STEVE McQUEEN: A PERSONAL APPRECIATION

Steve McQueen was born March 24, 1930. It’s a date I remember better than some other important dates that I should remember and with reason. Readers of this blog and personal friends who know me well, know what a fan of Steve McQueen that I am. In fact, it was my adoration of the actor that led in a roundabout way to my writing Lee Marvin Point Blank via my friendship with Marshall Terrill, as explained here.
What I’ve never discussed here is what it was about Steve McQueen that made me such a fan, although I’ve threatened to do so previously. Since he would have been 91-years old on the 24th, I figure this to be as good a time as any.
It began when I was 13-years-old and saw Papillon (1973) in the theaters for the first time. I was aware of him beforehand and seen some of his other films on TV and at the movies but Papillon changed everything. I have to word this carefully but when I was very young I was..how shall I say this….the victim of bullies, to the point in which I figure I may have suffered some mild form of PTSD. I was constantly being picked on and in fights in school and elsewhere. I’ll just leave it at that.
Well, when I saw Papillon, everything changed for me psychologically. I had never experienced anything like it. Beside the fact that Steve McQueen gave a towering performance throughout the movie, it was when he uttered the words, “Hey you bastards! I’m still here!” that effected me the most. It had never occurred to me before that you could take whatever abuse is dished out and manage to rise above it; hell, even be better for it! Yeah, I know it seems obvious and has been said a million times but the visual example of McQueen in solitary, eating the rancid food given to him and then jumping up on the bars and angrily whispering those words to passing guards, drove it home to me. It was an epiphany!

Steve McQueen in solitary watches the guards pass his cell above him in PAPILLON.

Later in the film, he does it again and to even greater effect which I won’t give away if you haven’t seen the film. Suffice to say, I saw the film over and over again that year and believe it or not, a few days after I saw it the first time, The Great Escape (1963) was aired on TV. Talk about your one-two punch! Everything about the film, and especially McQueen’s performance, was exceptional.

The look Steve McQueen gives the Nazis after crashing his motorcycle in THE GREAT ESCAPE.

However, the scene after he gets hung up in the barb wire trying to jump the fence into Switzerland and the look he gives the Nazis who caught him, was priceless! That did it for me. I was hooked. I hate to admit this but I even got a a pair of khaki pants and a light blue sweatshirt, cut the sleeves accordingly, and wore them to school. Gimme a break, I was thirteen!

From that moment on, I could not get enough Steve McQueen: collecting the posters to all of his films, magazine articles, maintaining scrapbooks, soundtracks, biographies, you name it! I remember at one point my grandmother said to me, “What’s the big deal about Steve McQueen? Did he ever cure a disease? Help humanity in any way? He just made movies, for crying out loud!” I tried to explain to her what he meant to me, but again, I was only thirteen. I wished I had the moxie then to really explain it well.

I should emphasize that I was not some kind of weirdo about it, trying to contact him, or stalking him, like some fans do with favorite performers. I just found everything he did fascinating. Being a movie lover, I admire many film stars, in fact, to me the holy trinity of favorites are James Cagney, Burt Lancaster and Steve McQueen. Here’s the exception: I like almost all of the films of Cagney and Lancaster but their output was so prodigious, some of their films were not as worth watching over and over again. Not so with Steve McQueen. Granted, he did not make as many films, only 30 in total but, with the possible exception of Le Mans (1970), I found everything he did revelational. Seriously. His choice in projects from the very beginning of his career were amazing to me, whether they were any good overall, or not.

Steve McQueen as Boon Hoggenbeck about to convince young Mitch Vogel with an important life lesson in THE REIVERS.

The Reivers (1969) is a good example. I know for a fact he himself did not care for his performance in it as he hated doing comedy. Not only was he appropriately funny in it, the film contained another revelation in it for me. In order to convince young Lucius (MItch Vogel) in the film to steal his grandfather’s new-fangled automobile, he tells him, “If you ever wanna reach your manhood, you gotta say ‘goodbye’ to the things you know..and ‘HELLO!’ to the things you don’t!” I don’t condone grand theft auto, but the message in the dialogue is something all adolescences should heed in the right context. I know I did.

Naturally, his untimely passing at the age of 50 in 1980 was devastating to me. Luckily, I have some very good friends I was able to confide in and one in particular had the intestinal fortitude to stay on the phone with me that night for hours as I poured my heart out to him. Talk about being blessed!

In the years since he shed his mortal coil, some pretty off-putting things had been revealed about the man. I won’t lie to you, it did change my opinion of him. The worst was the revelations concerning his abusive attitude toward the women in his life. “The King of Cool” was not always cool. I discovered these aspects of his persona when I was older and more mature so I was able to deal with it.

Bottom line, I still love his films and watch them whenever I can, I’ve never been fascinated with his personal love of speed like many other fans, which is why I didn’t care for Le Mans. Everything else he did? Hell, I even prefer some of his lesser know films maybe more than his bigger hits, like Soldier in the Rain (1963) Baby, the Rain Must Fall (1965), and An Enemy of the People (1978).
It’s the films that last. Nothing else matters as much. It’s been over 40 years and it’s as if he still telling us: “Hey, you bastards! I’m still here!”

– Dwayne Epstein

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