There is a scene in Bullitt (1968) where Jacqueline Bisset asks Steve McQueen, her San Francisco police lieutenant boyfriend, to stop the car and let her out; she is disgusted by his daily dealings with violence and death. “Do you realize you live in the sewer?” she says, and then: “What will happen to us in time?”. Steve McQueen looks her in the eyes and replies: “Time starts now”. He then goes back to his gruesome line of work with even more vigour, and comes back to his home after a night of more death and violence, to find Bisset sleeping peacefully in his bed.
When I was a film student, someone in my class asked: “Who is the coolest actor ever?” It started a discussion that generated a lot of interesting answers (including David Hasselhoff, which made everybody laugh). This was in 1998, long before social media and internet polls, and I don’t remember ever having read or thought about the subject of coolness in cinema until then. Nevertheless, I gave an answer that everybody seemed to agree with: Steve McQueen. Since then, I have been thinking about Bullitt and McQueen’s laconic answer, and what constitutes coolness in cinema.
Most people tend to confuse coolness with good looks; although it definitely helps to be easy on the eye, there are a lot of good looking actors that are definitely on the wrong side of cool. Other people attribute coolness to attire, style and dress sense. This is also debatable, in my opinion. Look at the various actors that have played James Bond, consistently the most stylishly (and expensively) dressed secret agent in the history of cinema. They include the ultra-cool Sean Connery as well as the hapless George Lazenby, even though they all wore Savile Row-tailored suits, and the most expensive of watches and accessories. And deep down, we all know that no matter how hard the merchants of cool will try to convince us that wearing Bond’s sunglasses will make us by association as cool as Bond, unfortunately this is not the case.
So if coolness is not about the clothes, the looks and the style, what is it actually about? Well, it is about several things, according to research from the University of Rochester Medical Center in 2012. People perceived as cool seem to navigate through life’s adversities effortlessly. They don’t feel they have anything to prove, they are not fazed by flattery or intimidation, and they operate in the most difficult circumstances with a confidence that for most of us is unattainable. Kind of like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca; his bar is a snake pit of political and emotional intrigue, but he manages to negotiate all the difficulties of war and romantic love with ease, and do the right thing in the end.
But I believe the clue about true cinematic cool is in Steve McQueen’s answer in Bullitt. The coolest of actors and cinematic characters are down to earth, understated and uncompromisingly on the side of the righteous. They are determined to make the world a better place and they will never stop until they achieve it. Look at Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. Bruised, beaten and battered, he goes on and on, despite the brutal punishment by the corrupt union bosses, to stand up for justice and for what he believes is the right thing to do. So does McQueen in Bullitt. In doing so, these actors provide us with the reassurance that everything will be OK in the end. That no matter how deep in the sewer we are, things will be better in time. And we don’t have to wait too long until then. Because in cinema “Time starts now”.
What is cooler than that?