Monday, February 19, 2018

#HimToo: Revisiting the Steve McQueen legend

I’ve been thinking about McQueen a lot lately, in this #MeToo moment.

Per Wikipedia, this McQueen mug shot came after a DWI incident in Alaska.
I never knew him, but over the years I’ve interviewed a bunch of people who did. The last round of interviews took place three or four years ago, when I was researching the American team (including McQueen) that competed in the 1964 ISDT; that year, it was held in Communist East Germany.

Although a number of American riders had competed in the ISDT, that was the very first U.S. ‘Vase’ team. Besides Steve McQueen, the riders were Bud Ekins, the man who basically introduced McQueen to motorcycles and went on to stunt double him in some famous movie scenes; Cliff Coleman, another movie-industry guy who was another one of McQueen’s small circle of friends; and Dave Ekins, who was Bud’s brother.

By the time I researched that ’64 ISDT, Bud and Steve–the protagonists in the story–were both dead. But I spoke to Dave Ekins and Cliff Coleman at some length, as well others who knew him in the '60s.

Unless you’ve been living in a cave high in the Himalayas for the last few months, you’ve read enough about Harvey Weinstein to know that the movie business has, historically, tolerated some very bad behavior by powerful men. Usually, those who knew him joked about McQueen’s behavior and I admit that, in writing about that ’64 American ISDT team’s wild sexual romp from London to Ehrfurt in the GDR and back to Paris that summer, I glamorized some caddish behavior.

Some of the people I spoke to are McQueen fanboys to this day. But I remember having second thoughts early in one of those (several, long) conversations. One of his friends chuckled as he described the way that even as a young mechanic/shop-hanger-on, if he was out riding with the film star, McQueen never offered to pay for road food and gas. In fact, the star had a remarkable knack for “forgetting his wallet”. When pressed, McQueen had a lifelong habit of weaseling restaurant and gas station owners out of payment–he’d feign not having any money with him, and usually merchants who were besotted with his fame would agree to let it slide. If they didn’t, McQueen would eventually pull a checkbook from his sock and, grudgingly, write them a check.

Although McQueen was always generous towards the orphanage/reform school where he spent some of his teens, he was a cheapskate even at the height of his fame, as the world’s highest paid actor. Variations on that I-forgot-my-wallet story were told over and over by everyone who knew him. Which, even when I was writing a story that traded on the McQueen myth left me thinking... Yeah, but he sounds like a douchebag.

And it wasn’t just that he was cheap. He was basically semi-literate, and by turns sullen, paranoid, obsessively jealous of other actors, prone to fits of rage, and had (to say the least!) poor impulse control.

Even in an industry that rarely punishes bad behavior, McQueen was such a petulant prick that it hurt his career. And the Dunning-Kruger effect really kicked in when he set out to produce his own vanity project, LeMans, without a real script. The movie was an expensive dud; both a commercial and critical flop. To add insult to injury, James Garner starred in Grand Prix which was pretty good, and a commercial success. McQueen hated Garner.

Of course, being an obnoxious cheapskate with a chip on his shoulder, and famously hard to deal with, wouldn’t actually get him on the #MeToo hit parade. But his shitty behavior definitely extended to women too. He was a serial philanderer–although I suppose he never cheated on his last wife, Barbara Minty McQueen, because they only got married right before he died.

McQueen’s friends told stories of going out with him, where he’d pick up broads who were willing (often eager, of course) to fuck the world’s biggest movie star, but who were then pressured to fuck his friends too. He pressured women to partake in group and/or anal sex and if they wouldn’t comply sometimes just stopped his car in the middle of the road somewhere and kicked them out.

But, par for the course, he was enraged by the thought that his wives might ever have cheated on him. There were persistent stories of him assaulting them, and threatening them. And at least one account of McQueen physically assaulting a coat-check girl, when he was on the town with a reporter. There’s that bad judgment again; the star actually handed the reporter $500 a few minutes later and asked him to go and buy the girl’s silence.

A few months after the #MeToo thing took off, I bought an old copy of Penina Spiegel’s biography McQueen: The Untold Story of a Bad Boy in Hollywood. Spiegel conducted hundreds of interviews in a comprehensively researched account of McQueen’s entire family history. What I got from reading it was– and this is not a surprise, considering the kid’s childhood was closed out in the California Junior Boys’ Republic reform school in Chino–that he was pretty much bound to become an emotionally stunted adult.

McQueen didn’t have a lot of genuine friends, but the guys who were his friends, even speaking after his death when you’d expect them to buff his myth, don’t really describe a ‘bad boy’; they describe an asshole whose flaws they tolerated or more likely celebrated, particularly where his abusive behavior towards women was concerned.

As an actor, he had a limited range. But at the end of the day, McQueen still starred in The Great Escape, which included what is at least arguably the most famous motorcycle scene in movies. He genuinely dug bikes, and did the sport of motorcycling a favor when Solar Productions (his company) produced On Any Sunday. And, Bullitt. Et cetera. So, you get to decide how you feel about him.

But, #HimToo. Definitely, him too.