Non-Expressionism: The Gift of Steve McQueen

Steve McQueen

I started going to the movies in the seventies and Steve McQueen was one of the first stars I got to know in current releases. When I saw his last film in the theatre, The Hunter, on opening weekend no less, so excited was I to see it, I felt I knew him well. I didn’t. Even though I loved movies like The Blob, The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon and, yes, The Hunter, mediocre as it may be, I didn’t fully understand Steve McQueen as an actor. I liked him and his movies but never felt he was doing the job I thought others were doing when it came to big screen acting. I certainly didn’t think he was bad, I just never gave him much thought as an actor overall. But then, very recently in fact, I had a revelation.

A few months ago I watched The Towering Inferno for the first time since childhood. I was going to use it for a “Land Before CGI” post but decided against it upon realizing it was almost all stunt work (admirable enough, don’t get me wrong) and very little in the way of miniature or optical effects. And it didn’t matter because before my eyes I was seeing something that fully and finally explained Steve McQueen for me. I even brought it up to my wife in excitement after watching it, like I’d discovered some secret know one else knew. It starts with this: Steve McQueen as Fire Chief Michael O’Hallorhan has not one line of dialogue that hints at character depth or development of any kind. Not one. Every single line is technical: “I need to know the businesses on each floor above the fire.” “Why?” he’s asked. “If they manufacture polyester, that releases cyanide gas at high temperatures. If they …” and so on. All of his lines are like that. And he’s brilliant! And I am being very serious here. Truly, no flippancy. Steve McQueen carries that entire film in a walk. He is utterly, completely and absolutely convincing as the fire chief. I did not doubt for a second he was one and if I were in a building on fire and he showed up and started talking like he does in this movie I would do whatever he told me to do. I would trust him implicitly. But more than that, he is compelling and the audience wants to return to him every time he exits the screen.

And that’s why Steve McQueen confused me at times as an actor: He was a star and he should’ve been the guy playing the technical expert in every action film ever made. The roles that McQueen excelled at, like the authority figure here in The Towering Inferno, are few and far between in the world of cinema. Fire chiefs just don’t get many starring roles.

In order to explain further I need to make a claim that will seem strange to some but I am betting my fellow actors out there will understand. There is a real talent to being non-expressive in a role. Most people confuse that with being wooden. It’s not the same thing. Being wooden is delivering your lines badly and flatly. Being non-expressive is delivering your lines convincingly but without flourish. And casting in those types of roles usually misses the mark. Burt Lancaster was an actor who “acted” every word of dialogue and I imagine his role as the fire chief would have been as much of a disaster as Steve McQueen playing Elmer Gantry. Each actor had his strength and in the fire chief role, Lancaster’s strength would have worked against him. That’s because most actors, not just Lancaster, would have instinctively given that fire chief “character” when in real life, in a real fire, all the chief does is give orders. I think it’s a high compliment, and a sincere one, to say I can’t imagine another actor being smart enough to play the fire chief the way McQueen did. Steve McQueen knew straight-forward, quiet and convincing authority like most people know how to breathe. He used this same style in most of his roles whether it really fit or not. And being non-expressive, but not wooden, means he never came off looking ridiculous in a role because he was trying too hard to nail a moment with the perfect delivery. But it also means he was very misunderstood as an actor and still is.

When I finished watching The Towering Inferno I reassessed Steve McQueen as an actor. We associate great acting with great range but really, expertise in one specific area is quite an achievement. And few actors in movie history could do convincing non-expressive like McQueen. Turns out he was a damn good actor after all, I’d just been looking in the wrong direction the whole time.

Greg Ferrara is an amateur film maker and writer working towards the unachievable goal of self sufficiency.  He blogs out of love for film and history and studied film in college but has his degree exclusively in theatre.  You can visit his website at http://cinemastyles.blogspot.com.

  • Mindy

    I’m surprised it took you so long to get him!

