Back when, a few friends and I had a serious dispute: they thought Paul Newman infinitely more handsome and interesting than Steve McQueen. I suppose it came down to class and politics. Newman was a smug self-important lefty. McQueen was a rather nondescript, close-mouthed loner. In any event, the only time Newman ever came close to being cool was in a movie named Cool Hand Luke, in which he failed to communicate. McQueen, by most accounts, epitomized cool. As with jazz, if you had to ask what the quality amounted to, you’d never know. McQueen simply had it: looks, distance, reserve, mystery, manliness, a sense of being himself. On the screen he conveyed decency, but without needing to play to the audience for sympathy. He craved no one’s approval. I can’t say the same for Newman’s portrayals.
But life isn’t necessarily fair. Newman recently turned 80, and he’s still going strong and rather good-natured about it. McQueen has been dead since 1980, when he succumbed to cancer at 50. A quarter-century later, in what would have been his 75th year, he’s been the subject of a well-choreographed revival. If not for Deep Throat, probably more attention would have been paid to the Turner Classic Movies channel’s well-received special screenings last week of ten McQueen films as well as a 90-minute documentary of his life and work.
The TCM activity coincided with the release of two DVD collections of the “essential” McQueen, including, from Warners, such movies as Never So Few, The Cincinnati Kid, Tom Horn, Papillon, Bullitt, and The Getaway, and, from MGM, The Great Escape, Junior Bonner, The Magnificent Seven and The Thomas Crown Affair. That just about covers McQueen’s opus, with the exception of such films as The Sand Pebbles, Nevada Smith, and The Towering Inferno. The ten movies TCM ran came from this list, along with a few little known early efforts and a posthumously released motorcycle documentary.
One can argue with some of the selections. Because Bullitt is hard to top (notwithstanding the overhyped car chase, in which the same Volkswagen is passed more than once in a downhill sequence), most of the rest will of necessity fare badly. But these films also have their own problems. The Getaway was garbage (sometimes literally), as was Thomas Crown. The Cincinnati Kid was a remake of The Hustler (advantage Paul Newman). Young boys thrilled at The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven (particularly because McQueen’s character managed to survive — for some reason youthful audiences often like a survivor hero, like Edward Burns in Saving Private Ryan, more than the hero who doesn’t make it). But The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven don’t stand up to adult viewing.
Regardless, it was a great week for McQueen’s legacy — except for one small, tiny, GLARING omission, one shared by all the coverage of the TCM screenings, documentary, and DVD releases. Not only was it not shown, but one of McQueen’s finest, most likable roles simply went unmentioned, unrecognized, unrecorded. What made the silence odder is that in that film he starred opposite Natalie Wood, in what was probably her most sympathetic role. The silence was stunning and universal.
Even a provincial critic like Chris Garcia in the Austin American-Statesman joined in. In his June 5 column, he wrote:
If Newman was the better actor (he was), McQueen hit his stride as a lithe physical action star, that all-in-one package of fighter, killer, charmer, lover — the consummate stud, admired by women and men equally. He always got the girl, be it [Ali] MacGraw in “The Getaway,” Ann-Margret and Tuesday Weld in “Cincinnati Kid,” Jacqueline Bisset in “Bullitt” or Linda Evans in “Tom Horn.” But that didn’t mean he had to be nice to them.
Why didn’t Garcia also include Natalie Wood, the girl McQueen got in the movie in question? Because he was nice to her? She was probably the biggest star he ever played against.
THE MISSING MOVIE IS called Love With the Proper Stranger (1963). To repeat, none of last’s week’s coverage deigned to mention it. Not a word about it was included in the otherwise comprehensive McQueen writeup on TCM’s website. Perhaps most shocking is that the TCM-aired documentary didn’t discuss it or show any clips from it, even though the documentary presented a chronological survey of McQueen’s roles.
If Love With the Proper Stranger received any mentions on the Nexis database in the last year, it was in connection with a major biography of Wood released last year. A Variety column on abortion in the movie early this year, in connection with Vera Drake‘s Oscar chances, gave it passing mention. But otherwise, nothing. Not to be too crude about it, but it’s as if the film has been aborted.
LWPS was a major Hollywood effort, directed by Robert Mulligan, who was just coming off directing Gregory Peck in the Oscar-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. It has social implications of its own — probably for the first time, a Hollywood movie raised the issue of abortion.
The movie opens with Wood, a young salesgirl at Macy’s, confronting penniless jazz musician McQueen to tell him she’s pregnant. At first he doesn’t even recognize or remember her. Later he may have some vague recollection of their one-night stand, we’re never sure. She wants his “help.” Weak though not that bad a guy, he agrees. He scrambles to find some cash, even hitting up his ethnic parents rather shamelessly. The appointed moment arrives. The couple appears at a dingy, back alley address. One creep takes their money. A crone appears as the abortionist. Wood proceeds into a dank room. McQueen stays behind a closed door. Sensing something is not right, he bursts in and rescues a terrified Wood before she and her child are mangled. If he didn’t love her before he does now. It will be a while before they can live happily ever after — he’ll have to prove he wants to marry her out of love and not obligation before she can accept him as a worthy husband and father — but one thing is crystal clear: without life love wouldn’t have had a chance.
For some reason, an entire Hollywood-media culture doesn’t consider that a cool message. Pro-choicers could easily argue that Love With the Proper Stranger is really an argument for safe, legal abortions. But they must also know that the life-affirming charm of the movie itself would sweep such wishy-washy talk away in a flash. The culture of death now means a major part of the life of two Hollywood legends never occurred. Somehow, that seems a bigger crime than book-burning.