Diamonds in the Rough

This Week: Steve McQueen

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The leading man in American film is an icon without a superior. He's expected to live hard, on and off the screen, slaying women and foes alike without ever letting a cocky half smile leave his face. For a period of time-namely the late '60s-leading men did their own stunts, grayed naturally and partied brazenly without regard for public opinion-and were worshipped like gods for it. Some of them even bottled their own dressing. But there's one who stands out to us as the greatest of all, one whose distinctive ass-kicking style has been overlooked by this generation in favor of more durable stars like Eastwood, Redford or Newman. His name is Steve McQueen.

If you've never seen him on film, it is certainly a unique experience. The man makes blonde badass, scowls sexy and turtlenecks cool. Whatever his features or style, McQueen has a rep (and rightly so) for being rugged and uncompromising because of his demeanor rather than his voice. In McQueen's world, actions speak louder than words. His stunt work in "Bullitt" certainly says so. McQueen, rather than his supercharged mustang, is at the center of the film's iconic car chase, his calm intensity setting the foreground for the blurred hills of San Francisco.

He exhibits the same sense of ease in the prison cell scene in "The Great Escape," by far one of the influential film's most enduring moments. Captured for trying to escape a German POW camp for the umpteenth time, prisoner McQueen casually bounces a baseball back and forth between the concrete wall and his steady hand, biding his time for yet another escape. Today's over-written leading men are likely to grimace, rattle the cage bars and yell in some transparent display of testosterone than display the Zen-like patience of McQueen. But that was his character and the reason they called him The King of Cool. Mild mannered, confident, but not cocky, McQueen was a thinking man's hero-and (spoiler warning!) he escaped from that damn camp anyway.

Steve McQueen isn't the only '60s leading man to get short-shrift from today's movie fan. Yul Brynner and Charlton Heston, bitter enemies in the films in which they starred together, commanded attention with their forms of charisma. "The King and I" owes its greatness to Brynner's booming proclamations and elephantine voice, while Heston's defiant turn in "Planet of the Apes" transformed "damn dirty apes" into the best cinematic slur in history.

While Brynner and Heston deserve more recognition, it's easy for us to see what separates them from McQueen: an attitude of self-assurance and nonchalance. It's McQueen's performance in the 1960 "Seven Samurai" remake, the "Magnificent Seven," that seats him above his contemporaries as the all-time smooth operator. McQueen was merely the second lead in a litany of established Hollywood stars, yet he stole the show with his cool demeanor and laconic attitude toward shooting crooked cowboys. To get noticed around the likes of Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson for your masculinity, toughness and tight-lipped bravado takes cajones and a serious commitment to the strong, silent image. But that's exactly what Mr. McQueen did when he strapped on his bandolero and crossed the Rio Grande or any time he stepped on screen for that matter.

While we admire deep voices and steely wills, most male leads try too hard, a gripe we have with everyone from Will Smith to Daniel Craig. McQueen did everything so effortlessly, whether smoking cigarettes or hurdling Nazis with motorcycles. And in the end that's what defines cool, not just doing it but doing it with style.

Make turtlenecks look cool again with Nick and Derek at [email protected]

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