iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
John Farr

GET UPDATES FROM John Farr
 

Jeremy Renner As Steve McQueen? I'm Not So Sure...

Posted: 05/03/2011 11:39 am

I read just the other day that Jeremy Renner may take the lead role in a Steve McQueen biopic.

Now this should be interesting.

Personally, if it goes forward, I will be very interested to see the end product, but let me say upfront I would not care to be an angel investor.

Why not? Let me answer that with another question: just how do you recreate -- or better yet, recapture -- Steve McQueen?

Some of you may remember a fun indie feature called The Tao of Steve (2000), where unlikely ladies' man Donal Logue channels McQueen's ineffable cool to make himself irresistible to women.

That film's very premise exposes the challenge any actor playing McQueen will face.

Simply put, Steve McQueen was a very special kind of movie star: on-screen, he always exuded a powerful, totally unique quality, an air of impenetrable mystery that was riveting... regardless of what role he was playing.

Unlike Paul Newman, the contemporary with whom he felt the keenest competition, McQueen never set himself up as a great actor. He never won an Oscar over his 20-plus year career, and was nominated only once, for "The Sand Pebbles" (1966).

But talk about sheer, unalloyed on-screen wattage.

The pain and melancholy you could sense just under the actor's surface were well-earned. His father abandoned the family in his infancy, and his alcoholic mother sent Steve to live on his Great Uncle's farm, causing further disruption by periodically reclaiming him and then sending him back.

Steve was rebellious, not surprisingly... he never made it through high school (he would always be painfully insecure about his lack of education), and did a tough but formative stint in a reform school after dabbling in petty crime.

A stint in the military followed, and in 1952, at age 22, he began studying acting with the great Sanford Meisner. (Steve used his life-long passion for cars and speed to help pay the bills, competing in races for prize money on the weekends.)

McQueen was a natural, and found work quickly in theatre, TV and film. In 1956, Steve would land a small role in the movie that made soon-to-be rival Newman a star, Robert Wise's Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956).

1958 would turn out to be Steve's breakout year, as he landed his first starring screen role in the enduring horror camp classic The Blob, and just as important, landed a western series on TV and a recurring role in cowboy Josh Randall that would ensure his fame: Wanted: Dead Or Alive.

With the dawning of the new decade, Steve's path to movie stardom was clear. Beyond his startling good looks (something Renner, through no fault of his own, can only approximate), McQueen never seemed to act; he just was. And for him, just being was enough, because as long as he was on-screen, you could never take your eyes off him.

Importantly, he was not only clear-eyed about his own image but also shrewd with respect to his range as an actor. He turned down Steven Spielberg's offer to play the Richard Dreyfus role in Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), explaining that he always avoided roles that called for too much emotional intensity.

That said, there was nothing bland about a McQueen performance, and the reason why goes back to that potent mystique he exuded. The intensity he seemed to avoid was in fact lurking there for all to see, just behind those steely blue eyes.

Yes, he was the essence of cool (after all he did turn down 1971's Dirty Harry, earning Clint Eastwood's eternal gratitude), but he was also more than that.

In McQueen we saw a bewitching combination of conflicting traits, an exceptional looking man without a trace of vanity, a tough guy capable of unusual gentleness, a loner lost in his own thoughts and memories who, at the end of the day, may have preferred the company of cars and motorcycles to people.

His enduring persona cannot be questioned: over thirty years after his passing, he remains a cult figure, a timeless macho symbol for young men who weren't even born when he left us.

Let's face it: biopics are notoriously tricky to carry off even under the best circumstances; too often actors playing other actors fall into caricature, and the audience, understandably, really isn't buying.

With his triumph in The Hurt Locker (2009), Jeremy Renner has certainly proved he has the acting chops to make a solid attempt. That said, I envy no one who sets out to re-animate the fascinating enigma that was Steve McQueen, the reason being that he was so utterly one-of-a-kind.

Just watch his best movies (my picks listed below), and I think you'll see what I mean.

Oh- and Jeremy, best of luck!

The Magnificent Seven (1960)- Akira Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai" gets adapted into a first-rate oater, as seven tough hombres led by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) are hired to protect a Mexican town from a savage gang of looters, including the seamy Calvera (Eli Wallach). The Japanese director's seminal tale of raw human conflict is ideally suited to the western form, and director John Sturges brings together some then-rising stars to bring it to rousing and picturesque life, including McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Though Brynner is commanding in the lead, young Steve steals most every scene he's in, a fact that rankled the older star considerably. Here's one example where an American remake- or rather reimagining, really works. Elmer Bernstein's iconic score was also Oscar-nominated. Followed by three sequels, none of which equal this first entry. Saddle up with the "Seven"!

