Over the last years Steve McQueen – the legendary actor of The Thomas Crown Affair, Bullitt, or The Great Escape, to name but a few of his illustrious movies- has been subject to severe criticism by feminists, notably for his controlling and at times violent attitude towards women. Indeed, McQueen is becoming more notorious for having beaten up on occasions Neile Adams (his first wife), and having imposed on Ali Macgraw (wife number 2) the cruel ultimatum ‘it’s films or me baby’, turning the young model into a housewife while at the very peak of her acting career.
These accusations are unfortunately true and of course it can’t be bad to bring attention to the actor’s darker side. However, laying complaints without asking why or how such vehemence has been coupled with such cult-like admiration doesn’t advance the feminist cause.
Do these denunciations teach us something? Are we advancing women’s rights by assaulting morally a dead legend? Are we discrediting McQueen’s career by highlighting the mischievousness of his private life? Are we downgrading his iconic status?
If you ask me, not really… Quite the contrary, we’re feeding the beast, the mythical “King of Cool” by adding yet another layer to a delightful construction that was made in Hollywood: ‘A man who had a blazing passion for life, uncontainable… A fury for existence so free that it spilled onto others creating collateral damage (understood here as female collateral damage)’. One could even argue that these attacks are anti-feminist, bearing the subliminal message: ‘These women couldn’t possibly resist McQueen. This is what you have to endure to be with such a legend. This is the price you pay.”
But what if instead we tried to understand the man, not the legend. His behavior, his triggers, his insecurities… Ask why such an enthralling persona felt the urge to hit women, especially those he loved? The purpose of this interrogation is not to defend or justify such behavior, but rather to understand what caused it, why we’ve so easily ignored it all these decades, and perhaps even prevent it.
First of all let’s put things back into their context, McQueen’s career spanned the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Women in the U.S had obtained the right to vote no less than 30 years ago (1920), second wave feminism had just started to make its way, reproductive rights were a novel concept. Whether you like it or not at that time domestic violence was a common occurrence, nothing shocking. Ruth Rosen’s book The World Split Open: How the Modern Women’s Movement Changed America states that “women were often abused as a result of daily frustration in their husband’s lives, and as late as 1975 domestic battery and rape were both socially acceptable and legal as women were seen to be the possessions of their husbands”. Yes Steve was violent but so was an important male portion of that generation.
Targeting one public person for what a majority did lawfully privately is misleading and hypocritical.
The fact that domestic violence was tolerated or at least legal doesn’t make it okay, but since the late feminist attacks are after McQueen specifically (as opposed to someone alive, say the US’s current president for instance), let’s examine precisely why the actor personally behaved the way he did.
On the date of Steve’s birth in Beech Grove Indiana in 1930, William McQueen had already left 6 months ago, abandoning his son and wife. The father never recognized the child, even going as far as changing his name to Terence William in order not to be found. Julia Crawford, Steve’s alcoholic mother, neglected and abused Steve regularly. Unable to rear the child, she finally left him to her grandparents. Steve received nothing but rejection and violence as a child from his loved ones, which obviously affected his attitude towards others for the remainder of his life.
Nevertheless he got some respite while living in his uncle’s farm but only to be taken sporadically back and forth by his mother and beaten up by a new step-dad each time. When it would get unbearable, Steve would leave the house for the streets running with gangs as early as age nine, and eventually come back to his mother and whoever was living with her. The precarious situation ultimately reached a desperate point where one of the stepfathers persuaded Julia Crawford to sign a court order stating that McQueen was incorrigible, remanding him to the California Junior Boys Republic in Chino, California. There, McQueen found some balance (once famous, McQueen regularly visited and donated money to the correctional home). The rest of his education resumed later in 1947 when he enrolled the Unites States Marines Corp.
Hence, it’s solely state institutions that nurtured Steve, more than individual human contact. These educational environments function through dynamics of surveillance, retribution, and recompense to control- not forgiveness and unconditional love which have been alien components to his early life. Abstract feelings or emotional notions were inculcated to him later in acting classes, notably Stella Adler’s Studio of Acting that pioneered ‘The Method’, which advances that an actor must be actively living his role emotionally as opposed to be playing/faking the part. This would become his way of making a living. It is at that time that he met his soon to be first wife, Neile Adams.
In terms of education and erudition, other than those three institutions (the correctional home, the US Marines, and Adler’s Studio of Acting), McQueen had only read one single book: a biography of Alexander the Great and has been witnessed saying that he was fascinated by “this story of a man that had conquered the world but himself”.
No need to be a psychotherapist to understand that the King of Cool always had an inferiority complex, which is understandable given the extenuating circumstances characterizing his childhood. His constant fear of rejection turned him into a control freak both in the professional and intimate spheres of his life. Professionally, McQueen always refused to play in movies where he wasn’t the lead, as Ocean’s 11 and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid- two iconic movies he refused- testify. He only accepted The Towering Inferno under the condition that he got the exact same number of lines as Paul Newman as well as being alone in the movies’ final scene.
Regarding his intimate life, McQueen could most likely not tame his need to control women (that, however, never prevented him from being a good father unlike the one he never knew).
This uncompromising attitude is what made him so revered by the general public. ‘Cool’ is never smooth and easy, it isn’t black or white…It is rough, edgy, complicated, obscure, and unapologetic. The King of Cool never pretended otherwise- we did, our society did. Let’s accept the man for what he was, both sides of the coin: the strengths, the weaknesses, the good, the bad- the abandoned child along with the adult misogynist, the whole thing for he was a whole man who lived a full life.