Who’s the biggest film star in the world right now? Robert Downey Jr, probably, with doffed caps to George Clooney, Matthew McConaughey, Daniel Craig, etc. Well, imagine if any of them went to a studio and loudly announced he wanted to take a whole load of their cash, head off to Europe and produce his own passion project about a 24-hour endurance car race. And he wanted to star in it. And drive a car. As fond of any of these chaps as the studio bosses no doubt may be, they would surely busy themselves with a phone call, and disappear to the golf course to avoid further discussion.
But, bizarrely, in 1970, they said yes to Steve McQueen, flying high after hits including ‘Bullitt’ and ‘The Thomas Crown Affair’, and he channeled all the star wattage he’d consolidated into ‘Le Mans’, his personal Rosebud, and what many to this day consider a fool’s errand. Now, British filmmakers Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna tell the story of what ensued in ‘Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans’, in cinemas today.
“At that time, Hollywood would have signed him a blank cheque,” sighs McKenna to HuffPostUK, “but all that pride was converted into hubris as the project threatened to swallow him. There’s something of the tragic hero about Steve. He’s not Theseus, but Icarus.”
Actor Steve McQueen was taken well beyond his comfort zone trying to make the ultimate racing film at Le Mans
Sure enough, the hundreds of boxes of film uncovered by McKenna and his team reveal a project that always threatened to have the wheels come off, from the moment Steve and his team touched down in France and started rolling.
Tempers were frayed, lifelong friendships soured, marriages wrecked during the course of production. As John McKenna says, this is by no means a sporting doc, this is the story of a man intent on making the ultimate racing film, at any cost. Perhaps he thought he was infallible due to his hardman Hollywood catalogue of surprising wins – after all, ‘Bullitt’ had gone well over budget and the studio had cancelled their contract with Steve before trying to woo him back when it scored big at the box office. Either way, he may have been Hollywood’s hero, but this was well beyond his comfort zone.
Steve McQueen and wife Neile, whose marriage unravelled during the course of making 'Le Mans'
It wasn’t just rocky, professionally, either. One of the richest accounts of that heady time comes from Steve’s wife at the time, Neile Adams McQueen, an indomitable lady still evidently fond of her leading man, despite all his infidelity that is explored in the film, including her own references to her loveable but errant spouse.
“She’s thoroughly mature about the whole thing,” says McKenna. “It’s 35 years since he died, and she’s not afraid to talk about him. Le Mans really served as the backdrop to their split. The marriage unraveled along with many of Steve’s strongest friendships.”
Of course, if this were a Hollywood tale, the curtain would close on Steve scoring another surprising triumph, pulling victory from the jaws of defeat, taking to the stage to collect his Oscar and counting his millions. But none of that happened. The film was ill-received, and has barely seen the light of day since.
So why would he take it on, when he could have just sat by his swimming pool and court the more promising offers still coming his way?
“It was a powerful obsession,” muses McKenna. “He was not a typical Hollywood star, and he wasn’t setting out to make the typical Hollywood film. But it overwhelmed him.”
Do we have a contemporary equivalent? McKenna shakes his head. “Nobody could get away with it now. Health and safety would prevent the world’s most valuable film star getting in cars and trying to film them moving at 250 miles per hour. In some respects, despite the disaster that ensued, you have to credit Steve for his focus. He really was a visionary.”
'Steve McQueen: The Man And Le Mans' is in cinemas across the UK and Ireland from 20 November 2015.