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Vicious, controlling and unstable: The dark side of Steve McQueen

@SamWKemp

When Neile Adams felt her husband pointing the nozzle of a pistol at her head, she knew she had been duped just like everyone else. Or perhaps it was quite the opposite, maybe the issue was that this man was all too similar to the charming rogues he starred as on the silver screen. Certainly, he’d managed to seduce her with his untamed antihero persona, and now she was paying the price. What a shame that as well as being one of the most iconic stars of the 1960s and ’70s, he was also one of the most controlling, vicious, and unstable. That man, of course, was Steve McQueen.

Adams met McQueen in the 1950s following her move to the United States from the Phillipines. They quickly married and had two children together. She soon learned that her husband was a serial womaniser and chose to accept that he would have multiple affairs during their marriage. She was also aware that Mcqueen had an array of addictions, including a serious cocaine habit. One night, Mcqueen wanted to get high and tried to persuade Adams to join in. She refused, but he was very insistent: “I wish you wouldn’t fight me on this,” he allegedly said. “I promise you a little coke will make you feel better. I don’t want you feeling bad, baby! No matter what happens, you’re still my baby.”

She agreed. It was a bad move. As the night went on and McQueen racked up line after line, he grew paranoid and began asking Adams if she was having an affair behind his back. She teased him, saying: “Honey bunny, yours is not the only golden c*ck in the west, you know.” Ridicule, after all, was all she had left. To twist the knife a little bit deeper, she told her husband that the man she was sleeping with was an Academy Award winner. McQueen left the room, red-faced and sniffing erratically. When he came back, he pulled a gun from his pocket, pushed himself against Adams, and held the gun to her right temple. “You’d better tell me now or you’re not going to live to see him die! And I promise you I’ll find out who the motherf*cker is! Make no mistake about that,” he is said to have whispered into the shell of her ear.

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Stories such as these seemed to crop up all over the place after McQueen’s death. His attitude towards the women in his life was one of mere tolerance. He required absolute authority, and while he was entitled to sleep with as many people as possible – including prostitutes – Adams had to be completely faithful. In his eyes, her body was his property. Indeed, a month or so after the incident with the gun, Adams became pregnant. Mcqueen refused to believe the baby was his, interrogating Adams and manipulating her to have an abortion against her will. Broken under the strain of McQueen’s emotional abuse, she flew from France to Britain to have the procedure. Of that time, she later wrote: “As much as I would have wanted to have a new baby, there was no way I could withstand both the continuing physical and mental abuse and a pregnancy. I had to find out what the procedure would be.”

McQueen’s jealousy even extended into the careers of his wives. When he met the actress Ali McGraw on the set of their movie The Getaway, the pair quickly fell for each other despite the fact that McGraw was already married. Throughout the ’70s, she starred in some of the decades’ biggest box-office hits including the 1970 project Love Story. Following her marriage to McQueen, however, her new husband banned her from starring in any more romantic roles. She didn’t work again until they divorced in 1978. During their marriage, McGraw was subjected to the same interrogations that Adams had been a victim of; hour-long questioning in which McQueen’s terrifying mania was let loose.

I’d like to say that McQueen’s twisted attitude towards women was a product of entrenched misogyny that we have since overcome, but that would be a lie. Characters like McQueen are still very common both inside and outside of Hollywood. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline went up by an average of 61%, with 71% of all calls coming from women experiencing abuse. Hollywood is also still riddled with characters such as McQueen, as the #MeToo movement made startlingly clear. Back in February of this year, FKA Twigs sued Shia Labeouf for emotionally abusing her when the two were in a relationship. According to Twigs, LaBeouf subjected her to physical, mental and emotional abuse, claiming that she “wasn’t allowed to look men in the eye”. Clearly, there is still a lot of work to be done.