Steve McQueen: A Biography Review

Author: Marc Eliot

Steve McQueen is film history from his swagger to his daredevil racing stunts; it is no surprise that even thirty years after his death people still try to understand his choices. This biography is supposed to be culmination of research and interviews – rolled into a coherent narrative. It is certainly a narrative which at times his as unbelievable as it is misleading. The book claims to have access to unpublished interviews and private diaries but after reading from cover to cover the new material adds little to the McQueen story and certainly doesn’t clarify his motives.

The author, Marc Eliot, is a serial biographer who has covered (among others) James Stewart and Cary Grant.  For a moment it looked like Steve was in good company. However Eliot never finds his feet in this book and seems to actively dislike McQueen. This is a critical error, if you are reading a Steve McQueen book you probably have affection for the man, Eliot isolates himself from the reader and the subject.

The book attempts to breakdown every single one of McQueen’s films after a while this feels like a chore for Eliot who finds himself with little to say on early films and constrained by length restrictions on his obvious favourites. The intention is for the reader to ‘dip in’ at their leisure- perhaps look up The Great Escape before settling down to watch it on BBC Four again- but the writing style is too journalistic to reflect the reference tone. To ‘dip in’ would lose the emotional background which would in turn explain the onset tantrums.  Clearly this book’s structure could have been simplified.

The subject of the book McQueen was a complex man; he represents a unique macho glamour which has become an aspiration for many of today’s leading men. His approach to acting was academic and he has been held up as one of the elite Method actors working at the height of its appeal.  It was McQueen’s venerability- his gaze rather than a reliance on scripts that would draw in crowds and protect his reputation from early flops in his career. At a time when the system was changing – Hollywood studio bosses were learning to work for the artists rather than the other way round – McQueen opened his own studio but never fulfilled his potential. The stardom has led to the rise and falls of careers, brokered million dollar deals and has made people fall in love. To become a star, one must publicize a package: personality, looks, beliefs- The public swallow it all but it is not necessarily an honest reflection of the real person. Biographies, especially post-humorous ones, often claim to tell the real story I would take each reflection with a pinch of salt.

The fame and bright lights of movie stardom attract millions of different types. The work and the experience can weather some individuals but ultimately they survive all the stronger for it.  However others lack the grounding or the personality to cope and the fame long term becomes their undoing. This was the case with Steve McQueen. With a troubled past and an uncertain future within the industry Steve succumbed to his own Ego at the first taste of success. Rumours and stories of his violate nature fill this book from beginning to end until the reader is left wondering who does this man think he his?  In my opinion McQueen has always been a symptom of an ailing system- twenty years later there would have been no room for ego on set. He remains a man of his time and his films are a reflection of an important part of film making history.

Today McQueen represents a legacy of Hollywood leading men, the challenge to perform your own stunts (or as many as the insurers let you get away with), make the jump from television to cinema screen and live life in the fast lane (preferably on a Bonneville T100 motorbike). Stardom is the ability to endure, even with a comparatively minimal filmography- every Christmas you can count on at least one Steve McQueen to be screened. I would encourage you to read about McQueen but ultimately it comes down to a matter of taste: pure journalism or cold hard academia. This book will whet your taste buds but I am not convinced it will satisfy everyone.

Lauren Hounsome

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