Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Steve McQueen: A Biography by Marc Eliot

Steve McQueen: A Biography by Marc Eliot
368 pages
October 2011
Crown Archetype (Random House)

I don't remember the names of many biographers but Marc Eliot stands out for me. I've read Eliot's biographies on Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Both were excellent, well-written and highly entertaining reads. The Cary Grant biography is a controversial one among classic film enthusiasts, especially ones who hold Grant in high regard, mostly because Eliot really digs deep into dark recesses of Grant's past and reveals things about Grant's life that are quite shocking. (Read my review of the book from 2006 here ) He goes easier on Jimmy Stewart but both biographies are pretty juicy. I couldn't finish the Jimmy Stewart one because he dies at the end and I really didn't want him to die.

Both Carlos and I really enjoy biographies that dish it up. He likes the dirt even more than I do. But one thing we both do is we take all of the information with a grain of salt. A few years ago I read a book about books written about Marilyn Monroe (now wrap your head around that one). The whole point of the book, to me, was that no one will ever really know the true story of Marilyn Monroe. It doesn't matter how much research you do, how many people you interview, how many letters you read, you don't know 100% of the truth. No one does. And even if you had direct access to the person you are profiling, chances are they won't even tell you the whole truth. Biographers do their best, some hold back and some share it all even when some of the information is really unappealing. My advice is to take all biographies with a grain of salt. You'll be a better reader for it. Although do stay away from biographers whose only goal is to sensationalize and not to inform (i.e. Darwin Porter).

Marc Eliot's biography on Steve McQueen was a fascinating and entertaining read that I really enjoyed. Although I've only recently started watching McQueen's films, I knew McQueen's life story from a documentary I had seen. For me, the Eliot's biography built upon the framework of the documentary. It provides the reader with so much information and even McQueen experts will learn a thing or two. Eliot's writing can be very blunt. Take the first sentence of the introduction as an example:

Terence Steven McQueen was the product of a one-night stand that stretched into a year and six months of misery between Terrence William McQueen, a handsome, philandering stunt pilot for a traveling circus, and Jullian Crawford, a teenage alcoholic prostitute.

Wow! The whole book doesn't read like this but it does give you some insight of what you are getting into. Steve McQueen went from inauspicious beginnings to become a world famous movie star. He roamed around the country, worked in the Carribean, went off to war, got odd jobs and committed random acts of petty theft. He started taking acting classes in New York, which were free to him under the G.I. Bill, because he thought it might be a fun thing to do. While taking classes, he met a young actress by the name of Neile Adams who would later become Neile McQueen, wife of Steve and mother of their two children. Marc Eliot heavily references Neile McQueen's memoir. I don't blame him because she is really the greatest living expert on Steve McQueen, having been with him throughout most of his career and was still close to him up until his death. She saw it all!

Eliot really explores McQueen's Method acting styles and how McQueen used real life situations to influence his on screen roles. It's not often you read a biography of an actor in which their acting style is given significant consideration. Why was McQueen so charismatic as an actor? McQueen's unpredictability, something that was discovered in his early years as a budding actor and would continue to be a hallmark of his style throughout his career, was one of the things that made him so captivating as an actor. That along with his blue eyes. McQueen was in constant competition with Paul Newman who was roughly his age, started out in films around the same time and also had gorgeous blue eyes. Also, McQueen was a man's man in the way that our society stereotypes masculinity. He rode bikes, shot guns (was trained by Sammy Davis Jr. of all people), raced cars, flew planes and generally liked to be outside doing things.

McQueen saw success in the popular TV show western Wanted: Dead or Alive, which was produced by veteran actor Dick Powell. My friend Paulie of Art, Movies, Wood and Whatnot would appreciate the fact that his favorite actress Clara Bow was a huge fan of the show and even wired Steve McQueen to express her gratitude for such wonderful entertainment. McQueen made some bad business moves early in his career. Desperate for money, he agreed to act in the film The Blob. He thought it would do nothing so he asked for a chunk of money up front. Little did he know the film would be a cult classic and he would have become an overnight millionaire if he had taken a percentage of the profits instead. McQueen became a world-wide film sensation, with international markets chomping at the bit for his films. His earlier films include The Magnificent Seven (1960), Hell is for Heroes (1962), The Great Escape (1963), Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Nevada Smith (1966) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) among others. The climax of his career was Bullitt (1968) which really exemplified McQueen at his best. He was cool, quiet and mysterious, an authority figure with an edge, had beautiful arm candy in the form of a young Jacqueline Bisset and got to film an amazing car chase on location (McQueen loved racing cars). It's considered the quintessential McQueen. He was always frustrated with every film he made before Bullitt and after Bullitt. He thought his parts weren't big enough or that someone else was stealing his thunder. And after Bullitt, he tried to recapture the magic of the film by doing other racing/car chase movies like Les Mans (1971) and The Getaway (1972) . He went on to do films like The Towering Inferno (1974), Papillon (1973), Tom Horn (1980) etc. As time went on, McQueen became increasingly frustrated and jaded. He divorced his first wife, married actress Ali McGraw and then they divorced and he married model Barbara Minty. Eliot devotes time to each of McQueen's films while also focusing on McQueen as man and husband. I would skim the sections of films I haven't seen so I wouldn't read any spoilers. Once I had seen the film I'd go back to the same section and read it more carefully.

