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.”


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.


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.•


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



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  1. So much for Eric Holder's conversation about race. If white people have got something to say, they get sued over it. Bottom line: white people have un-freer speech than others as a consequence of the misnamed "Civil rights laws."

  2. I agree, having seen three shows, that I was less than wowed. Disappointing!!

  3. Start drilling, start fracking, and start using our own energy. Other states have enriched their citizens and nearly elminated unemployment by using these resources that are on private land. If you are against the 'low prices' of discount stores, the best way to allow shoppers more choice is to empower them with better earnings. NOT through manipulated gov mandated min wage hikes, but better jobs and higher competitive pay. This would be direct result of using our own energy resources, yet Obama knows that Americans who arent dependent of gov welfare are much less likely to vote Dem, so he looks for ways to ensure America's decline and keep its citizens dependent of gov.

  4. Say It Loud, I'm Black and Ashamed: It's too bad that with certain "black" entertainment events, it seems violence and thuggery follows and the collateral damage that it leaves behinds continues to be a strain on the city in terms of people getting hurt, killed or becoming victims of crimes and/or stretching city resources. I remember shopping in the Meadows area years ago until violence and crime ended make most of the business pack you and leave as did with Lafayette Square and Washington Square. Over the past 10 to 12 years, I remember going to the Indiana Black Expo Soul Picnic in Washington Park. Violence, gang fights and homicides ended that. My great grandmother still bears the scares on her leg from when she was trampled by a group of thugs running from gun fire from a rival gang. With hundreds of police offices downtown still multiple shootings, people getting shot downtown during Black Expo. A number of people getting shots or murdered at black clubs around the city like Club Six on the west side, The Industry downtown, Jamal Tinsley's shot out in front of the Conrad, multiple fights and shootings at the skating rinks, shootings at Circle Center Mall and shooting and robberies and car jackings at Lafayette Mall. Shootings and gang violence and the State Fair. I can go on and on and on. Now Broad Ripple. (Shaking head side to side) Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Ashamed.

  5. Ballard Administration. Too funny. This is the least fiscally responsive administration I have ever seen. One thing this article failed to mention, is that the Hoosier State line delivers rail cars to the Amtrak Beech Grove maintenance facility for refurbishment. That's an economic development issue. And the jobs there are high-paying. That alone is worth the City's investment.