Review by Pete Vack
Don Nunley’s new book Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror is a personal view of the filming of McQueen’s Le Mans epic. Nunley’s position as the Property Master in the movie was significant. A Property Master is responsible for making sure there is continuity between scenes – how much water was in the glass, how long was the cigarette ash, etc. and for purchasing, renting, and even manufacturing all props needed for a production; he makes sure they are functional and positioned correctly for each scene; Le Mans required more than 20,000 props. In addition, Nunley helped to market the props, such as the Heuer watches worn by McQueen during the movie.
Nunley saw a lot and knew a lot; he was on the set the entire time. He had previously been the assistant Property Master for Wanted, Dead or Alive, a TV western starring McQueen. McQueen was arrogant even then. “If he disliked something in the script, he would literally start ripping out the pages,” recalled Nunley. Bolstered by the success of Bullitt, by 1969 McQueen now had the money and power to create the movie he had dreamt about since 1959, when, according to Nunley, McQueen announced that he would make a racing movie and Brigitte Bardot would be the female lead.
When he accepted the position for Le Mans, Nunley knew what he as dealing with, but never realized the amount of time and effort it would take to finish the film. The planned six-week shoot lasted from July 7, 1970 to November 7th, by which time the trees had turned from green to yellow (something that Nunley strangely failed to mention). From the onset, the problem was that McQueen wanted to make the best racing film possible, and wasn’t interested in love interests or character development. He wanted a semi-documentary, and the Studio wasn’t buying that. McQueen was stubborn and the script languished despite the efforts of novelist Denne Bart Petitclerc, screenwriter Harry Kleiner and Ken Purdy. “If it’s not on the page it ain’t on the stage” is an old showbiz adage and it certainly applied to the set of Le Mans. The lack of a story line, any sense of plot and no leading ladies not only hampered the production, but eventually caused the critical failure of the film and McQueen’s downfall (although short lived) as well. “I’m making it so my grandmother in Montana who knows nothing about cars can understand,” said McQueen. But McQueen found it hard to explain that even to himself. “Usually he would end up shrugging and saying the script was in his head,” said Nunley. “His flat-out unwillingness to compromise made him a folk hero to racing enthusiasts, but also cost him dearly.”
The show and the race went on however, as the crew filmed over 100,000 feet of film both in car and around the circuit (much of which was recently discovered rotting in a warehouse). Nunley, too, was shooting stills with a Nikon throughout the filming and his photos serve as the basis of his book; most from his own collection and most never seen before.
Finally, a female lead was written into the story and the team considered Twiggy, (too skinny), the Avenger’s Diana Rigg (too tall for the maybe 5’10” McQueen) and German actress, Elga Anderson lucked out. According to Nunley, McQueen greeted her by saying, “You did not screw the director. You did not screw the producer. You did not screw me. So how did you get this part?” Welcome to McQueen’s World.
Oh, it gets worse. Several of Nunley’s revelations about McQueen’s more astonishing behavior have been previously aired in the DVD Steve McQueen, the Man & Le Mans. But if you aren’t familiar with this side of McQueen, be prepared. McQueen fans will not likely be happy with this; unlike many Hollywood movies, it’s not a pretty picture.
McQueen thought he was entitled to “…absolute fealty no matter how rude, disruptive and bizarre his behavior became.” Nunley did not think much of McQueen’s often unprofessional attitude on the set. And his refusal to “toady around him” meant that Nunley was not destined to become a bosom buddy. Nevertheless, Nunley has no reason bear a grudge, no particular reason to write the book (his co-author Marshall Terrill convinced him to do it) and we have little reason to doubt Nunley’s account. If Nunley is to be believed, Steve McQueen, circa 1970, was not a particularly nice guy and that is putting it mildly. It does make for a very fast read, as one goes from page to page wondering what will be the next misadventure at Le Mans.
As his actions, or inactions, were apparently costing Cinema City a fortune; McQueen was reigned in and lost control. Then the director, John Sturges, had had it with McQueen and quit in disgust. Lee Katzin was called in to finish the job. McQueen, who was by then barred from any post-production work, did not like the final cut and was very conspicuously absent from the movie’s premiere in Indianapolis in June, 1971. Incredibly, despite all the miscues, the movie made money for Cinema Center.
Now you might say this, so we’ll say it for you and agree: Anyone who can drive a racecar as well as McQueen (as his second at Sebring with a foot in cast proved) and at the same time take on Hollywood on his own terms is a very, very strong and remarkable person. So as you settle in to read this book at one sitting (it reads that well) keep in mind that McQueen is larger than life, living in a rarefied atmosphere of his own making, absolutely king-of-the-hill, with all the human frailties that go along with the huge ego. That doesn’t mean we can forgive or forget his actions. But it does help explain them.
Nevertheless, the movie suffered and therefore so did race fans and the sport. Today it seems that everyone comments about how after so many years, the movie has shown its worth and vindicated its star. It has become a racing legend, a pure and intense example of what a racing film should be. How can one ever erase the memory of McQueen crashing the 917? For us guys, the movie is indeed one of the best, if not the best. But, wonder if the studios had their way, and McQueen had produced an epic with great drama as well, perhaps like Gone With the Wind? Now that would have been a real winner – for everyone. Instead, Nunley says it for the rest of the world; “If only for his sake, I wanted to be enchanted when I saw Le Mans. Instead, I felt like I had just sat through a couple of excruciating hours of a relative’s home movies.”
Like the Le Mans adventure, the book is a bit of a wild ride, fast moving, adventurous and for most of us who are not students of Mr. McQueen, both surprising and often dismaying. The text is minimal but has a lot of impact; the photography is superb and makes up for the lack of text (we just wish Nunley had told us more). It has a few incorrect captions and minor typos, but a superb layout and photo reproduction.
Worth it? Let’s give it a 8 out of 10.
*Hardbound, dust jacket, 256 pages, 422 color and black and white photos
*US $79 plus shipping
Be sure to check out more Steve McQueen titles from Dalton Watson Fine Books!