I have a strange real-life connection to Steve McQueen. The last film McQueen made before he died in November of 1980 (also the month and year I was born) was The Hunter (1980). The script was an adaptation of a book written by none other than my screenwriting professor in Grad school. Also, a few weeks ago while I was at my cubicle at work, I turned around and saw a couple of people talking to someone. That someone happened to be LeVar Burton who also appears in The Hunter. WOW! Now all I need to do is to meet Eli Wallach in real life (::fingers crossed::) and I'll be super connected to that movie.

Marc Eliot's biography on Steve McQueen is a very entertaining and informative guide for McQueen enthusiasts and newbies alike. I hope you'll take the opportunity to read it.

Fun Facts:

  • Steve McQueen was almost executed by Rebels in Cuba when he ventured outside of safe territory
  • He started with theatre and TV apperances before appearing in films
  • McQueen collected antique cars and bikes, most of which were auctioned off after his death to pay taxes he owed.
  • Rumor is Sinatra tried to get McQueen to become part of the Rat Pack but gossip columnist Hedda Hopper discouraged him.
  • McQueen was mostly deaf in his right ear.
  • He contracted mesothelioma from cleaning pipes filled with asbestos during the war. The cancer would kill him in 1980.
  • McQueen started Solar Productions out of frustrations of not getting good roles.
  • Karl Malden convinced a frustrated McQueen to stick with Cincinnati Kid after he threatened to leave.
  • McQueen and James Garner couldn't stand each other. McQueen was always in competition with Garner and Garner didn't think McQueen was all that great as an actor.
  • McQueen got a black belt in martial arts.
  • I did find an error in the book. Eliot claims the below image is an early headshot of McQueen. It's really a cropping of a publicity shot for the film Baby the Rain Must Fall (1965).

Disclaimer: A big thank to you to Random House - Crown Archetype for sending me this book to review. I really love Marc Eliot's biographies so it was a pleasure to read a new one.


  1. Great review. Thanks. I've been on the look out for a good McQueen book that deals with his movies and acting ability, not just his personal life. Looks like this may be it.

  2. nice review Quelle! and yes i do find it awesome that Clara wrote a letter to him about his show! (thanks for mentioning my blog!) she had become such a recluse in the last years of her life that writing letters was her main contact with the outside world. she wrote a very nice letter to Rod Serling about the T-Zone and his reply was sweet and total class. anyway i digress as usual, lol! i should pick this book up as i only have the Citadel "Films of Steve Mcqueen" book which is far from an in-depth bio. When i was a kid "Bullitt" and "The Great Escape" were 2 films i would never miss when they showed on TV. When i got older i delved deeper ito his filmography and saw so many more great films, quite a large percentage of his body of work is solid going and he is always worth seeing even in a lesser film like "The War Lover". i think with Steve the essence of it all is, he was a sincere, natural actor - he sold it and you bought it and he did it all with style. if you wanna see a really early interesting McQueen performance catch the episode of "The Defenderes" with him, Ralph Bellmay and a young William Shatner - its really good and was done LIVE! Also, must-see the legendary episode of Alfred Hitchcock presents with McQueen and Peter Lorre which was then spoofed by Quentin Tarantino in his chapter of "Four Rooms". ok i shuddup now :)

  3. Wonderful review! I've been a fan of Steve McQueen for a while and I'm definitely going to have to check this bio out. (Hopefully I win it :-D). I'm totally on-board with your advice towards biography reading. I figure every author (and every source an author uses) has certain biases no matter how hard they try to remain neutral. And, like you said, we can never know the whole truth anyway. At the same time, it's always interesting to see the different ways a person is viewed by others.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book with us!

  4. Andrew - It does deal with his personal life but author Eliot devotes a lot of time to his career. So don't be disappointed if you read about McQueen's various love affairs! :-) If you do read the book, please report back!

    Paulie! - Thanks for stopping by. I was hoping you'd catch the mention. It's funny that Eliot's book made it seem that McQueen didn't like his work as much as his fans did. He was always frustrated with one thing or another. However, when I went on Twitter and asked for McQueen movie recommendations people responded basically with his entire canon of work. Ha!

    Spottie - Good luck with the contest! You are so right about bias. I totally forgot about that. Some biographers are big fans of the people they profile and sometimes that influences what they share. So true!

  5. its been my impression over the years that McQueen (like Flynn and Holden and many others before him) didnt possess much belief in his own talent, hence his constant worries that someone would steal the spotlight from him or otherwise walk off with a picture he was in. its hard for me as a McQueen viewer to even fathom this notion for as i said before that guy could steal a film from just about anyone just by showing up! he certainly held his own and then some among some great talent in The Cinncinatti Kid, The Great Escape, The Towering Inferno, The Magnificent Seven and so forth. kind of a shame he couldnt see what his fans could see up there on the big screen.

  6. If you want to see another side of Steve try to see the Bruce Brown film On Any Sunday,it's about motorcycles. BTW Steve and James Garner lived next door to each other, and according to James Steve was pissed off the he did not get the role in Grand Prix.


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