An Enemy of the People
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Steve McQueen was the highest-paid movie star in the world in 1974. He had made The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), Bullitt (1968), The Getaway (1972), Papillon (1973), and the top box-office hit of 1974, The Towering Inferno, sharing top billing with Paul Newman over an all-star cast. Inundated with offers for one big budget action movie after another, he turned them all down. Newly married to Ali McGraw, he wanted a project they could do together and he didn't want to, as he put it, make "ordinary movies at this stage in my life." But he owed two more films on his contract with First Artists and the company, which was losing money, pressured him to make good on his commitment. So after a couple of years he gave them something unexpected: an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's 1883 play An Enemy of the People. "He didn't want to do another shoot-em-up," explained McGraw. "An Enemy of the People touched him." Some intimates believed that McQueen chose a purposely uncommercial project to spite First Artists. Others suggested that he was anxious to prove himself a serious actor. Whatever the origins, it became a passion project for McQueen, who found contemporary relevance in the 19th century drama about a small town physician who discovers that his town's hot springs are poisoned and is attacked when he tries to go public with his findings. It touched on environment issues and social politics. "It reads like it was written yesterday," McQueen was quoted as saying in the film's production notes.
McQueen, who was also executive producer, personally shepherded the project from the beginning. For his director, he turned to George Schaefer, who had never made a feature film but had won seven Emmy Awards over twenty years for directing and producing TV dramas for Hallmark Hall of Fame and other prestigious television showcases. He brought in Alexander Jacobs, screenwriter of such tough, gritty films as Point Blank (1967) and French Connection II (1975), to develop the script from Arthur Miller's 1950 English adaptation of the play as well as a line-by-line translation of the original Norwegian text. And he set out to cast the best actors he could secure on the film's $2.5 million budget. "I said the picture couldn't be designed to protect a weak performance by him," said Schaefer, recalling his first meeting with McQueen. "He said he absolutely agreed."
Bibi Andersson, who had worked with Ingmar Bergman on both stage and screen, was cast as his wife and Nicol Williamson, fresh from Robin and Marian (1976) and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), was the doctor's brother, who is also the town's mayor. Williamson, however, was nowhere to be found on the first day of rehearsal (he was in Hawaii, they later discovered) and was quickly replaced by Charles Durning, a busy character actor who had delivered memorable performances in The Sting (1973) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975). Durning had heard stories that McQueen was short-tempered and difficult to work and was surprised to hit it off with the actor. "I found him to be loyal to the people he worked with, even defending them," he told McQueen biographer Marshall Terrill. Richard Dysart played the newspaper publisher and actor and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Michael Cristofer made his feature debut as the editor, Hovstad.
According to his collaborators, McQueen addressed the cast on the first day of rehearsals. "To be absolutely honest, this material is more your world than mine. But I'm going to give it my all." He put on 30 pounds and grew a full beard for the role, and committed to three weeks of rehearsal before going before the cameras. And for an actor who hated learning lines and worked to cut his dialogue down to the minimum in earlier films, he dedicated himself to memorizing all of his speeches, including the climactic three-page monologue. "His performance grew tremendously during those three weeks," Durning told New York Times reporter Aljean Marmetz. "What I didn't expect was his generosity. He was honest, giving, and true to his character. He let you have the stage when it was your time." As Durning told Terrill, "The better you were, the more he applauded you."
The film was shot in the fall of 1976 and completed by February 1977, but languished on the shelf for years. Warners didn't know how to promote the film, a piece of classical theater starring an action superstar playing against the image he had carefully crafted over the past couple of decades. They test marketed the film in 1978 to fair attendance and lukewarm reviews. To audiences unfamiliar with the play, the title sounded more like a western than a serious drama, and McQueen's name above the title further confused expectations. On screen, he was unrecognizable under the bushy beard, long hair, and wire-rimmed glasses. "I did An Enemy of the People because I just wanted to do something that I felt was pure," McQueen said, and he took great pride in his achievement. But the film never received a wide release and the financial failure, which coincided with his divorce from McGraw, hit McQueen hard. He only made two more films, a western and an action picture, before his untimely death in 1980 at the age of 50.
Steve McQueen: A Biography, Marc Eliot. Crown Archetype, 2011.
Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon, Marshall Terrill. Triumph, 2010.
"Steve McQueen Goes for Ibsen--But Hollywood Doesn't," Aljean Harmetz. The New York Times, April 15, 1979.
AFI Catalog of Feature Films
By Sean Axmaker