Sometimes, being a movie star with a strong on-screen persona can be difficult – especially if the star wants to evolve into a more mature and sophisticated level of roles. Frequently, the star can break away from the confinement of a well-established persona in favor of something more challenging: musical-comedy stars Dick Powell and Frank Sinatra successfully graduated to dramatic tough guy roles in their performances in “Murder My Sweet” and “From Here to Eternity,” respectively, while Sophia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor won Oscars when they eschewed glamour for gritty drama in “Two Women” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”
But sometimes, the star cannot make the leap. Shirley Jones successfully abandoned her sugar-sweet persona to play the vindictive hooker in “Elmer Gantry,” but despite winning an Oscar she wound up trapped in the sugar-sweet parts for the rest of her career. Henry Fonda was extraordinary as the villain in “Once Upon a Time in the West,” but the film’s commercial failure ensured that perennial good-guy Fonda would never play another villain. But at least Jones and Fonda got the chance to try a different style: John Wayne reportedly spent years trying but failing to get financing for a film adaptation of Noel Coward’s “Present Laughter,” in which he would abandon the rough-and-tumble Duke persona for Coward’s dry comedy. No one would invest in it because no one would buy the concept.
Steve McQueen fell into the latter category with the 1977 film adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People.” The film was a failure, but not because its content. It is actually a rather fine movie, but the inability for its distributor (Warner Bros.) to have faith in a very different screen presentation of Steve McQueen ultimately doomed it to obscurity.
Steve McQueen had a very successful career playing a tough guy loner who battled and won against a hostile conformist society. While he was a movie star, he was also an actor and quite a good one. It is difficult to imagine films like “The Great Escape,” “The Sand Pebbles” (for which he received an Academy Award nomination), “Bullitt” or “The Getaway” with anyone but McQueen in the leading role.
So what in the world was someone like McQueen doing in a film based on an Ibsen drama? According to the web site The Unknown Movies, McQueen was contractually obligated to make one last film for the First Artists production company and he opted to go with a project that would have no commercial viability. But frankly, I don’t see that as being the whole story. By the time “An Enemy of the People” was made, McQueen wanted to move beyond the “Steve McQueen” persona and show that he was more than capable of creating a fully textured dramatic performance.
The choice of “An Enemy of the People” was no accident (the star was also the executive producer). The story is a variation of the outsider-against-society theme which ran through McQueen’s movies, but the subject matter was highly relevant to the eco-conscious 1970s. In “An Enemy of the People,” Dr. Thomas Stockmann is the physician in a Norwegian resort who discovers the town’s spring has become contaminated. The spring is the source of a planned health resort, and any environmental clean-up would be expensive and would delay the launch of the proposed tourism industry built around the spring. Stockmann’s brother, the mayor, refuses to authorize the clean-up and uses his pressure to prevent the local newspaper from printing the truth about the spring’s toxicity. When Dr. Stockmann tries to warn the local population, he discovers his politically powerful brother and the local business leaders have conspired to make him an outcast. His warnings of health hazards from the spring are ignored and his neighbors take to pelting his home with stones.
If McQueen were to maintain his “Steve McQueen” persona, he would’ve clearly handled the issue with some well-placed fists or a few rounds of bullets. But since this is Ibsen (adapted by Arthur Miller), knockabout was out of the question. McQueen clearly wanted to lose his old persona and go deep into his character of Dr. Stockmann. And here, it seems, is where things became problematic.
In his role, McQueen sought to become a new personality and he lost himself under yards of hair. In fact, he was probably the most hirsute screen presence this side of “In Search of Bigfoot.” With his long, flowing locks and deep bushy beard, McQueen was a startlingly strange presence. Wire-rimmed glasses covered his instantly-recognizable eyes and a generous amount of padding hid his movie star trim physique. But once the actor begins to speak, that distinctive voice immediately makes McQueen recognizable. The effect is jarring – it almost feels as if McQueen is dubbing some hairy guy’s performance.
Getting over the shock of McQueen’s appearance takes some time, but once the viewer is used to his unlikely new style “An Enemy of the People” begins to work magically. McQueen is aces as the dedicated doctor whose attempts to save his community from an ecological disaster and a money-obsessed government is harrowing and heartbreaking. McQueen’s scenes with Charles Durning (who plays his vile brother) resonate with difficult issues of internecine pettiness played against a greater socio-economic backdrop. The dialogue is sharp and harsh. Durning is marvelous as the embodiment of seething evil, but McQueen is more than up to the challenge of portraying the essence of ineffective righteousness.
While George Schaefer’s direction often feels stagy, “An Enemy of the People” is never stagnant. By the closing moments when the community revolts against their would-be protector with a shower of stones through the glass windows of his home, the film has packed a gluttonous amount of food for thought. As a study of the corruptive mix of greed and power, “An Enemy of the People” is the ultimate denunciation of how government easily works against the people it is supposed to serve. And as a presentation on the ease which the general population can be manipulated to accept the most reprehensible of lies, the lessons of Ibsen’s work are timeless.
Alas, Warner Bros. felt very differently about this movie. “An Enemy of the People” was shelved after its completion – the studio, which had the distribution rights to the movie, felt it had no commercial value and it refused to gamble on having the audience accept McQueen in such an offbeat role. The film reportedly turned up on pay TV networks in the pre-cable television era of the late 1970s, but few people subscribed to those services then. McQueen would go on to make two more features (“Tom Horn” and “The Hunter,” a pair of forgettable Westerns) before he died of cancer in 1980. The year after his death, Warner Bros. gave “An Enemy of the People” a scattershot and incoherent U.S. release – it played at New York’s prestigious Public Theater but in Chicago it opened without promotion at a suburban drive-in. The film had a somewhat more substantial release in global markets.
To date, “An Enemy of the People” has never been available for home viewing. Bootleg videos based on the rare TV broadcasts of this elusive title exist and they can be located from private collectors. This is a major shame, because “An Enemy of the People” is not a bad film. It is actually quite compelling and provocative and McQueen, despite his bushy demeanor, proved he was more than capable of a dramatic performance. Anyone who wants to try a film that is very different and emotionally devastating should seek it out. And be forewarned: it is a lot better than its reputation!
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.
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Posted on October 28, 2005 in Features by Phil Hall
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- ME AND STEVE MCQUEEN…
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