By Jessica Wheeler, AliveTampaBay Columnist
It’s a Saturday afternoon in autumn, 1960. You’re 11 years old, clutching some coins in your hand as you approach the box office underneath the theater marquee. You and your friends are about to spend the afternoon at the movies. The poster advertises today’s offering: The Magnificent Seven, a western. You all love westerns, love to watch John Wayne and Gary Cooper with their lumbering gaits and commanding drawls. They wear 10-gallon hats and stiff, high-buttoned shirts, khaki pants and tall cowboy boots. You’ve always wanted to dress like them, because they are, after all, the personification of “cool.” You’re excited as you take your seat inside, each of you with a soda and some popcorn, ready to see some action. When the movie begins, an actor you’re not familiar with fills the screen. He’s slightly built, but tough, with blond hair and steely blue eyes. He wears jeans, a faded hat, a casually unbuttoned shirt. Around his neck is a loose kerchief, and even some necklaces. His voice is steady, calm, not a drawl, but everyone onscreen listens when he speaks. He’s a whiz at the quick-draw, but his every movement is calculated, nothing wasted. It dawns on you: here, at last, is real cool. You leave the theater hours later with a new hero: Steve McQueen.
He was an actor who made a career out of playing anti-heroes, the characters who rode alone, but were willing to pitch in and help others when it was the right thing to do. Cowboys, bank robbers, gamblers, prisoners, soldiers—he inhabited them all, and did it with cool. Acting for the camera with a skill most actors would never learn, he mastered the art of underplaying, often eschewing lines of dialogue in favor of showing the emotions with his face. As a result, his movies still hold up today, when performances by actors in other films from that era can sometimes read as ham-fisted, over the top.
And of course, there was the thrill-seeking McQueen looking cool on a motorcycle, in a race car, in a dune buggy. He loved speed and risk, often choosing movies that incorporated these elements, and the casual way he handled these potentially dangerous machines made him seem even cooler to his fans.
In addition to the cool characters and the calculated persona, there were the clothes. McQueen was a fashion trendsetter for men, loosening up the Western look in The Magnificent Seven, making a sweatshirt look cool in The Great Escape, and working a turtleneck and slim-fitting coat in Bullitt. He got the chance to wear fancy suits in The Thomas Crown Affair, and in Nevada Smith he wore head-to-toe suede. He was always in the fashions of the moment, but with his own twist—the very definition of a style icon.
With the rise of Mad Men and the return of midcentury style, McQueen is cooler than ever, although he never really went out of style. The Triumph T-shirts, the slim pants, the Wayfarer sunglasses—all of them are back, and all owe a huge debt to Steve McQueen and his highly imitable style. It’s always fresh, it’s always on-point, and of course, like McQueen, it’s always cool.
Read more of AliveTampaBay’s Writing on Steve McQueen: