Monday, November 30, 2009

Wissing Wins Dunn Award

Douglas Wissing, a freelance writer from Bloomington, Indiana, is the winner of the Indiana Historical Society’s annual Jacob Piatt Dunn Jr. Award for the best article to appear in Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History for 2009. Wissing’s article, “‘Cook Good, Serve Generously, Price Modestly’: The Shapiro’s Story,” appeared in the fall 2009 issue.

Named for the noted Indiana historian and author, the $500 award honors the article that in the opinion of the Traces editorial board and staff best serves the magazine’s mission. This mission involves presenting thoughtful, research-based articles on Indiana history in an attractive format to a broad audience of readers.

Dunn (pictured above, left), who helped revitalize the Society in the 1880s, produced such standard works as the two-volume Greater Indianapolis (1910) and his five-volume Indiana and Indianans (1919). In his remarkable career, Dunn also worked on a variety of Indianapolis newspapers, campaigned to establish free public libraries, endeavored to preserve the language of the Miami Indians, and prospected for minerals in Haiti.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Interview with McQueen Biographer

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.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

IHS Press Releases McQueen Biography

The poster-child victim of a dysfunctional family from Beech Grove, Indiana, Steve McQueen experienced an unsettled early life with a rebellious and alcoholic mother. McQueen channeled his difficult childhood into a masterful career on screen portraying tough, self-sufficient characters in such iconic films as The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Great Escape (1963), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Bullitt (1968), and Papillon (1973).

Nationally known film historian Wes D. Gehring explores how McQueen rose from his days as a troubled youth into one of Hollywood’s top box-office stars of the 1960s and 1970s, and how he attempted to ease the lives of other troubled youth, in a new biography now available from the IHS Press titled Steve McQueen: The Great Escape. Along the way, Gehring delves into McQueen’s early success as a television star on the hit Western Wanted: Dead or Alive, his sometimes rocky relationships with women, his sardonic sense of humor, the actor’s love of fast cars and motorcycles, and McQueen’s often neglected acting in such films as The Reivers (1969) and Junior Bonner (1972), which Gehring labels as “arguably his greatest performance.” McQueen ironically saw the title of one of his best films, The Great Escape, as a veiled reference to what his life might have been like without the movies: “If I hadn’t made it as an actor, I might have wound up a hood.”

McQueen died from cancer on November 7, 1980, at the age of fifty. Reflecting on the Hoosier actor’s career, Gehring notes that “McQueen’s often unorthodox life was always lived on his own terms, but with the underlying insecurity of the lost child he perceived himself to be.”

Gehring is a professor of film at Ball State University and an associated media editor for USA Today Magazine, for which he also writes the column “Reel World.” The award-winning author of twenty-eight books, Gehring has written biographies of such screen legends as Charlie Chaplin, W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, James Dean, and Red Skelton.

Steve McQueen: The Great Escape costs $19.95. The book is available from the IHS's History Market.