Book Review: Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films

Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films by Andrew Antonaides and Mike Siegel from Dalton Watson Fine Books is one of the finest most lavish movie books about a single actor that I have ever read. All of iconic superstar Steve McQueen’s films are equally discussed from his classics (The Blob, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, The Cincinnati Kid, The Sand Pebbles, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, Papillon), to his lesser known earlier movies (Never Love a Stranger, The Great St. Louis Bank Robbery) and later (An Enemy of the People, The Hunter), to his misfires (The Honeymoon Machine, Soldier in the Rain, Baby the Rain Must Fall), to his TV series (Wanted: Dead or Alive).

Most coffee table-type movie books that I have encountered are extravagantly made featuring glorious photographs, but very little substance. However, Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films is not only handsomely produced featuring over 1,000 rare B&W and color photographs, but also contains an in-depth analysis of all of McQueen’s movies listed chronologically. This does not mean McQueen’s life is ignored. The writers expertly weave in the actor’s life journey into each chapter.Reading about his childhood early on clarifies his actions and behavior as an adult where he became very insecure and determined not to be bested by anyone, particularly a co-star.

Each film is allocated one chapter featuring a plot summary; a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the movie usually with comments from cast or crew that worked on it; the reaction of critics and the audience to the final product; and an analysis of the movie itself and McQueen’s performance. All accompanied by rare photos and a plethora of international color posters/lobby cards. Considering how much effort and expense went into the making of this book, you expect it to be nothing but a paean to the actor no matter what the movie. Not here. I commend the writers for taking an honest and balanced approach in commenting on McQueen’s choices and his performances.

Being a film historian myself, my favorite part of the book is the backstory for each of the movies. The King of Cool on screen was not so cool to many of his co-stars or directors off-screen. It is interesting to read about McQueen’s tricks he used to try to upstage agitated movie star Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven. Or on Soldier in the Rain how McQueen, somewhat immaturely, took out his frustrations on Jackie Gleason and director Ralph Nelson when his choice to direct the movie, Blake Edwards, walked just before filming began. The authors are correct to take him to task for his behavior here and on other movie sets. They rightly point out he was miscast as Soldier in the Rain’s loser G.I. delivering a performance that was “another oddity and one of the worst misfires of his career.” I agree with the them that this is not Gleason’s finest moment playing the sergeant McQueen’s character admires, but for me its McQueen’s awkward performance that drags Gleason down. Sans McQueen on screen, Gleason is wonderful as evidenced in his scenes with the sparkling Tuesday Weld as his dumb blond blind date, who has some surprising insights to the world.

Each chapter of this book is wonderful in its own right with the presented facts and analysis of the movies. The standout chapters for me are on The Sand Pebbles and Papillon, one of my favorite movies of all-time. The authors fairly give equal credit to their success to McQueen and their directors/writers. I was surprised then that regarding The Cincinnati Kid, the authors give director Norman Jewison most of the credit for its success and didn’t even mention screenwriter Terry Southern who took Ring Lardner, Jr.’s original script and rewrote it even as the movie was being shot. Some of the most iconic images from the film come from the mind of that genius satirist.

The authors also offer such knowledgeable insight into McQueen’s less-successful films that I have not seen that make be want to immediately—for instance, Nevada Smith, the prequel to 1964’s hit The Carpetbaggers. Critics dismissed this Henry Hathaway-directed western in 1966 and I believed the criticism of it being below-par. And since leading lady Suzanne Pleshette is one of my least favorites from the Sixties, I really had no desire to sit through it despite my admiration for McQueen. However, the authors create a convincing case why I should from the beautiful vistas that fill the wide-screen, to the expert way Hathaway juggles character development and action, to Pleshette’s character being not the typical love interest. Not to mention the fact that McQueen is shirtless throughout a lot of the movie, though they concede that it is a stretch to believe the actor, who was in his mid-thirties at the time, as a teenage half-Indian early on vowing revenge on the varmints that tortured and killed his parents. However, they conclude that McQueen triumphs over this and his performance “engages the viewer emotionally.”

I highly recommend Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films by Andrew Antonaides and Mike Siegel to fans of the superstar and to Sixties/Seventies film enthusiasts. The authors do a superlative job from their perceptive prose to the magnificent visuals selected to accompany each chapter. A bit pricey you may say at $69 (cheaper on Amazon.com), but this spectacularly produced book is more than worth it.

You can purchase it from the link below:

http://www.amazon.com/Steve-McQueen-Actor-His-Films/dp/1854432532/ref=sr_1_14?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322714145&sr=1-14&tag=sixtiescinema-20

 

 

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