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LOU'S VIEWS: 'Escape' artist Steve McQueen stars in new biography

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Lou Harry

This week, a new look at Steve McQueen—by a fellow Hoosier. Plus Indianapolis Opera’s “La Boheme.”

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One of the first grown-up movies I attended on my own was “Papillon.” What drove my 10-year-old self to see this brutal 1973 escape film, I still don’t know.

But alone in the dark, with just a scattered group of others in the theater, I sat totally enraptured, caught up in the plight of this Devil’s Island prisoner whose intensity was palpable. He didn’t seem to do much—not on the surface. But the way he stared, the way he thought, and the way he ultimately acted, made it impossible not to watch him.

The actor was Steve McQueen, and I had no idea that he was iconic, having yet to experience the pleasures of “The Magnificent Seven” or “The Great Escape.” But that’s part of what makes a great screen actor. There’s no need to know his or her history. There’s no need for back story. Each performance stands on its own.

Steve McQueen attempts a getaway in “The Great Escape.” (Photo Courtesy Indiana History Center)

History, though, is why we read biographies. And while a good biographer can’t replace the experience of seeing the original work, he or she can connect the dots for us, filling in the gaps in our knowledge.

Wes D. Gehring does just that in his new book “Steve McQueen: The Great Escape” and while there’s little sense of anything new being revealed, the book works as a solid introduction to the troubled, difficult actor and human being.

One of Gehring’s strengths is that he doesn’t take enormous leaps in an effort to come up with a new “take” on a star (Gehring’s previous books have looked at Red Skelton, James Dean and others). There’s little written here that seems doubtful or dubious. On the other hand, Gehring has a habit of quoting unrelated material to make points that occasionally becomes tiresome—i.e. “Had McQueen lived long enough to hear Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’ solo album … the actor would have greatly appreciated … .”

Such devices are unnecessary, especially considering the life he has to work with here, beginning with McQueen’s troubled childhood (include time in Beech Grove), his stumbling into an acting life, his rise to the top of the box office and his lifelong rivalry with Paul Newman (a thread Gehring handles particularly well). The author is up-front but not exploitative about his subject’s womanizing and brutality with women. And his appreciation for the actor’s on-screen work is palpable without being fan-ish.

  Perhaps the best endorsement I can give is that Gehring’s book inspired me to pay a visit to “Nevada Smith,” “The Reivers,” and other McQueen films that I’ve missed. And maybe it’s time to revisit “Papillon” as well.

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Even though Indianapolis Opera’s stage-filling production of “La Boheme” (Nov. 20, 22) didn’t score many emotional points, it nonetheless proved a treat for the ear and eye. Credit, in large part, goes to the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra in the pit and to a believable Maureen O’Flynn in the role of consumptive seamstress Mimi. Unfortunately, she spent her final scene, in a costume that made it seem like she’s recently returned from visiting her pals in Oz.

Set designer David Gano deserves credit for wisely keeping the artists’ garret décor to a minimum and maximizing the vibrant street scene (even if it was staged without a parade).

They had help, of course, from Puccini’s magical score. The Indianapolis Children’s Choir rounded out a boisterous Act II in which Laura Z. Pedersen skillfully kept Musetta from waltzing from mercurial to annoying (always a risk in this showy scene). On the male side, William Joyner and Sean David Anderson gave seemingly flip-of-the-coin interchangeable performances as Rodolfo and Marcello, although both were in strong voice. The supporting cast was well-chosen, too, contributing to a production that, while perhaps not memorable, certainly entertained.•

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This column appears weekly. Send information on upcoming arts and entertainment events to lharry@ibj.com.

 

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  1. I took Bruce's comments to highlight a glaring issue when it comes to a state's image, and therefore its overall branding. An example is Michigan vs. Indiana. Michigan has done an excellent job of following through on its branding strategy around "Pure Michigan", even down to the detail of the rest stops. Since a state's branding is often targeted to visitors, it makes sense that rest stops, being that point of first impression, should be significant. It is clear that Indiana doesn't care as much about the impression it gives visitors even though our branding as the Crossroads of America does place importance on travel. Bruce's point is quite logical and accurate.

  2. I appreciated the article. I guess I have become so accustomed to making my "pit stops" at places where I can ALSO get gasoline and something hot to eat, that I hardly even notice public rest stops anymore. That said, I do concur with the rationale that our rest stops (if we are to have them at all) can and should be both fiscally-responsible AND designed to make a positive impression about our state.

  3. I don't know about the rest of you but I only stop at these places for one reason, and it's not to picnic. I move trucks for dealers and have been to rest areas in most all 48 lower states. Some of ours need upgrading no doubt. Many states rest areas are much worse than ours. In the rest area on I-70 just past Richmond truckers have to hike about a quarter of a mile. When I stop I;m generally in a bit of a hurry. Convenience,not beauty, is a primary concern.

  4. Community Hospital is the only system to not have layoffs? That is not true. Because I was one of the people who was laid off from East. And all of the LPN's have been laid off. Just because their layoffs were not announced or done all together does not mean people did not lose their jobs. They cherry-picked people from departments one by one. But you add them all up and it's several hundred. And East has had a dramatic drop I in patient beds from 800 to around 125. I know because I worked there for 30 years.

  5. I have obtained my 6 gallon badge for my donation of A Positive blood. I'm sorry to hear that my donation was nothing but a profit center for the Indiana Blood Center.

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