Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Steve McQueen and The Evolution of The Action Hero

This essay is part of the Steve McQueen Blog-a-Thon, sponsored by Jason Bellamy of the blog Cooler Cinema. Click here to check out more bloggers’ thoughts and opinions about the Hollywood legend.

Without a doubt Steve McQueen is one of the most popular American actors to ever walk the silver screen. He was also one of the most successful – at his peak he was the highest paid actor in Hollywood and he still ranks among the top earning deceased celebrities of all time.

I’m not a huge McQueen fan, although I’ve enjoyed all of the films I’ve seen him in. The movies I know him best from are The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, The Cincinnati Kid, The Towering Inferno, and Hell is for Heroes, all of them great films. Like anyone with more than a passing familiarity with the man, I’m also familiar with the public and personal aspects of his life that earned him the title “The King of Cool.”

The celebrity McQueen reminds me most of is Frank Sinatra. Both were good looking, driven men who came up the hard way and earned everything they got with their talent and will. They both thrived when America was entering the last half of the 20th century, with all the changes in cultural and social mores that went along with it. They were both also physically undersized men who (from my distant viewpoint) perhaps at times trying a bit too hard to prove to everyone how badass they were.

These days I think men are much more into him as an actor and a sex symbol than women - he’s the Julia Roberts of male actors. His “cool” factor has a lot to do with this, and no discussion of McQueen would be complete without talking about it. Matt Zoller Seitz makes a compelling argument that McQueen, in the way he made arrangements for all his characters to maintain their aloof, steely-eyed Alpha Male stance in all occasions, acted TOO cool, to the detriment of his characters and his career.

I agree that McQueen’s cool is very much a conscious career choice. His apocryphal quote about why he passed on a role with a dramatic character arc (“I don’t want to be the guy who learns. I want to be the guy who knows.”) is one of my favorite Hollywood lines for it’s honesty, and it gives a clue as to why he has such a devoted following. What guy DOESN’T at least occasionally want to be the guy who’s got it all figured out, who wins even when he loses? This is the kind of persona that puts X-Y fannies in the seats, even if it doesn’t win Best Actor awards.

During his reign McQueen was “what every girl wanted, and every guy wanted to be.” McQueen became a star at a time in movie history, a time when the concept of the leading man who made his living taking on the Bad Guys and going on adventures was changing. During Hollywood’s first Golden Age in the 1940s and 1950s, when Hollywood was churning out Westerns and cops-and-robbers flicks, many male actors, from the no-name actors in B-pictures to legends like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, were tough guys who had swagger and easily portrayed characters who had lived a little. My personal favorite was Sterling Hayden, who came along at the tail end of that era but still encapsulated the essence of it.

These leading men more attractive than the average joe, but they weren’t “pretty” in the way that today’s manicured and blow-dried actors are. Black and white film made eye color and skin tone irrelevant, but put more emphasis on shapes and shadows, so being tall and broad-shouldered helped, although if you had the look and the attitude, like James Cagney, you could make a nice living in shoot-‘em-ups and crime thrillers.

McQueen’s heyday was mainly in the 1960s and ‘70s and he had all the tools to succeed in the era of Technicolor – the looks, the screen presence, and the persona. I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to declare that McQueen wasn’t the most spectacular thespian in the world, but neither were hundreds of other actors who came along before or after him. His screen presence was something that comes along a few times a decade, and his directors made full use of it.

The 1960s and ‘70s was a tremendous time in movies and television in terms of the variety of leading men who were getting billing. This might just have been the Golden Age of male actors in American movies. In one corner McQueen, Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were playing the indestructible heroes who might get knocked around but will always come out on top in the end. Meanwhile, Capitol-A “Actors” like Jack Nicholson, Marlon Brando and Robert DeNiro were carrying the torch for thespians who were also movie stars. And then there were the sensitive guys (Woody Allen, Dustin Hoffman, and Eliot Gould) who could make a living portraying men who explored their feelings. The action hero had his rightful place in the movie landscape.

And then, on May 25, 1977, something happened that changed everything about the action hero. By starring in an out-of-left-field independent film called Star Wars and later in a comic-book style throwback about a whip-wielding archeologist, Harrison Ford changed what it meant to be a Hollywood action hero and a movie star.

The characters Ford made famous, Han Solo and Indiana Jones, were a mishmash of the swashbuckling rouges of the Erol Flynn silent era and the cynical anti-heroes of the 1940s noir flicks. These characters were handsome, tough and smart, but they also had to be coxed into their heroics, and at some level they seemed to be aware of the outlandishness going on around them, be it in outer space or the jungles of 1920s South America.

