You may have heard that millions of I-Phone users were very much annoyed with Apple when they discovered that the new U2 album had been downloaded onto their smartphones without their permission. What you might not know is that the youngest I-Phone-addicts flooded Twitter with complaints beginning ‘who the f*** are U2?’ I wonder whether the 100$ million Apple paid U2 were enough to comfort the ultra-vain Bono… What a downer for his ego…
My subject today is not Bono, however, but (partly) how fast cultural memory fades, as the I-Phone blunder has revealed. We teachers often complaint that our students live in a limited version of the present with little or no insight into the past. Evidently, we are much older and what for them is history is for us living memory (I recall very clearly the huge queues back in 1987 to buy U2’s smash hit album The Joshua Tree). I say a ‘limited version’ of the present, nonetheless, because both U2 and Madonna, whom I mentioned in the last post, are very much alive and adding regularly new work to a very long career already. I wonder, then, what other icons, already deceased, mean to young students.
The particular icon I have in mind is Steve McQueen –no, not the British black film director responsible for Twelve Years a Slave, but the legendary American star of the 1960s and 1970s who died of cancer, aged only 50. Last Tuesday 7 Discovery Max showed the new documentary I am Steve McQueen (June 2014), directed by Jeff Renfro, written by David Ray and produced by Chad McQueen, a loving son as you can see in the film (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt2649194/). It’s not my intention to review the documentary (you can see a good review at https://thetfs.ca/2014/09/26/review-steve-mcqueen/ ) but to discuss a few points it raises. This connects with my most recent article (available in 2015), on Manuel Huerga’s documentary Son and Moon (Diario de un astronauta) about Michael Lopez-Alegria. There I argue that documentaries are neglected as key primary sources in the study of masculinities –they show which kind of men we find interesting and from which point of view and this is indeed the case with I am Steve McQueen.
I was 14 when McQueen died which means that for me he was what I’ll call a ‘retrospective icon,’ someone you discover through other persons’ enthusiastic opinions and mainly an actor I have admired on TV, never on a cinema screen. I recall gossip, unlikely as this may sound as I was just a child, about his rocky marriage to pretty actress Aly McGraw (Hola! and similar magazines were a usual presence in my grandma’s home). I’ve caught up with McQueen’s legend later, seeing his films again on DVD, rediscovering above all The Great Escape, The Getaway and the absolutely thrilling Bullitt.
For me, McQueen has a kind of feline attractive: he looked sleek and cool (his nickname was ‘the king of cool’ for a good reason). He had always something boyish about him, the traces of the bad boy he could have been if luck had not placed him on the path of acting. I’ve never found him, though, as evidently good-looking as the stunning Paul Newman, a fellow actor McQueen seems to have admired and envied in equal measure (as shown by his jealous bouts during the making of blockbuster The Towering Inferno). McQueen simply had the most amazing blue eyes (‘piercing’ everyone calls them in the documentary) but he had this funny flat-top head, a longish face with that pointy chin, the deep cheek creases that aged badly, the fit but not really muscular body… The actor whom I thought the most likely candidate to be his heir, the late Paul Walker of Fast and Furious fame, was far more beautiful than McQueen. Yet, he did not have what McQueen had: charisma.
I am Steve McQueen contributes with its elegiac tone to the legend around the star precisely by focusing on his charisma, both on the screen and on the race track, as he possessed a heady cocktail of major acting and driving skills. At one point a male interviewee (I can’t remember who) describes him as a “guys’ guy” and you can bet this is a perfect label. The two ex-wives (Broadway star Neile Adams, the mother of her two children, and Aly McGraw) and the widow (ex-model Barbara Minty) share their memories on camera teary-eyed; Minty even presents herself as a kind of female version of McQueen in her pleasure for speed. As happened in the case of Michael Lopez-Alegria in Son and Moon, I was bowled over by this all-round praise of wholesome manliness. To put it simply: if thoroughly admirable men like this existed, women would be much, much happier. And so would men.
I was concerned by a comment in the memoirs published by Anoushe Ansari, a rich business woman who bought herself a ticket to travel to the ISS in Lopez-Alegria’s very reluctant company: he never smiled, she says, a bit wary. This is a very tiny stain in comparison to what the documentary glosses over in McQueen’s life: his constant infidelities, his rough temper, his short fuse. Neile Adams mumbles something about leaving him because she feared him. Also, the documentary attributes McQueen’s mortal lung cancer to the asbestos he was in contact with during his stint in the military. Well, fair enough, though I recalled from my childhood plenty of gossip about his being a very heavy smoker (and habitual drug user).
I am Steve McQueen has been produced, as I noted, by a loving son, Chad (the daughter, Terry, died in 1998) and it is very palpably a portrait of a father very much admired privately and, what is more, to be proud of publicly. Something, however, is missing: something which, if you ask me, Brad Pitt possesses right now, that perfect mix: the physical beauty, the personal charisma, the serene manliness and the firm commitment to his big family and to his wife (Paul Newman comes to mind again). Not that Pitt is my favourite male icon (I’m not sure I have one, except Atticus Finch…) but he comes closest than anyone else to what McQueen embodies in his son’s documentary. If Pitt’s not a “guys’ guy,” and I don’t think he is, then one thing I can say for sure is that he is a “gals’ guy” much more than (too) cool McQueen.
This may sound strange coming from a confirmed feminist as I am but I wish that, one day, the “guys’ guy” and the “gals’ guy” become the same person. If only we could have the (cool) manliness without the selfishness and the mysoginy lurking beneath all portraits of manly legends things would be so perfect.
Now go and enjoy Bullitt…
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