On last week’s installment of our Prove Me Wrong segment I asserted that “Sedans are now cooler than wagons” and expected a fusillade of hatred and, actually, you were all mostly reasonable? Let me try something I also sincerely believe but maybe other people will not: Steve McQueen looked cool but wasn’t actually cool and you shouldn’t pretend to be him. Instead, if you feel the need to cosplay as mid-century actor you should model your life after James Garner. James Garner was cooler than Steve McQueen ever was.
This has been brewing in me for a while, but I was hanging out at a coffee shop in Monterey a couple of weeks ago during car week and a dude in the full McQueen walked in. He had the Steve McQueen Gulf Oil leather jacket. He had the Steve McQueen sunglasses. I’m pretty sure he had one of the watches. Then this dude takes off his jacket and he has a Steve McQueen shirt on underneath.
I will admit that the aesthetic works. For all the things you can say about Steve McQueen that are negative–keep reading for me to share some of those things–it’s hard to argue that he didn’t at least look cool. Steve McQueen looked more like a movie star than any three macho modern movie stars you can think of: Chris Pine, Michael Fassbender, and Tom Hardy? Nope. Christian Bale and both Hemsworths? Not even close.
Steve McQueen, visually, perfectly embodies some sort of platonic ideal of a famous alpha male and that’s one of the big reasons why people ape his style. It doesn’t work. Don’t do that. You are not Steve McQueen and you don’t want to be Steve McQueen.
I’m not going to critique his acting because I think he was a good actor and he had a rough start to life that he wore very clearly on his face even in ridiculous early films like The Blob. When Steve McQueen smiles in a film, and he doesn’t do it all that often, it feels great, partly because it doesn’t happen that often. It’s charming. He steals The Towering Inferno from Paul Newman. Paul Newman!
As a person, though, not so great. I read “Steve McQueen: A Biography” by Mark Eliot a few years ago and it’s kind of a hagiography so I don’t really recommend it just on principle, but if you like Steve McQueen I extremely suggest you don’t read it. Like, Werner Herzog in “Grizzly Man” imploring the woman whose friend was just eaten by a bear to not listen to the tape of the friend being eaten levels of: DO NOT READ. In fact, don’t read any further. Just take my word for it and stop emulating him.
You’re still here? Ok.
Even in a book that gives Steve McQueen an awful helluva lot of credit due to his not-so-great childhood it’s hard to ignore that McQueen had a large side of him that treated other people terribly.
His ex-wife Nelle McQueen Toffel wrote a book about McQueen called “My Husband, My Friend” and there’s a scene in it where she goes to visit him in France while he’s making the film “Le Mans” and he’s clearly sleeping around on her even though they’re still married. There are all these girls following him from place to place. He admits it to her and then, maybe out of a sense of guilt, tries to get her to admit she cheated on him. She won’t do it. He coerces her to do a bump of coke and puts a gun to her head and forces her to tell him, saying he’ll find out and kill her and kill the guy so she might as well tell him.
It’s harrowing and it’s far from the only example of Steve McQueen being abusive and violent, towards women or towards anyone.
Also, on the topic of Le Mans. It’s fun to watch once because it has some rad shots if you view it as an art film and not a film that’s supposed to be narratively or emotionally fulfilling. If you want want the same emotions and same basic story you can watch Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman and you even get a great Mustang. If you want to experience Le Mans, it’s a little more expensive to go to France and watch it but it’s way better and at least feels about half as long as the movie on the second watch.
Steve McQueen could act. He could look cool. He could drive cars fast. He was in that great war movie where he tries to escape from the Nazis. It’s a bummer he died young because if he’d have lived a little longer maybe he’d have reconciled with everyone and made a proper amens for all the shit he pulled, but he mostly didn’t and no amount of suave-looking sunglasses can really make up for what he was like if you take the time to dive deeper and find out what he was like.
You know who also could act? Who also looked cool and could drive fast cars? Who also made a movie about racing? You know who was in the same movie about getting away from Nazis? James Garner.
James Garner lived 86 years and, as far as I can tell, was fucking great for all 86 of them.
Acting? In the same way that McQueen gets the edge on Newman I’d give points to Garner in The Great Escape. While McQueens character gets to be moody and cool he mostly makes trouble and irritates people while Garner is key to the whole program. There are parallels here.
James Garner had a long career and did a bunch of great things, including Maverick and The Rockford Files. It’s not worth arguing over who was better because it’s more a matter of taste than anything quantifiable, but most of McQueen’s roles relied on him being the aloof tough guy whereas a great deal of Garner’s roles worked because, behind the smile and the charm, there was a profound sense of empathy. JG was way funnier, too, there’s no way to prove me wrong there.
This extends to real life as well. Garner also had a terrible upbringing. He was abused. His step mother tried to kill him. It’s pretty awful and it’s no good trying to stack someone’s victimhood against another person’s troubled formative years, but these kind of experiences can often lead people to become selfish for understandable reasons of self-protection or they can make you feel responsible for the larger world around you and it’s clear that Garner took the latter path.
“I cannot stand to see little people picked on by big people,” he told People magazine in an interview. “If a director starts abusing people, I’ll just jump in.”
Garner was a veteran with two Purple Hearts from serving in the Korean War. If this is important to you, he was married to his wife Lois for 58 years. He was a vociferous supporter of Civil Rights all his life and a patron of the arts.
Was he the better race car driver than Steve McQueen? Hard to say, but during the making of Grand Prix the great racing driver and coach Bob Bondurant said that Garner could have competed in Formula 1 at the time and beaten some of the drivers. Either way, he was involved with motorsports for most of his life after that point.
Not only did James Garner also do his own driving in Grand Prix, the movie is approximately 9 million times more fun to watch than Le Mans and I’d argue both technically the better movie and narratively better as well (which no sane person would argue with).
The Rockford Files is bonkers good. Let’s just stop reading and watch a minute and a half of “Rockford turns” aka j-turns.
From a fashion perspective I think the McQueen thing is so played out at this point that you’re better off trying to look like Jim Rockford. There’s definitely a ’70s-dad vibe to it. This is the same era that gave us Elliott Gould as the sexist man alive and, you know what? I’m here for it. Gimme a houndstooth jacket with a bigass collar and sunglasses dark enough to prevent any sunlight from ever entering or escaping.
I could go on but I think I’ve made my point. If you try to emulate Steve McQueen you are, at best, saying “He looks cool and I’ve given it no other thought” or, at worst, saying “I’ve actually given it some thought and I don’t really care about all the other stuff.”
Oh, and the person Steve McQueen thought that his wife was cheating on him with? Reportedly it was James Garner, to which Garner replied, with unsurprising grace: “He wasn’t a bad guy, just insecure.”
And I think that’s all that needs to be said. If you’re being generous, McQueen’s act was an expression of his own insecurity and, often I suspect, acting like Steve McQueen is in a way embracing that same insecurity.
Give it some thought. Be like James Garner. Or, Paul Newman, I suppose. That guy was pretty ok, too.