He was the ultra-cool male film star of the 1960s, who rose from a troubled youth spent in reform schools to being the world's most popular actor. Over 25 years after his untimely death from mesothelioma in 1980, Steve McQueen is still considered amongst the hippest blokes who ever lived, and he endures as an icon of popular culture.
Tonight’s film STEVE McQUEEN – THE MAN & LE MANS covers a point in his life where his midlife crisis and motor racing passion truly seemed to intersect, but for me it also demonstrated exactly how much the aforementioned “troubled youth” had grown into a very self-destructive man.
With a mother who was a prostitute and a father who was a circus stuntman who regularly beat him during his childhood in Los Angeles, McQueen didn’t have a great start in life (to put it mildly). Whilst still a kid he joined a gang and was sent to reform school for stealing hubcaps, and by 16, he was reportedly working as a towel boy in a brothel.
After being discharged from the Marines, McQueen spent time in South Carolina and Washington D.C., and worked as a getaway driver for bank robbers (weirdly foreshadowing his hit 1972 film, THE GETAWAY). The gig apparently ended abruptly when one of the robbers was shot and nearly killed, and after that McQueen became a pimp for a prostitute named Lindy and went into the business of flogging illegal handguns. "I thought I was making easy money - guns and Lindy. And no taxes to pay,” he once recalled. “But it never ends well.” Bizarrely this realization saw him travel across the US to New York to study acting. The rest as they say, is history.
Which brings me to tonight’s film STEVE McQUEEN – THE MAN & LE MANS, a story of obsession, betrayal and ultimate vindication. It is the story of how one of the most volatile, charismatic stars of his generation (at one point reportedly the highest paid actor in Hollywood) seemingly lost everything he held dear (even his marriage), in the pursuit of his dream, yet nevertheless followed it to the end. The film is a weird and sad watch, and an air of solemnity hangs over the tale of the film he took on in 1970 at the height of his celebrity prestige. It is clear from the outset that the film was something between a vanity project and a midlife crisis. McQueen could never decide on a script or story, and the movie went insanely over budget as his hand-selected team of professional drivers risked their necks shooting hours and hours of ambient race footage.
His passion for his sport and representing it on film is palpable, but scenes in the movie involving his children and then wife, Neile Adams are heartbreaking. It is also interesting – and terrifying – to see the times in which he lived and circles in which he moved, including a Manson Family connection. In Hollywood in the ‘60s, McQueen was a regular at the Whisky a Go Go, where he eventually met celebrity hairdresser Jay Sebring. The pair soon hooked up with a beautiful young starlet named Sharon Tate there, and the trio engaged in drug and booze-fueled threesomes, reportedly even after she married director Roman Polanski. In the film we learn that McQueen was supposed to have dinner at Polanski and Tate’s house on the night Tate and Sebring were murdered by Charles Manson and his gang in 1969, but he canceled at the last minute. He later learned he’d been dangerously high on Manson’s “Death List” and this pushed an already paranoid, drug dependant man into near psychosis. After the close call, McQueen renewed his gun license and began carrying a concealed, loaded Magnum pistol at all times, which could have been disastrous considering his temper. He apparently even pulled the gun on wife Adams and demanded to know if she’d ever had an affair, which was rich coming from a bloke who while married to Ali MacGraw maintained a suite at the Beverly Wilshire in L.A. just for quickies.
Years later in 1978, McQueen developed a persistent cough that wouldn't go away. He quit smoking and underwent antibiotic treatments without improvement. Shortness of breath grew more pronounced and a biopsy revealed pleural mesothelioma, a rare lung cancer associated with asbestos exposure for which there is no known cure. The asbestos was thought to have been in the protective suits worn in his race car driving days, and the star later gave a medical interview in which he believed that asbestos used in movie sound stage insulation and race-drivers' protective suits and helmets could have been involved. Was it his passion that killed him in the end? The jury is out on that one, but this film definitely points to the effect that it had on his life, his loves and his sanity.
STEVE McQUEEN – THE MAN & LE MANS premieres Thursday 22 September at 8.30pm on Rialto Channel