Steve McQueen. A hip personality, a special kind of existential cool, detached and rebellious, his own guy, a tough guy, who loved cars and speed, a self-made man who reached the heights of stardom and then almost lost it all because of Le Mans. A notoriously troubled production, the 1971 racing movie that starred and was produced by Steve McQueen is about the legendary 24-hour endurance motorsport race of the same name, taking place every year in June (and features actual footage captured during the 1970 race held the previous June). A passion project for McQueen, in tribute to a sport that had always been close to his heart.
Pierre Vudrag, the founder and president of Limited Runs, the premier collectors of rare and limited edition photography (have a look at the other McQueen photos available in their archive here), goes behind the scenes of Le Mans and gives us a rare view on one of the handful of undisputed Hollywood stars and on what makes McQueen such a contemporary figure.
Note: To celebrate summer, in the course of the following months I will be collaborating with various photographers and photography collectors to bring you exclusive stories from behind the lens. Whether travel photography or pictures from the movie sets, One Day That Summer is an invitation to discovery, to open your mind and eyes, to live life like you stole it
I have noticed there is no photographer credited for the pictures of McQueen available on Limited Runs. Were they all taken on the set of the film? I am asking because I know that many film-makers are very particular about the set photographers they allow to document their work. And I am sure Steve McQueen was no different.
Our photos were taken on the set of Le Mans while McQueen was shooting and racing. There were many photographers on the set, but these, to our knowledge, were never published, or, if published, only at the time and not seen since. We believe that the photographer had acess to McQueen because there are several photos taken of McQueen relaxing with friends in-between filming.
Le Mans is now considered a cult film among racing fans, but it debuted to a poor critical reception – and was sometimes described as a vanity movie – which had disastrous effects on McQueen. John McKenna, the co-director of the documentary The Man and Le Mans, said in an interview that McQueen’s vision was to give the audience a naked, raw portrayal of motor racing. But he was forced to compromise. A self-made man, McQueen would confess to William Claxton, his photograher friend, in 1962, after he had made it in Hollywood, recalling his New York City years as a struggling young actor: “Man, I was starving – I did everything and anything to survive.” He made Le Mans in 1971, and he would achieve further success after it, with The Towering Inferno and Papillon. However, that career misstep left a mark on him. Why do you think he needed so badly that film to be a success?
Just like any actor, you’re only as good as your next film. Historically, actors that make bad films sometimes don’t recover as studios start to believe that they are box-office poison. McQueen grew up poor and always had a fear of returning to poverty, so he must have felt even greater pressure to continue to strive for success. Also, you have to believe that McQueen, after having achieved world-wide fame and success and the power to produce and star in any project he wanted, desperately desired success for Le Mans, a film which combined two of his great passions. In a way, the film was ahead of its time. In an age where actors didn’t perform their own stunt and didn’t train for the parts they were playing (today it’s not unusual for actors to train for months in order to achieve a realism to the part they are playing), McQueen and the other actors were actually racing at top speeds—no green screens used for close-up racing shots. McQueen desperately wanted to bring that out in the picture. Unfortunately, as history tells us, the filmmakers forgot about plot and story line.
“We selected the seven photos in our collection
for several reasons: they represented McQueen
intensely working on the film, they showed an
unguarded McQueen, aware of the camera
but not playing up for it, and, most of all,
because they are so damn cool.”
“Great looking, but not a nice man. He was rude,” photographer Terry O’Neill described McQueen in an interview. William Claxton, however, who published a book with his photographs of McQueen, captured a sensitive side of the actor, a nice-guy personality, that very few were aware of. Could the truth possibly be somewhere in between?
I believe the truth is somewhere in the middle. McQueen, just as any other successful person, constantly had people wanting something from him. McQueen has been called a great friend to those he respected. He had no time for people he didn’t care for.
Steve McQueen remains one of a handful of Hollywood’s undisputed superstars and style icons. The public is still fascinated with him and his image. Why did you choose these particular photos of him to be part of your collection?
As hard as it may be to believe, there was a time in the collecting world, where people’s interest in McQueen wasn’t as strong as it is now. I believe that McQueen has reached that iconic status in pop-culture where the man may be bigger than his work. Like Marilyn Monroe, who has fans that can’t name one of her films, McQueen has become the epitome of cool and style. He didn’t dress up, but dressed functional, which was unusual at the time but is standard style today. We selected the seven photos in our collection for several reasons: they represented McQueen intensely working on the film, they showed an unguarded McQueen, aware of the camera but not playing up for it, and, most of all, because they are so damn cool.
photos published with the permission of Limited Runs