the jacket, the motorcycle.
Actual humans are a lot more complicated than movie stars, particularly in McQueen’s case. He was essentially an orphan, the product of a tryst between a teenage prostitute and a handsome circus stuntman who named his son after his favorite bookie and blew town soon after.
McQueen wound up shuttled between relatives for most of his youth. His stepfather beat him. He was dyslexic, partially deaf, and averse to authority. He served brief calamitous stints as a thief, pimp, and hobo. As a Marine, he spent seven weeks in the brig. The McQueen who famously heads into solitary confinement with a baseball mitt in The Great Escape didn’t exactly have to research the role.
All of which is by way of saying that Steve McQueen’s brand of masculinity—the brooding reticence, the menacing stare, the fixation on motorized escape—wasn’t some convenient pose, or over-boiled figment of method acting. That’s who the guy was.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that he had such a hard-on for Paul Newman. Imagine what it must have been like for McQueen to watch Newman take the lead in a film like Somebody Up There Likes Me, in which Newman plays a poor boy beaten by his father and cast into a world of delinquency and permanent rebellion.
It would be foolish to claim that McQueen was a brilliant actor. He had his moments, especially when he was playing a prisoner, as in The Great Escape and Papillon. But he was mostly a man of action, and an action star.
What he did better than any star of his era, or the ones to come, was to convey, mostly with his body and his eyes, the defensive torment of his heart. The reason we’re still talking about him, and watching his films, half a century after his death is because he knew what it was to be a man and to come up against forces too big to be beaten and to fight anyway.