Prompted by a recent re-evaluation of the actor and his work, including major articles in magazines such as Interview and Premiere and modern remakes of his movies, MFAH film curator Marian Luntz decided it was time for another look at McQueen's best-known films: Bullitt, The Great Escape, Papillon, Le Mans, Love with the Proper Stranger, An Enemy of the People, Baby the Rain Must Fall, The Magnificent Seven, Junior Bonner and, of course, The Getaway and The Thomas Crown Affair.
"He was always in confrontation. With directors. With co-stars. And with women," Luntz says. "He had this [hard guy] reputation both on-screen and off, as well as a fascination with machines, especially race cars and motorcycles." This quintessential tough guy was also an early student of a young California martial arts instructor, some struggling actor named Bruce Lee.
Even fans will admit that his acting range was fairly limited, but there was something about his gruff and brooding persona that drew audiences to the laconic lone wolf. In fact, people went to see his films not because of their plots or titles, but because they starred Steve McQueen. Whether he was a cop or a con, a soldier, killer or race car driver, audiences got the same solid, if predictable, performance that has characterized the careers of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood.
And then there was his intriguing off-screen character. McQueen was legendary for his temper and viciousness toward any actor he saw as a threat -- real or imagined -- to his own career. He mercilessly needled Yul Brynner during the shooting of 1960's The Magnificent Seven and took full advantage of his superior height during their scenes together. He also believed that he had finally triumphed in his obsessive rivalry with Paul Newman when he demanded, and got, top billing over the future salad-dressing mogul when they co-starred in 1974's The Towering Inferno.
A very public romance, and later marriage, with the much younger Ali McGraw in the early '70s also served to stoke the fires of human interest. "They were a Hollywood romance, and that was just as exciting to people then as it is [today]," Luntz says.
McQueen brought a more wistful, more graceful and perhaps wiser image to his later films, but when he died in 1980 at the age of 50, this "man's man" was gaunt and wasted from cancer, though probably not regret. "He made some good choices, and he made a lot of bad choices in his career," Luntz says, "and I think we've got almost all of his best films here, most of which were well received by critics." But she feels that the real reason for his appeal was that audiences enjoyed figuring out how much of his true personality was reflected on the screen. And while many modern leading men revel in their versatility by taking on roles that force them into period costume, prosthetics, accents or bizarre personalities, Steve McQueen probably would have told them all to go screw themselves. But you can bet he would have used a choicer verb.
The "Steve McQueen: The King of Cool" film retrospective will be screened in the Brown Auditorium of the MFAH at 1001 Bissonnet. For showtimes, call (713)639-7531. $5 per film.