Terrence Steven McQueen was born eighty years ago today. Three decades after his death, the King of Cool has lost none of his luster. This one goes out to him, Peggy Moffitt, and a certain Ferrari Lusso.
Hollywood has a habit of careful repetition, of warping individuals to fit a bankable mold. Men become actors, actors become stars, and stars become icons. Few become legends. Fewer still stand the test of time.
How do you explain Steve McQueen? How do you sit in front of a keyboard, hammer a few words onto a screen, and sum up the appeal of a man who makes Frank Sinatra look like a trying-too-hard hack? Analyzing the guy who played both Thomas Crown and Michael Delaney is little more than a fool's errand, the kind of task that reduces eloquent men to babbling and ordinary guys like me to shrugs and silence.
He was cool. To explain it is to cheapen it; to pick it apart is to show the world that you Do Not Get It. Cool is indefinable. Cool is effortless. Cool is Paul Newman, James Hunt, Colin Chapman, Miles Davis, James Dean, and maybe George Clooney when he's sober. Cool is not having to explain yourself, and Steve McQueen does not explain. Steve McQueen sits in his living room in his canvas sneakers and points a revolver into the distance. You should be glad he is not pointing it at you.
What is it about Hollywood stars and the fetishes they create? How do we manage to make kings of ordinary men simply by having them pretend to be someone else in front of a camera? How is it that a man can come from Midwestern obscurity, fight — often literally — his way into adulthood, make every mistake in the book, and end up a 20th-century landmark? The answers are out there if you want them, but with stuff like this, I prefer ignorance. McQueen wouldn't waste time thinking about crap like that. McQueen would buy a tamed Le Mans racer and drive around Los Angeles with the tach pegged, his eardrums screaming, and a leggy somebody in the passenger seat.
His life? Oh lord, his life. Books have been written on the effortless acting, on the car and motorcycle fetish, on the impossibly sexy women. I don't have much to add other than to say that I recently discovered both the joyous, boyish motorcycle film On Any Sunday and the fact that McQueen was a pallbearer at Bruce Lee's funeral. Somehow, both of these things complement each other. They make sense.
"In my own mind, I'm not sure that acting is something for a grown man to be doing." — Steve McQueen
I don't know a lot about what it takes to be a movie star, and frankly, I don't care. I just know that, like almost every other red-blooded male on the planet, I want to be Steve McQueen. I want to sit in front of my television and watch Le Mans with the volume up so loud that my eyeballs bleed. I want to tell society to eat my shorts and get the hell away from all the dishwater people who don't Get It. And dammit, I want to wish the King of Cool a happy birthday.
If you want to know more about the man, check out Stevemcqueen.com or the comprehensive McQueen Wikipedia entry. If you want to read about film fetishes and 200-mph drives in the French countryside, check out Michael Keyser's excellent A French Kiss With Death. LIFE just released a collection of previously unpublished McQueen images; they are both candid and intoxicating. (Land Rovers, guns, and a point where he's not wearing pants, if you're into that sort of thing.) And if you want to know more about the cars and motorcycles that the man loved, there's always Matt Stone's wonderful McQueen's Machines. Do yourself a favor and take a look at all of them.
" I would rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth." — Steve McQueen
So go. Step away from the computer. Stop thinking about lame things like salaries, taxes, or that annoying guy in the next cube who never stops talking about his "epic" night at the local sports bar. Leave work, get in your car, and go tear-assing off into the hills. Unbolt your license plate and run some tolls. Speed. Buy a copy of Us Weekly just so you can burn it. When your pent-up frustration is exhausted, give a two-fingered salute to the man who needs no explanation. Birthdays, after all, only come around once a year.
Photo Credits: John Dominis, Time & LIFE Pictures (LIFE images); AFP Photo/Mark Ralston (crash helmet); AFP/AFP/Getty Images (McQueen shooting on back, McQueen in Brabham); AP Photo/William Claxton/courtesy'd to BBC (Lusso)