Steve McQueen: Biography Beyond the Movies

Marc Eliot, author of <em>Steve McQueen: A Biography</em>
Marc Eliot, author of Steve McQueen: A Biography

New York Times bestselling biographer Marc Eliot has extensively covered such iconic celebrities as Clint Eastwood, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, and President Ronald Reagan. He most recently set his sights on the forever-young king of cool Steve McQueen. Here, he shares with Signature his thoughts on the intrigue of McQueen -- and why an in-depth look at the life of the man who met his end too early was in order. Continue on to hear what Eliot has to say, and then check out an excerpt from Steve McQueen: A Biography, by Marc Eliot.

I have always enjoyed writing biographies, especially of those movie stars whom we feel we know the most, but in reality know the least. As I discovered with Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, and Clint Eastwood, the stories of their real lives were far more interesting and entertaining, and ultimately enlightening, than any of the movies they made or the characters they played. Hollywood functions as both a mirror and a window, a reflection of ourselves and a view of those we most identify with - our idealized other as it were. Biography allows for both this type of simultaneous exploration and introspection.

Steve McQueen is one of those glorious misfits who somehow made it to the top of the cinematic stairway, his offbeat manner and style the very things that made him the stuff of the mainstream. No one can quite duplicate what McQueen did because his characters were so closely entwined with his real-life character that for other actors imitation becomes less a form of flattery than self-limitation.

McQueen's era, from the early sixties to the end of the seventies, perfectly coincides with the tidal shift that took place in Hollywood away from the mogul-driven studios and their overblown self-described epics to a more personal, director-oriented cinema. During McQueen's twenty-odd-year career, names like DeMille and Wyler and Walsh were replaced by Scorsese, Peckinpah, Spielberg, and Lucas, the latter two perhaps less intense than the first two, but unquestionably all four more personal than their predecessors in their approach to filmmaking. McQueen came too late to benefit from the studio system and too soon to understand how to make the industry work for him. Eastwood, the same age as McQueen, only began his real ascent into producer-director-superstardom in the eighties. If McQueen failed where Eastwood succeeded, it is because McQueen was too preoccupied with exacting performances and precise production values, while Eastwood has always preferred easy product and mass production. No one can say where McQueen would have gone had he lived. He didn't, and we only have the films he left behind to consider. A deeper look into his life and a reevaluation of his career were long overdue.

From Steve McQueen: A Biography, by Marc Eliot:

Terrence Steven McQueen was born March 24, 1930, the offspring of William McQueen, a philandering stunt pilot for a circus father and Julian Crawford, a teenage runaway alcoholic mother. These parents laid the foundation for the fragile, needy psyche that lay just beneath the smooth surface of the good-looking face and strong, lean body of their young man who would grow up to become the international movie superstar Steve McQueen, the essence of so-called "'60s cool." As always with film, the "silver screen" serves to both flatten physical dimension, thereby streamlining the flow of stories while allowing great expanse for emotional depth, infusing familiar plots with the essential elements of the emotional abstracts - spirituality, brotherhood, life, death, salvation, love. Moviemakers have always favored those actors who could easily glide through the flat, chronological plains of the endlessly repetitious plotlines of movies while at the same time exploding inward, or emotionally, in a way that at the same time is able to reach out and grab the audiences by the tear glands.

Although he was not by any stretch of the imagination the greatest screen actor of all time, of his generation - Brando always wins that contest against all comers - he was one of a very few who could perfectly balance his heat and his chill with a modicum of movement but a volcanic flow of visible emotion. McQueen could move audiences in a way only a handful of actors have been able to do. The struggle to "stay cool," acting method that Steve McQueen ever "used." His screen persona was someone whose time-bomb psyche ticked with metronomic precision - tick, the desire to hold in all the rage, tock, the need to let it all out. And it was what made him a star.

McQueen's span of major success and ultimate superstardom was from 1959 through 1980, when, after a few years of bit parts and one major but disappointing replacement lead on Broadway, he hit it big starring in ninety-four half-hour episodes of the TV series "Wanted: Dead Or Alive," followed by twenty-eight feature films. His resume is relatively small when compared to the 217 one-hour episodes and more than seventy Clint Eastwood has made so far (an actor, by the way, whose TV and film career began the same time as McQueen's).

We remember McQueen today for his exotic blend of Belmondo-like looks, his obviously physical prowess in his movies, his boyish energy early in his career and his tough-guy roughness later on. His films are not often seen other than the occasional play-off on the (indispensable) Turner Classic Movies and what little we actually know of him centers mostly around the headline-grabbing events of his second marriage, to movie star and print model Ali MacGraw and the horrific events surrounding his death at the age of fifty.

Early death in Hollywood is the surest way to enshrinement - the earlier, in fact, the better - which is why James Dean will forever be celebrated as that rebel without a cause while Brando is remembered for the general grossness that engulfed his later years and diminished the perfection of the incredible movies he made while beautiful, strong, and young.

As an Auterist, McQueen's value increases, if one accepts that an Auteur does not necessarily have to be the director of a movie, but the one whose overriding personality not only dominates the mise-en-sene but defines it. No matter who directed it, one refers almost without fail to the films he made as Steve McQueen movies. As a biographer, it is crucial to understand the rough-cut phases of his life - the early abandonment, the youthful wandering, the marriage (adoption, really) by a beautiful and famous dancer willing to sacrifice her career to help propel his that led to his becoming a star, the failed attempt at fidelity, the out-of-control philandering, drugs, domestic violence and expanded yet still hollow narcissism that plagued his superstar years and helped to bring them to an early end, his second marriage that robbed him of his lust and turned his screen persona stale, his middle-age introspection that put him out of business as a bankable "A" star and his drift into indifference and disease that ended in a desperate attempt that had less to do with finding the meaning of his life than it did with simply continuing to live.

Steve McQueen's after-image still glows. His unforgettable physical beauty, his soft-spoken manner, his tough but tender roughness, and his aching vulnerability were part Dean, part Brando, part Eastwood, part Paul Newman, but all McQueen. We see his screen legacy today in actors such as the sensitive and beautiful James Franco, the all-American good-bad boy Brad Pitt, the charming but elusive George Clooney, and the dagger-blue-eyed, icicle-veined Daniel Craig. All of these owe more than a little to McQueen's style, manner and attitude, but none can duplicate his unique blend of romantic aloofness and charismatic chill.

In every movie he made - the great ones, as well as the misfires - his star-studded appeal could not be disguised. Perhaps Steve McQueen's greatest talent was to be able to convince audiences he was who he really wasn't, even as he tried to prove to himself he wasn't who he really was.

MARC ELIOT is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books on popular culture, among them the highly acclaimed biographies Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, the award-winning Walt Disney: Hollywood's Dark Prince, Down 42nd Street, Take It from Me (with Erin Brockovich), Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen, To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, and Death of a Rebel. He has written on the media and popular culture for numerous publications, including Penthouse, L.A. Weekly, and California Magazine. His most recent book is Steve McQueen: A Biography. He divides his time among New York City, Woodstock, New York, and Los Angeles.