Wes D. Gehring, professor of Film at Ball State University, is the author of twenty-nine books, many of which examine the lives of Hollywood legends. During his career, Gehring has written about the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Joe E. Brown, Carole Lombard, W. C. Fields, Red Skelton, and Charlie Chaplin.
Gehring's latest book is a biography of Steve McQueen titled Steve McQueen: The Great Escape recently released by the IHS Press. Here, he talks about the book and McQueen:
You have written about a number of Hollywood legends. What drew you to McQueen?
Growing up, McQueen was one of my favorite actors.
McQueen is seen by many fans as the prototypical screen tough guy. Is that an accurate description of his appeal?
Yes and no. McQueen was more an antiheroic tough guy. He wasn't big like Wayne, or intellectually articulate like his film star favorite Bogart. In Bullitt he's old school tough. But he is just as likely to mix that toughness with poignant vulnerability, as in The Sand Pebbles and Junior Bonner. His stone faced toughness is often a sort of desperate minimalist cover for the universal fears of modern life.
How is what we see on screen of McQueen the same or different from him in real life?
He did not have a great acting range, but he was brilliant at playing the aforementioned antiheroic tough guy--which was McQueen in real life . . . on a good day. Like many artists, the work is where he got it right.In real life that macho minimalism could explode into rage. He was fond of saying that his life was screwed up before he was born. Thus, the foundation for the underdog toughness. The true link between the actor and the person was defining himself through his interaction with objects in the film frame, particularly mechanical things--a favorite off-screen passion. The guy tinkering with engines in The Sand Pebbles or The Reivers was McQueen. But he carried an attention to detail, be it getting on and off a horse, in and out of a race car, handling weapons, fixing breakfast in The Getaway--that gave his work an authenticity that was consistent with the real life, work with his hands, physical man.
Is there anything you found out about McQueen in your research that surprised you or that you did not know before?
I was most amazed by the extreme sadness of his youth. He never got that chip off his shoulder.
What is McQueen’s legacy?
In his best films, there is a sense of the Hemingway axiom, about life destroying you but (if you have some personal code), not defeating you.
What project are you working on now?
I have two forthcoming books: I, Red Skelton: Exit Laughing (a novelized memoir), and Forties Film Comedians: In the Shadow of World War II (a film criticism). I'm currently writing a biography of director Robert Wise.