Steve McQueen: Living on the Edge

Steve McQueen said scarcely a word on screen, and his unspoken power was enough to silence women co-

A preposterous new biography of Steve McQueen repeats the facts of his life as we already knew them, but insists they came from the horse's mouth. The author, Michael Munn, was ridiculed for suggesting in a previous biography that David Niven chose him to be his deathbed confessor (Niven's family loudly objected). This time, he constructs a biography around a four-day road trip he says he took with McQueen through Cornwall in 1970 - the actor then aged 40 and worrying about the direction of his career, the author a teenager working for Sam Peckinpah.

As both McQueen and Peckinpah are long dead, there is no way to verify all of Munn's story, which includes direct quotations from McQueen about his childhood and feelings. Was young Munn hiding a tape recorder in his bandanna? "I had great recall back then," he reassures us. "Able to remember almost verbatim what anyone ever told me, if I found it interesting." Almost verbatim. Ah, good.

Born Terence Steven McQueen in Beech Grove, Indiana, in 1930; died Steve McQueen in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in 1980. Man of many parts - racing driver, skinflint, philanthropist, shit-heel, drug addict, king of impassivity, impoverished child with heavy shoes clattering through the night streets and a non-smile that comes on like a person concealing a cavity. A diminutive teenager, he was teased violently because of his size and slept rough to avoid his prostitute mother whom he would carry - like poor Brando before him with his - gin-soaked from bars. Aged 19, McQueen walked into the neighbourhood playhouse and auditioned for a scholarship. His voice was no good and his confidence low, but when a girl slapped him in the face during an improvisation he responded by punching her out cold. "I'm not an actor, I'm a reactor," McQueen later said.

The boy's extreme prettiness had the cut of corrugated iron: his face, although manifestly young, was incredibly lined. Compare it to Brando's at the same age, with its devastating smoothness, his beauty a seemingly endless American resource, as though he had passed through the hell of his own childhood in a foetal sack, physically unscathed, his damage and sickness far worse, embedded much deeper, located permanently in his gut and bowels. With McQueen, the lines were explicit scars, stains in wood. It makes you trust him.

So, Munn's on the back of McQueen's bike zipping down the lanes, and they're stopping for long drinks in pubs and chats in country fields, and it's all coming over terribly romantic and a bit silly, because the author is rather more interested in himself than McQueen. "I was dark-haired, Italian-looking, lean," he preens. Munn mentions, tuttingly, McQueen's fixation with cigarettes and ritual love of dope ("During those late evenings and nights, he relaxed by smoking dope. I didn't. I never touched it").

For McQueen, an understanding of repetition and ritual is key. Early on, the actor had learned to work at certain gestures, perfecting them so that people would notice - getting in and out and in and out of a car, rattling bullets in his hand before loading, or bouncing on to a horse so fast he's like Jell-O on springs (the most magnificent thing in The Magnificent Seven, bar Yul Brynner's VPL and James Coburn's exquisite mouth).

From the off, McQueen was cocky, and demanded enormous fees. He quickly built a reputation for being such a pain in the arse that he spent three years sulking as a car mechanic, rousing himself from his fit only after James Dean came in for some oil and he felt a competitive ache. Although his violent mood swings and zillion affairs were hurtful, his first wife, Neile, took him to Hollywood and bankrolled him, never doubting that he was destined to be transported from three dimensions into two. She begged him to stop pretending to be Brando and exploit his own kind of more teasing detachment.

During spells in juvenile detention as a teen­ager, he had spent much of his time in solitary confinement. See how triumphantly his eyes cloud over in the cooler in The Great Escape: he'd survived this before. At 12, he contracted an undiagnosed infection in his left ear that went on to do terrible damage. See how he cocks his head slightly to the right when he comes into the noisy restaurant to meet Jacqueline Bisset in Bullitt. See him sitting looking at her - watching as she orders and chats and is polite to the other diners - hearing in his own key, in his own world.

Having strutted the caveat about his magical recall in the opening pages, Munn occasionally sets his version of McQueen free to ramble
inconsequentially about his mother ("the whore") and random encounters in his childhood ("she looked up at me and . . . her hair was all dark and she said, 'I'd feel safe with a brother like you' but I never saw her again . . . I hope she was OK"). Again, Munn's rigour is a giggle.

