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Quentin Tarantino's Essential Steve McQueen

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At the start of October, Quentin Tarantino took over the programming of L.A.’s New Beverly Cinema, the repertory film house he purchased seven years ago. ”I’ve been wanting to do it for a long time,” says the Pulp Fiction auteur. ”Ultimately what prompted it was my whole crusade for 35-millimeter preservation. Revival houses, most of the time, a lot of the stuff [they screen] is digital. I wanted to create a home for film. So if you see a movie’s playing there, you will be seeing a print.”

As part of his first 31 days in charge, Tarantino has curated a five-film tribute to Steve McQueen that will include screenings of 1972’s crime thriller The Getaway, 1973’s prison drama Papillon, and 1978’s so-obscure-even-QT-hasn’t-seen-it-yet An Enemy of the People. We asked the director to explain why the Magnificent Seven star was magnificent indeed.

An Underappreciated Actor
McQueen snagged only one Academy Award nomination — for 1966’s The Sand Pebbles — but Tarantino argues that tally is not reflective of the star’s talents. ”He’s definitely under-acknowledged as an actor,” says the director. ”He was a terrific star, but he also was a terrific actor. Certain roles, he pulled them off perfectly — like in Papillon. Steve McQueen’s acting right opposite Dustin Hoffman, and Steve McQueen is fantastic in it.”

Cool To Spare
”I’ve seen Bullitt about six times and I could not tell you the story line,” says Tarantino of the McQueen-starring 1968 cop thriller. ”It’s completely unmemorable. Robert Vaughn has something to do with it — but I don’t remember what. I have seen it six f—ing times and I never remember s— about it, other than McQueen looking cool.”

Picked By Peckinpah — Twice!
The legendary, and legendarily temperamental, filmmaker Sam Peckinpah (Straw Dogs, The Wild Bunch) didn’t direct many genuine superstars, but McQueen teamed up with him twice, on 1972’s rodeo-rider drama Junior Bonner and the same year’s The Getaway. Tarantino is screening the films together as a double bill. ”They must have just really dug each other,” says Tarantino. ”I think McQueen looked at a lot of the older directors as father figures. I don’t think he looked at Peckinpah like that; he saw a kindred spirit. He probably responded to Peckinpah as an artist — as a troubled artist, but as an artist.”

A Lone Wolf
Even in the crowded 1963 POW-camp movie The Great Escape, McQueen keeps his own counsel as baseball-throwing renegade and ”Cooler King” Captain Hilts. ”The Great Escape is an ensemble movie, but he’s not really part of the ensemble,” says Tarantino. ”He only becomes part of Richard Attenborough’s plan on his own terms. That is, to me, the most iconic Steve McQueen role. He’s a silly bastard who doesn’t give a s—. He’s going to stick a weed up the ass of authority, even if the authority happens to be the Nazi high command.”

Sexy As Hell
Check out his chemistry with real-life paramour Ali MacGraw in The Getaway. (The two left their spouses after filming wrapped.) ”I don’t think she’s very good in the movie,” says Tarantino. ”But they’re very, very sexy together. He’s fantastic in that movie, in his black suit.”

The Ultimate Badass
”He was a badass who could [in real life] do a lot of the things he was supposed to be doing [on screen], whether it be motorcycle driving or race-car driving,” says Tarantino. ”And he also had a quality — and I’m not talking about in real life per se — but he suggested he might have been a prick. But you kind of dug that. You wouldn’t want him to be a prick to you. But you would have liked him being a prick to everybody else. He just had this legit badass quality. There really has never been another Steve McQueen.”

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