Monday, 7 January 2013

Book Review: Steve McQueen, by Penina Spiegel (1986)

An informative biography of one of Hollywood's greatest stars, Steve McQueen is a well-written and comprehensive book that reveals the troubled man behind the screen legend. Penina Spiegel finds the interesting stories and background anecdotes that humanize the larger than life presence.

McQueen was born in 1930 in the mid-west, the product of a quick marriage between free-spirited mother Jullian and fly-by-night (almost literally) father Bill. McQueen never knew his dad, and his mother was more interested in alcohol, men and parties than in caring for her son. Effectively raised by his grandmother Lillianne and wealthy grand uncle Claude on a farm in Missouri, McQueen's orphan-like upbringing was not helped by Lillian's growing religious fundamentalism, which eventually landed her in an asylum. By the age of 14, McQueen was feeling decidedly unloved and unwanted, an angry young man quick to find trouble, and he struck out on his own.

A life of crime and prison seemed to beckon, but stints at the Boys Republic and in the military helped to provide some order to his life. He eventually landed at the Actors Studio in New York, at a time when Brando was emerging as a star and the likes of Paul Newman, James Dean, and Ben Gazzara were popularizing Method acting. A brief stint on the stage proved unsuccessful, but crucially McQueen met and married Broadway dancer Neile Adams, and when she moved west in the mid 1950s so did he, eventually landing the lead role on CBS television's Wanted: Dead or Alive. The McQueen screen persona as a man of few words, hidden danger, bucketfuls of cool, and plenty of charisma was born. By the mid to late 1960s, through roles in The Magnificent Seven, The Cincinnati Kid, The Great Escape, and Bullitt, McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world.

Spiegel finds the essence of McQueen in his tumultuous childhood, and the first 75 pages of the book tracking McQueen's ancestry and sad upbringing, are particularly enlightening. By the time McQueen takes responsibility for his life at age 14 as a dyslexic school drop-out, he had earned every right to believe that life was a misery where everything  good can disappear in an instant (like his fleeting encounters with his mother), where no one could be trusted (his mother being the person he could trust the least) and where once dependable women can go crazy (like his ranting grandmother, committed to an asylum with a severe case of religious fervour).

McQueen decided to fall in love with machines instead, since engines where rational, fixable and dependable.  He loved motorcycles and cars, drove them at insane speeds, and once he was wealthy, collected them with a passion. He did love Neile and later Ali MacGraw, but managed to almost wilfully destroy both relationships. And even when married, he never even considered stopping himself from sleeping with any willing woman.

The book takes care to reveal all sides of a complex man. McQueen was the rich star always too cheap to pay for dinner, sometimes unbearably mean to his directors, and always insecure, worried about how long the fame and fortune would last, because he never believed that he deserved it. McQueen was also the rich star who always insisted on getting to know the lowly crew members by name, ate with the crew on his movie sets, and genuinely asked about and cared for the family members of his friends and associates.

To her credit, Spiegel takes care to never allow the book to fall into the trap of becoming a chronicle of movies and movie reviews. She always tracks down the behind-the-scenes stories as told by the men and women who were with McQueen at every stage in his life, including friends, associates, directors, producers, business partners, lovers, co-stars and family members. The book keeps the man, rather than the movies, as the centre of attention, and at every stage Spiegel tracks McQueen's emotional and psychological growth and evolution.

The absence of an Index or a full list of References or suggested other readings is a disappointment. But overall Steve McQueen is a worthy biography of a fascinating man.

Subtitled: The Untold Story Of A Bad Boy In Hollywood.
351 pages, plus Chronology of Major Stage, Film and Television Roles.
Includes many black and white photos.
Published in hard cover by William Collins Sons and Co.

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