“In transcribing his words for the purpose of this book," he writes (note that validating "transcribe"), "I have at times filled in words which I believed he was searching for and often couldn't find. I have also removed much of his swearing." Munn, you're a riot.

On screen, McQueen spoke scarcely a word, paring back his dialogue, giving lines away to the other actors, looking generous when really he was being greedy, wanting all the unspoken power for himself. Although Robert Mitchum had also done this (is it a coincidence that they were both great stoners?), McQueen took it to almost ludicrous lengths. He just needed less than most others.

Take a look at the man's head - the smallest belonging to a movie star you ever saw. In The Getaway his head appears half the size of Ali McGraw's. Not that she cared. When she first met him, she was so turned on she had to leave the room to calm herself.

A thousand facts clutter Munn's pages, but zero detail. Instead, the author indulges in a weirdly elaborate unfurling of his own career connections ("I was helped out by none other than Frank Sinatra at the behest of George Raft, who, for reasons I'm not going to go into at this time . . ."). And the self-aggrandising is gobsmacking: "Steve was polite, quiet, and curiously interested in me . . . Steve McQueen and I . . . I came to realise . . . I think it was Steve's way of trying to exorcise the past . . . We understood each other." But there is zilch of McQueen's presence.

Tell us how he answered the phone! Describe how he ate (we rarely see him do this). Because, with McQueen, what counted wasn't just the delicacy of his gestures, it was the scale of experience implied in each one. Removing his Stetson and casually holding it up to the sun. Nodding to a nurse and politely bending his knees as he takes her midnight-prepared tray with its one sandwich and glass of milk, acknowledging her efforts. His hands briefly touching the cards as they are laid out face down on the table in The Cincinnati Kid, as though giving a benediction. Not wiping away the dripping rain from his face for ridi­culously long moments. (The last person I saw do this as effectively was Barack Obama, speaking at an outdoor rally during the 2008 presidential campaign. I guess he loves Junior Bonner, too.)

The book quickly dissolves into retread descriptions of McQueen double-crossing his mistresses and sitting in his Winnebago like a prince, eating chicken and veg and caring not a jot for his colleagues. Only one story stands out: when Life magazine wanted to photograph McQueen camping with friends, he realised he didn't really have any. So he asked Coburn to go up to the Ojai mountains with him, and they sat in a Land Rover and smoked joints between shots of the two of them flipping burgers over a fire. All an illusion. Still, that issue of Life sold more than Time with its cover of the pope.

As Munn attempts a purling stream about the latter-day McQueen finding peace with his third wife, there's a depressing sense of a life prematurely winding down - the flops, the hard and then harder drugs, the millions spent on jukeboxes, the last, sick months involving quack doctors and a colon-blasting detox in the desert. McQueen didn't have a heart attack at the wheel like everyone would have liked. He died of mesothelioma - a cancer associated with asbestos. See those cloths he winds round his mouth before putting on his crash helmet in Le Mans? They were freshly soaked in the stuff to make them flame-proof. So, in a way, McQueen did die at the wheel, and on screen to boot. It fits: he would have chosen machines over people any day.

Although, by the end, his famed impassivity had hardened into something bullying, I prefer him older. Fatter, hair enormous, face tenser, as though watching his life from far off with an occasionally amused sympathy, less insanely graceful: yeah, easier to love.

In The Great Escape, he is like a creature from another planet: everything about him better, more nuanced, truer, yellower - it scares me. See how Richard Attenborough and the rest of the cast goggle at him from beneath their silly hats and greatcoats, wordlessly watching McQueen in his American cotton and sneakers like he has just walked out of Peanuts. He put that outfit together himself. Just as, for The Thomas Crown Affair, he got over his blue-collar fear of smart clothes, wore a waistcoat for the first time - and realised that Thomas Crown was just Steve McQueen in
a suit. In that film, he strokes those waistcoat pockets and laughs, at what seems to be his own power.

And Faye Dunaway sits there staring, hands jitterishly touching her clavicle bone, silenced - as one always is by the right answer.

Steve McQueen: Living on the Edge
Michael Munn
J R Books, 288p, £18.99

Antonia Quirke's novel, "Madame Depardieu and the Beautiful Strangers", is published in hardback by Fourth Estate (£11.99)