Lust and Marriage: Steve McQueen and His Wife, Neile, 1963
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We live in an age of way too much information about stars major and minor — their marriages, affairs, divorces, sex tapes, public spats and all the other sordid and exalted endeavors that flesh is heir to, much of it blithely shared by celebs themselves. And yet, despite this ceaseless cataract of information, it’s somehow rare to see portraits of well-known couples who not not only genuinely seem to like one another, but are comfortably, unaffectedly and obviously attracted to one another.
Of course, actresses, musicians and reality TV mediocrities are more than happy to show off their sexual side — Miley Cyrus’s distressing display at the MTV Awards being only the most recent, shudder-inducing example. But those exhibitions often feel either cartoonish or desperate, rising from a place of calculation rather than from good old-fashioned, grown-up lust. To quote Mark Twain (who was commenting on another subject entirely), the difference between faux, manufactured sexuality and the authentic article is the difference “between the lightning-bug and the lightning.”
Consider, then, these portraits (above and below) of Steve McQueen and his then-wife, the actor, dancer and singer Neile Adams, sharing a couple of smoldering moments together, one at a Palm Springs bungalow and the other during a trip up the coast to Big Sur in 1963. Here are two adults — seemingly devoid of self-consciousness, comfortable in their own skins and clearly at ease with one another’s bodies — captured in postures recognizable to anyone over the age of, say, 21, who has enjoyed an intense emotional and physical relationship with another human being. In other words, these two people really, really like each other.
Far from the studiously audacious antics of today’s stars, the casual, evident pleasure that McQueen and Adams take in one another in John Dominis’s photos comes across as, paradoxically, quite innocent. Steamy, yes. Carnal, absolutely. But innocent. (They divorced in 1972, after 16 years of marriage. Adams, who later remarried, wrote a memoir about her years with McQueen, My Husband, My Friend, which chronicled McQueen’s womanizing, boozing and other unsavory behaviors.)
That Dominis was able to make such informal, revealing pictures — especially of an actor as guarded in his personal life as McQueen usually was — speaks volumes about the photographer’s talent; about the unprecedented access that LIFE enjoyed during its heyday; and, finally, about the predictable, closely managed “allure” of so many of today’s stars.
With McQueen and Adams, through Dominis’s lens, we’re reminded of what sexual magnetism feels and looks like: unkempt, raw, real.
— Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com