  • Trisha Johnston

    Steve McQueen was a terrific actor. He was nominated for an Oscar and 4 Golden Globes. I particularly loved him in movies where he showed his comedic talents. An outright comedy, “The Honeymoon Machine”, is a forgotten gem. One of his Globe noms was for “The Reivers”. Two more that he showed his comedy chops were “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Love with the Proper Stranger”.

  • Name Kevin Reilly

    You can’t analyze and understand Steve McQueen’s acting without looking at Soldier in the Rain.

  • Sam Fletcher

    Steve McQueen was great at playing–Steve McQueen. From his TV series Wanted Dead or Alive through all of films (starting with a bit part in Newman’s Somebody Up There Likes Me), McQueen played essentially the same character. And by the end of his career, I for one was tiring of it.

    It’s ironic that The Towering Inferno was cited as an example of McQueen’s art considering all the behind-the-scenes flexing of Star Power by McQueen. He originally was to play the lead role of the architect. The fire chief was to have been Ernest Borgnine, who would have brought working-man feel to the part. But McQueen said he wanted the role of the fire chief, which meant the part had to be expanded to his star status. The dealing really got hot when Newman was brought in to play the role McQueen had rejected. McQueen, Newman, and William Holden all insisted on top billing for the film, but Holden no longer had the star power of McQueen and Newman. The studio finally had to come up with equal billing by arranging the opening credits so it looked like neither McQueen nor Newman was credited ahead of the other. As I remember it, McQueen insisted that the fire chief have the exact number of lines as Newman’s achitect. Certainly the studio had to pay them both the same salary

    I was very disappointed with Towering Inferno when it came out because it was a cookie cutter disaster film popular in that period where you throw a lot of big stars and former big stars together and see who lives and who dies. There were lots of silly scenes–the overturned wheelbarrow of dried cement in the stairwell that blocks an escape door (who pushes a wheelbarrow of wet cement up or down stairs?), and Newman kicking apart a flanged pipe several inches in diameter. The script was based on two novels about high-rise fires. I read both the books, and the film left out the two most interesting characters–an aging Jew whose business in financial trouble and a Hispanic teen who resents that his mother works in the janitor crew at night.

    At his best, McQueen was good at playing himself, but I don’t see him as a “great” actor–just a great Movie Star.

  • rvictor

    How can anyone say He was not a great actor? He was the coolest man on Earth plus he was nominated for best actor in Sand Pebbles.

  • Anthony Piazza

    I was very fortunate to meet Mr. McQueen twice. Once as a visitor to the set of Bullitt and again, when I worked as an extra/stand-in on “The Towering Inferno”.I had written about it in detail on the TCM site, so I won’t go into a lot of detail except to say that he was a very generous man and gave of himself both on screen and in real life.

  • Raif Damico

    It’s true that Steve McQueen basiclly played himself.But that is what made him special and a movie star. A great actor…no.Great actors are resered for Lawrence Olivier,Daniel Day Lewis,or Ralph Finnes. What McQueen did they couldn’t do,the tough action hero.Who could play Bullitt the way McQueen did, or any other of his action movies. He was the perfect Aries.

  • Cynthia LaRochelle

    “Nevada Smith”,,, “Magnificent Seven”,,”The Great Escape”.. etc,etc

  • Ken C.

    Imagine the fabulous work still to come if his life hadnt been sadly cut short !….It boggles the mind !!!

  • J P Ward

    For the record, Sam Fletcher hit the nail on the head, he is dead on correct. When I think of Steve McQueen, I think of James Dean and Marlin Brando. They were all the same. Dean and Brando used emotion as their tool of the trade, where McQueen used McQueen. All three of them portrayed themselves in movie after movie, regardless of the character they were supposed to portray. Paul Newman had been McQueens nemesis during his entire career, at least that is what McQueen thought. McQueen wanted everything that newman had and went out of his way to mimic him in everything he did including racing cars. McQueen had an ego that would one day kill him. McQueen always did his own stunts just so he could show everybody else up. He always felt he was invincible and his reckless ways finally caught up to him. As an actor, he wasn’t. If you have seen only one of his films, then you probably saw everything he had ever done, because it was all the same character.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whatever41 Cynthia LaRochelle

    Sounds like J P Ward is a little green around the gills.

