Melanie Browne reviews Steve McQueen:The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill.
A Flawed Legend
As a kid I never realized Steve McQueen was a “movie star.” I suppose it was because he seemed like an everyman, and so I took him for granted. I’m not sure why I finally decided to look a little closer at the enigma that is Mr. McQueen, but I downloaded Steve McQueen:The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon by Marshall Terrill on to my Kindle and my adventure into his life began. Like all sudden interests, I suddenly became obsessed and watched most of his movies, including for some strange reason, “The Blob,” a bad movie which has become a cult classic that some people take very seriously even though at the end of his life Steve didn’t even like to hear the name of the picture mentioned.
At 657 pages this 2010 Biography will take you awhile, but it’s well worth it. The best things about it are discovering golden nuggets about a man who always played the anti-hero. One of my favorite stories was about the horse Steve rode in “Wanted Dead or Alive,” the 1958 television western he starred in. He got rid of the old horse they provided him, one he described as an “real old horse they pushed out on roller skates,” and found one that was- shall we say-a bit more feisty. “Rocky” would step on Steve’s foot out of pure spite and Steve in turn would punch him in the snout. Neither side ever gave in. They were perfect for each other.
Abandoned by his birth father shortly after birth and neglected and unwanted by his birth mother, Steve had a rough start in life and later collected toys from the 1930’s to try and recreate a childhood he never had. Mr Terrill tries to interject some psychology terms at times and also to diagnose Steve with various issues such as “attachment disorder,” but this, in my opinion, often falls short of his goal and doesn’t add to the narrative. It is nevertheless still a fine portrait of a movie and television actor driven to succeed in spite of his childhood difficulties.
Steve’s greatest flaw is the same flaw we all share, a blindness to our ability to inflict the same pain we feel ourselves on to others that we love. At the same time he was searching for his absent father, his own half-sister tried to contact Steve, and he ignored her. She too, grew up hoping to meet her father. Steve’s mother was a severe alcoholic and an embarrassment to Steve. She appeared and disappeared throughout Steve’s life.
Some things do surprise; Steve was dyslexic and that was one of the reasons he rewrote and reduced the amount of dialogue in television and films. A “Method” actor, Terrill writes how Steve became a master at reacting to others in a scene. He was also a sports enthusiast, constantly riding his motorcycles around town to let off steam from his film and TV career. He was a natural horseman and that’s one the things I noticed when re-watching “Magnificent Seven, and “Tom Horn.” A former marine, he could do many things well, shoot a gun, ride a horse and race cars.
Relationships he couldn’t necessarily do as well, but he was possibly on the defense from a chaotic childhood with no fatherly influence. His first wife Neile, with whom he had two children, seemed to adore him and they had two children together, but like most Hollywood stars, he was mercurial in his love life and had affairs with many of his leading ladies. His most famous romance was probably Ali MacGraw whom Steve married in 1973. The marriage lasted five years, but they simply wanted different things in life, and Ali was too intellectual for him.
The saddest but also uplifting section of the book concern Steve’s diagnosis of Mesothelioma, a cancer affecting the lining of lungs and abdomen. It’s primary cause is exposure to asbestos, which Steve was exposed to in countless ways, with the most exposure happening during his time in The Merchant Marines. The end for Steve included quack therapies and countless trips to Mexico in hopes of a cure. Steve McQueen died in Juarez in 1980 of a heart attack following invasive surgery for the cancers.
After binge watching his movies following my reading of “Life and Legend,” I decided my favorite was “The Thomas Crown Affair.” What’s ironic about this is that I had a dream where I saw Mr. McQueen trying to use an I-Phone, before throwing it across a busy street. He then turned around and I heard insane laughter. I highly recommend Steve McQueen:The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, for an in-depth look at a highly complicated yet real human being.
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