Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Steve McQueen The Life andLegend of a Hollywood Icon, Marshall Terrill (review)

Marshall Terrill has written four, arguably five, books about one man, Steve McQueen. After reading Terrill’s definitive biography, Steve McQueen, the Life and Legacy of a Hollywood Icon (Triumph Books), I think I understand the obsession. Terrill points out repeatedly that McQueen was a zen presence on screen, an actor who used silence and stillness to project. From Magnificent Seven through Bullitt, McQueen’s biggest scenes are surprisingly free of dialogue. For instance, in the Great Escape he’s mostly seen throwing a baseball against the wall in solitary and best remembered for a motorcycle jump that was actually carried out by a stunt man. In Tom Horn, he meticulously aimed an impossibly big rifle. In Bullitt, it was the car chase, again a double did the actual driving stunts. Still, you remember Steve McQueen, “The king of cool”, commanding the screen by projecting so much with so few words and so little movement.

I suspect that Marshall Terrill is not the only person who’s wanted to solve the question of just what was so clearly boiling under McQueen's silent surface. Life and Legacy is about as well researched a movie star biography as I’ve read. Terrill goes through court records, property records, finds forgotten acquaintances, and even turned up a Mcqueen half-sister who once tried to get into the movies herself. For Mcqueen fanatics, there are any number of nuggets from the story of Mcqueen’s absent father who turned out to be a merchant seaman rather than the aviator that Mcqueen mythologized him to be to the amazing fact that the Hollywood rebel liked to watch the Love Boat with his third wife, Barbara Minty, and preferred the Bee Gees to the Rolling Stones. Terrill goes so far as to enlist psychologist and former Turtles’ drummer, Peter O. Whitmer, in analyzing Mcqueen’s family and early years. I’m not sure it takes a psychologist to figure out that a boy who never knew his father and who’s mother abandoned him literally and psychologically multiple times might have an attachment disorder, but it suggests how determined Terrill was to pick up additional insight about his subject.

Terrill also portrays both the time and the way McQueen’s image was both a product of and helped to shape his time. He appeared in Hollywood in the late fifties right towards the end of the studio era when young actors dreamed of being the next Brando or Dean. He came to embody rebellion and cool in the late sixties and early seventies when his career flourished as he bridged the Hollywood transition from Movie Stars as leading men to actors like Dustin Hoffman (one of his more famous roles was in Papillon opposite Hoffman) by embodying the anti-hero that the politics of the day seemed to demand. McQueen died at fifty in 1978 just before the video age and after slow sad battle with cancer. McQueen's death marked the rise of tabloid celebrity where the public alternately demanded and was revulsed by every lurid detail of the actor’s search for a cure and eventual death as reported in the tabloids.

In addition, Terrill ably delivers the basics of a Hollywood biography. In chronological order, he details all the behind the scenes happenings of all of McQueen’s movies including the Blob, his tv show "Wanted Dead or Alive", the almost never released Enemy of the People, and the disaster of Le Mans, the self-prodcued movie that almost killed his career and wiped out his production company. Terrill has endless stories about McQueen’s career long habit of jockeying or competing with his fellow actors for the attention of the camera and the endless mind games, stunts, etc. that came with that. Even more essential to Hollywood biography, Terrill has the tidbits of McQueen’s complicated romantic life. We get beginning to end accounts of all three wives- Neile Adams (in many ways the unsung heroine of the book who started out as a bigger star than Mcqueen), Ali Mcgraw (his best known romance with a co-star. The gossip attracted so much attention that it made the Getaway into a huge hit), and Barbara Minty (the much younger wife who saw him through his last days). In addition and even better, Terrill provides details of seemingly dozens of other McQueen dalliances before, during, and after his marriages. Perhaps the most surprising is Junior Bonner co-star, Barbara Leigh, who dated Mcqueen and Elvis at the same time and who claims to have aborted Mcqueen’s child (Terrell helped to ghost her book length account of the romances). One of the fascinating contradictions in Mcqueen’s life was that he was a dutiful and loving father even while being unfaithful to his children's mother and indulging in serious substance abuse.

If there is one shortcoming to Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon it's that Terrill is something of a workmanlike writer. Much of that is because he worked so successfully at seemingly picking up and including every detail of McQueen’s life.I suspect the bio makes for better reading for someone who may already be a fan. In fact,it’s mandatory reading for anyone who considers himself or herself a McQueen fan. I happen to be one. In reading the book, I realized that my parents were too. As a child, they took me to virtually every one of his movies. I still remember waiting in line for the Sand Pebbles and the scene where he taught Mako how to box. The part that maybe doesn’t come across as well, is Terrill’s capacity to capture the power of Mcqueen's iconic scenes themselves. For instance, Terrill has every bit of trivia about the big motorcycle jump in the Great Escape and the Chess scene with Faye Dunaway in Thomas Crown, but he doesn’t describe either scene with the sort of poetry that might draw in somebody learning about the actor for the first time by making the reader feel its inherent magic. Maybe that’s what Terrill's three other McQueen books are for?

In any case this is the definitive biography of Steve McQueen and it's a great read for anyone who misses the Hollywood where the movies didn’t go to video weeks later and the actors were as big as the screens in pre-multiplex theaters.

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