Paul Newman or Steve McQueen?

Sad. Steve McQueen fought for top billing and got it. Why did it matter?

Okay. I almost didn’t write this post. My wife almost preempted it entirely with a couple of incisive comparisons. (Don’t you hate when they do that?) I told her what I was thinking about this great post and she said, rather casually, “Isn’t that another Beatles/Stones thing, with no answer?” And when I pressed her on how people would decide it, she got dismissive. “It’s a guy/gal thing. I know who you’ll pick, and you know how I’ll pick.”

So there we are. What’s the point? Well, it’s not quite as simple as she would have it. They were rivals. They both had blue blue eyes loved by women. They were both men, another reason they were loved by women — and men. Both had iconic roles in westerns, war movies, and, well, blockbusters. They were both race car drivers. It might be a Beatles/Stones thing except my guess is that, as my wife intimated, most women will pick Paul Newman and most men will pick Steve McQueen. Why?

When I asked why, she said Paul Newman was the better actor. But until today she had never seen the high point of Newman’s acting career, a flat-out Christian allegory called Cool Hand Luke. I saw it when it came out and observed the profound effect it had on secondary school boys who were looking for a role model and took their lessons, mostly ill conceived, from Paul Newman’s eponymous character in this Georgia chain gang flick. They kept repeating his words, exactly like the members of the chain gang. I was furious. But then I always am.

An incredibly important movie I couldn’t believe she’d never seen. He keeps escaping until they kill him. The reason Oscars exist. They apologized late.

But those same boys also saw a parallel escape artist in Steve McQueen’s spectacular turn in The Great Escape. No Christ figure. Just steely eyed resolve to get away, preferably by motorcycle against all odds. McQueen was Clint Eastwood before Eastwood was. Acting as squinting and a wry twist of the mouth.

He almost walked off the picture. They wouldn’t let him do the jumping the fence scene, which he knew how to do better than any stunt man. When he won Sebring, he had a broken foot from a motorcycle race the week before.

If you pressed the point, guys would also go nearly unanimous for McQueen’s western series “Wanted Dead or Alive” over Newman’s humorous performance in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

I first saw this in Paris. “Hands up” became “Levez les mains.” He was STILL cool.

Something about that sawed off Remington rifle in a bounty hunter’s holster that trumps years of thespian dues in Tennessee Williams plays. Guys are like that.

Eew. Icky. Though Elizabeth Taylor was maybe the only human being with better eyes and more physical beauty than, um, you know who.

But trying to be fair, Paul Newman had his own iconic westerns, including Hud, Hondo, and Hombre. And my wife’s favorite, The Left Handed Gun. (Yeah, she’s a lefty too.)

And then, even if you call that square, it comes down to plain male competitiveness. Yes, Newman won SCCA racing championships. But McQueen was a damn balls to the wall driver. He won the 12 hours of Sebring in his category and came within 23 seconds of winning the race outright. He was a professional racing driver. It showed. Why no guy will ever forget the chase scene in Bullitt.

Best scene in the movie? His supermarket sweep collecting TV dinners.

And he made the first movie about racing, doing his own driving, that showed the world what professional racing looks like from the driver’s seat.

They made him not race because he was making a movie about the race.

And then. He died from a motorhead disease — mesothelioma, the peculiar fatal cancer one gets from changing asbestos lined brake pads.

Yeah. It’s McQueen here by a lap and a half. Nothing against you ladies. But the Stones beat the Beatles every time, and nothing will ever change that tune.

What’s the verdict?

He punched Charlotte Rampling. Hard. She deserved it.

Oh. Yeah. My wife hadn’t seen this gem before either. Which got me to thinking. (A dangerous indulgence.) Maybe she’s right. They’re both movie stars. Big big big time movie stars. I have to admit, though, Paul Newman was an actor as well as a star.

My wife wins this one. I console myself with the fact that I was the one to introduce her to two of his best performances. Does that count for anything?

The championship? Here it is.

His first movie. Life is a complicated thing. Winning and losing are part of it.


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