Most importantly, the characters Ford pioneered appealed to both the ladies and the guys in the audience, which to producers is known as “printing money.” For better or worse, Hollywood action heroes who came along after, from Bruce Willis to The Rock, share the same aesthetic of a leading man who knows he’s in a Big Hollywood Picture and therefore doesn’t have to take anything too seriously.

In the 1980s, with everything turned everything up to 11, this lead to what I consider the commercial apex of the action hero, the decade when the Leading Man changed from an icon into a franchise, led by megawatt stars like Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, and the actor whose career arc I think most closely mirrors McQueen’s, Tom Cruise. The names got bigger and so did the movies, often in the direction of science fiction and stories so outlandish there’s no way a studio would pay to let them be told without a certified A-lister with a sack full of clich├ęs and one-liners signed up to play the lead.

In the 1990s and 2000s, as Hollywood’s cocaine high wore off and films got smaller, the archetypal action hero changed again, led by the likes of Brad Pitt, (occasionally) Johnny Depp, and George Clooney. The biggest difference between these leading men and their past counterparts is a marked lack of physicality (Fight Club being the exception that proves the rule). Brains, beauty and a certain kind of suave became the standard requirement for top billing, not the kind of suave made famous by the Rat Pack, but one born of focus groups and product positioning, the kind of suave corporations use to try to sell Axe body spray.

Snappy one-liners and clever plot twists replaced fist fights and car chases. Meanwhile the “tough guys” are steeped in irony and self-referential-ness. Occasionally a one-off like Jason Statham in some Euro-tinged karate flick will present itself to the U.S. market, but nowadays charismatic physical specimens like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are just as likely to do kiddie comedies where their muscles are part of the joke as they are to do a straight-up adventure film.

The only current A-List actor who seems willing to play characters who mix it up with his enemies without him or the movie winking at the audience is Matt Damon (like in his Bourne series or his recent pic Green Zone). Part of this decline in fisticuffs might be because the studios’ choice to not let their properties get hurt. But I think a big part of it is typical movie audience that is now so aware of all the tricks of the business and the lines between fantasy and reality that ironically might be the only way to enjoy the films.

How does Steven McQueen fit into the decades-long progression of American movie action heroes? To me, it ‘s a tough call. He’s too good-looking to be a part of the pre-war tough guys. He wasn’t talented enough to be a ‘70s auteur. While in a way he represented the ‘60s counter-culture, he’s was too focused and literal in his performances to be the kind of ironic anti-hero of today. And he’s too raw and physical to be a 1990’s-2000’s leading man who does far more talking than doing.

If McQueen were coming into the movie business today I suspect his path would be different from the one that made him a mega-star in the 1960s. The role of the action hero in American movies has changed. Not to say that movies don’t take “manly” men seriously anymore, but the character who was once a paragon of manhood itself has been replaced by ironic smirks or even outright parody. Changes in storytelling, audience tastes, and even technology have taken a lot of the mystique out of the role.

Every era gets the movies it wants and deserves. Depending on your perspective McQueen either pioneered his own era or he flourished between eras. Like any other successful actor, thought, he gave the public exactly what it wanted, and they rewarded him for it.


  1. This is a tremendous analysis of the evolution of the action film hero. McQueen had a special kind of charisma that I never detected in Harrison Ford. I was never crazy about Harrison Ford. I'm a big Brad Pitt fan - and he has some of McQueen's attraction - but not quite all the magic.

    And, yes, going to the movies in the 60s and the 70s was a magical moviegoing time, but if I had to choose one, I'd definitely choose the 60s - great films, and McQueen was there along with other great film heroes.

  2. Clarence: Thanks for taking part in the blog-a-thon. This is a nice piece.

    I think there are two modern actors that have quite a bit in common with McQueen, but in slightly different ways: Matt Damon and George Clooney.

    Damon is physical and while more rounded than McQueen, he's not the first guy that you think of for range. McQueen could have easily been Jason Bourne. In fact, Jason Bourne is essentially the Bullitt of his era, just with more narrative (which, in a sense, is also a product of the era).

    Clooney is even close to McQueen in that he perfectly understands his strengths and has no problem playing to them. Again, Clooney had more range, but he lacked McQueen's physicality. He's a better talker, but he's also been in films with better things to say. To watch McQueen in The Thomas Crown Affair is to see that he could have been a Clooney type figure. Both men are great in close-ups. Both guys are handsome and yet not too pretty to be admired by men. (Also, I think more women in McQueen's era were fans than you might think; he just doesn't have as many women fans anymore.) Both actors also stopped doing interviews at some point.

    Anyway, there are a lot of differences. As you suggest, McQueen was indeed more of the action hero. Often, Bruce Willis reminds me of McQueen for the ease of his swagger; it's so natural. But, obviously, Willis is a big-time talker and McQueen wasn't.

    I could ramble, but you get the point. Thought-provoking piece. Thanks again!