  • Butch Knouse

    You forgot McQueen’s one killer line in The Towering Inferno. The chief, another man, and a rookie firefighter, first night on the job, all have to rappel ten floors down an elevator shaft. The rookie is sweating bullets and says “I’ll fall. I know I’m going to fall.” So Chief McQueen says, “You go first. That way you won’t land on one of us.” (The kid made it down safely).

  • George

    He was OK…you either liked him or you didn’t. I see a lot of you did, some of you didn’t. I doubt you’ll ever see him on a list of the top 100 actors of all time, maybe the the top selling Movie Stars of all time. Personally I liked his movies more than I liked him, but he was always believable in the part. Can anyone ask for more?

  • Diane

    Steve McQueen was a great actor because you never caught him “acting” – much like Spencer Tracey. He spoke his lines and you believed every word he said because he was so natural. Nothing fake or over the top about Steve McQueen in my humble opinion. Loved him, we lost him too soon!!! By the way Mr. Sam Fletcher – you should not base your opinion of Steve McQueen on The Towering Inferno – it was a crappy movie made during a time that disaster movies ruled the box office and every actor had to jump on that band wagon to be seen during that time. Watch Nevada Smith, Papillon, Bullitt and Love With the Proper Stranger (co-staring Natalie Wood – which is not a comedy as Trisha mentioned).

  • sammyJ

    Who could forget McQueen’s line to Nick Adams in “Hell is for Heroes” ….”you show up on the line and I’ll blow your head off” You could tell by the way he said it he meant it!

  • Palmer

    I’ve watched The Thomas Crown Affair dozens of times , the scene in the sauna with Faye Dunnaway is priceless and by the way the closing scene when she reads the note and realizes she has lost the only man she will ever really love and the scene shifts to Crown in the airplane and a little smile appears . I have done some acting and one reviewer once said they believed I was the person I was portraying and went on to say no finer compliment could be paid to an actor. Well I believed Steve McQueen was Thomas Crown and I believed he was Bullitt. His body of work will stand the test of time. I may not have liked him personally I’ll never know that, but he certainly moved me on screen.

  • Butch stecker

    To take a look at Steve McQueen, You got to take a look at his 2nd love which was Automoblie Road Course Racing. The one movie that shows part of the was “LeMans”.
    He was a member of SCCA (amature and professional racing) also the World Professional Drivers Assoc.
    I ment Steve at Watkins Glen at two diffenerent races at a SCCA National race and at the 6 HR. Race (Professional race).
    Steve was very much like Dick Smothers and Paul Newman with their racing.
    They all apporched their acting careers has their racing, it was “Balls to the Wall” and in “The Great Escape” and “Towering Inferno” you can see this.
    HE WAS GREAT in both racing and acting.

  • Bob Davidson

    After reading the blogs one thing struck me. There
    was no menttion of Steve’s, I feel, best film and
    that was the Sand Pebbles. Outstanding job!

  • Al Hooper

    McQueen a great actor? Compared to who? Lassie? Gimme a break, please.

    – Al

    • Thom

      So Al, I guess you are more of the “Twilight” series type? Where little pubescent guys take their shirts off in every frame and pretend to be men? If you don’t think Steve McQueen was a great star and actor, then you are living in the throws of denial, friend. Or living under a rock somewhere.