The Great Escape (1963)-
During World War 2, a team of Allied prisoners in a high security German POW camp work together in a tireless attempt to facilitate a mass escape. Their daring plan is to dig a long underground tunnel which will take them all to the other side of the barbed wire and freedom. This painstaking job will take not only a highly coordinated effort, but a fair amount of time, with a constant risk of failure or exposure. Will these intrepid soldiers make it out of there? This breathless war entry, based on a true story, may just be the finest escape movie ever filmed. Beautifully shot on locations in Europe, director John Sturges reunites several of the cast from his prior triumph, the testosterone-heavy "Magnificent Seven"- notably McQueen (now a much bigger star), James Coburn, and Charles Bronson (as the expert on tunnel digging), and adds in James Garner and Richard Attenborough for good measure. Though the film is long, trust me-you won't be looking at your watch. If you love war movies, this is top-notch, star-studded entertainment. And check out Steve on that motorcycle!

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)-
After suave tycoon Thomas Crown (McQueen) plans and executes a bank robbery for his own amusement, crack insurance investigator Vicky Anderson (Dunaway) is assigned to the case. As Crown and Anderson cautiously circle each other, suspicion mingles with the laws of attraction. Will romance or justice win the day? This sleek, stylized movie's chic trappings and star chemistry still comprise a winning formula. It's fun to see the usually scruffy McQueen dressed to the nines in the title role, but Dunaway's the revelation. Stacked up against the wily, macho Crown, Vicky is his match in looks, confidence, and brains, so the inevitable seduction feels balanced and mutual. "Crown" is a sexy, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game waged between equals, with a nifty surprise finish. Innovative split screen cinematography from Haskell Wexler and a romantic Michel Legrand soundtrack make this one of the top "sixties time capsule" films.

Bullitt (1968)- When hard-nosed Bay Area police detective Frank Bullitt (McQueen) launches an inquiry into the murder of a Mob informant under his protection, he is stymied by aspiring politician Walter Chalmers (Robert Vaughn), head of the Senate subcommittee investigating Mafia corruption. Undaunted, Bullitt pursues the underworld killers with dogged determination. A cop film which boasts one of the best car chases ever - an exhilarating, ten-minute romp through the streets of San Francisco that's rarely been equalled -"Bullitt" is the ultimate McQueen movie (along with "The Great Escape"). The action sequences are taut and nerve-jangling, and the distinctive McQueen persona - reticent, self-reliant, cool under pressure - is fully formed and evoked. Of course, he had one undeniable advantage: he was the coolest movie star of his time, and so both he and "Bullitt" endure. (Note: a young Jacqueline Bisset also makes for a stunning diversion as Bullitt's love interest.)

The Reivers (1969)- Adaptation of William Faulkner tale set at the dawn of the last century concerns exuberant plantation worker Boon Hogganbeck (McQueen), who gets so excited by his rich employer's purchase of a spanking new "horseless carriage" that when the boss leaves town by train, Boon requisitions the vehicle for a road trip to Memphis, where a host of pleasant diversions beckon. For company, Boon's stable hand friend Ned (Rupert Crosse) accompanies him, along with the boss's impressionable grandson Lucius (Mitch Vogel). A host of colorful adventures await them on their journey. Picaresque, whimsical tale benefits from Rydell's warm yet keen sense of nostalgia in portraying a charmingly innocent period, not to mention a refreshingly atypical McQueen performance as a sweet, lovable rogue. Inspired, light-hearted support from co-star Crosse earned him an Oscar nod, along with John Williams' jaunty score. (Note: though the motley trio do spend time in a Memphis "bawdy house", the sequence is handled with sufficient delicacy to make the movie appropriate for older children.)

Junior Bonner (1972)
- Junior Bonner (McQueen) is a fading rodeo star who revisits his home turf to participate in the area's annual event. There, he reunites with his family: beloved dad Ace (Robert Preston), a charming but irresponsible dreamer; mother Elvira (Ida Lupino), his grounded but long-suffering mother; and brother Curly (Joe Don Baker) who's becoming rich developing the land Ace sold him at a discount. Junior must find out if he still has the stuff to compete, while coming to terms with his family situation. Director Sam Peckinpah's most subtle, gentle movie is a perfect showcase for the mellowing McQueen, who wears the part of Junior like a pair of old jeans. "Junior" also boasts a fabulous late career turn from Preston, who nearly steals the movie as Ace. Appropriate for older children, who should enjoy the bucking bronco scenes. Terrific Americana, not to be missed.


For the best movies to watch at home or on the go, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com

To see John's videos for WNET-Channel 13, go to www.reel13.org

 

Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/BMBFarr

FOLLOW ENTERTAINMENT