  • Ross

    When I first saw McQueen on television in “Wanted: Dead or Alive”, I was completely captivated by his performance as Josh Randall. You must remember the time…we baby-boomers had never seen anyone like McQueen on screen. Newman had been making films for several years already and had not really impressed the youth market that much. He would later, but not in 1960.
    McQueen was like a breath of fresh air and we took him as our own. When he moved on to feature films he did not disappoint us. With his experience as a US Marine he was very convincing in military films. But he was especially good, To me, in Westerns. He could also handle comedy pretty well. I don’t think anyone can deny that McQueen was the biggest star of the 60′s. We can argue forever how good an actor he was. I really couldn’t care less about that. The man never made a film that I was sorry I paid to see.
    I think that most of the boomers will agree with me on one thing…however over-used the term may have become… Steve mcQueen was the “coolest” actor to ever grace the silver screen.

  • Sam Fletcher

    Diane rightfully advises, “you should not base your opinion of Steve McQueen on The Towering Inferno – it was a crappy movie made during a time that disaster movies ruled the box office and every actor had to jump on that band wagon to be seen during that time. Watch Nevada Smith, Papillon, Bullitt and Love With the Proper Stranger”

    I agree Towering Inferno was the worse film any of that cast ever was in, and I certainly don’t judge McQueen by it alone. I think I’ve seen every film McQueen ever made–never said I didn’t like him, just recognize that he always played McQueen–same hand movements, same facial expression, same voice inflections, same timing in every film he made–never a variation to indicate the individuality of the different characters. I liked Nevada Smith–he had a better than average cast in that film. Karl Malden added a lot to it, as did Brian Keith. I think Love With The Proper Stranger was the best thing he ever did (but my appreciation of that film may be colored by the fact I saw it the night after my first wife and I split). But at least, he played against his usual tough guy type in that he gets the black eye from one of Natalie’s brothers. And again, the cast was loaded with better than average actors who challeged McQueen for a better performance.

    Papillon left me flat, however; maybe because I had already read the book or maybe because it had Hoffman there to show what a really great actor can do with a basically lackluster script (Tell the truth, was Hoffman’s character in that film like any other character he ever played before or since??? Now that’s an actor, as opposed to a movie star!). Anyway, that film just didn’t live up to my expectations.

    And I hated Bullit because it seemed to trigger the craze for car chases as a substitute for plot and acting. All special effects packed into a ho-hum story. Yeah, the rest of the world thought it was great, but it shot past me. Oh, well, different strokes for different folks.

  • Edward Nelson

    Steve McQueen was a consumate actor and very believable in all his parts. What he gave was not what he said or the lines but it was his expressions and body language. Scenes like in Bullitt when he just woke up!!

    He gave you the message with his face and his motions without saying a word.

    Was he a great actor?…there were sure some that are or were better…Hoffman, Tracy, De Niro, et al, but his screen presence made him a force on screen and extremely entertaining to watch.

  • Glen Pla

    I thought he was a great actor in The Sand Pebbles, the first scene on the boat between him and Candice and also when he had to shoot the coolie( I think that’s what they called them) he trained later in the film. Mcqueen was top notch in that. Say what you will about him, he was top notch in that movie. There was plenty of depth and emotion, sensitivity and inner turmoil conveyed in his face throughout the challenges he faced. Including whether or not to stay with his command. You guys need to take a look at that movie again

  • Thom

    Steve McQueen was a great actor, but, yes, he was playing “McQueen.” What you saw was what you got…take it, or leave it. His best movie was “The Getaway” followed closely with “Bullitt.” When those who knew him was asked which of his movies represented who he was the most, they almost all said that The Getaway’s, “Doc” was the closest to the real McQueen. Even Ali agreed and said the same. And if you think about that movie, and then how McQueen lived the latter years of his life, that pretty much fits the bill. People often mystify McQueen because of his status; however, he was a very simple man who enjoyed the things that most men do: Cars, Bikes, Women and Money. In these things there are no mystery. He threw off the “Star” crap later and became himself once again…and was happier for it. What truly made McQueen great was he reflected each of us in some way. And you can’t “act” that.  

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