Oh mama. Orin Scrivello is an abusive, nitrous oxide-huffing, sadistic, twisted mad man. In the hands of Steve Martin, he becomes a scene-stealer of the highest quality.
The 1986 musical Little Shop of Horrors is a camp horror imbued with catchy tunes and a rich Broadway feel. The story follows Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) as the down-on-his-luck loser working at Mr. Mushnik’s failing flower shop. All the while, he fails to woo his beautiful colleague Audrey (Ellen Greene). As luck would have it, his fate changes upon a total eclipse of the sun where an unusual plant, affectionately named Audrey II, enters his dreary life.
Audrey II’s thirst for blood sees the plant grow rapidly, and Seymour becomes a local celebrity. Alas, his life is empty as Audrey is with another man, Orin Scrivello. Clad in leather and teeth shining bright, Steve Martin rocks up in his Marlon Brando-esque garb to steal the show.
With Audrey II’s bloodlust at an all-time high, Seymour spots the perfect “plant food” and plans his trip to the dentist. Within the sterile white halls, the cries of help and despair echo throughout. Amongst this sadness, Scrivello is thriving in the job he loves. Singing and drilling together, Steve Martin’s solo number of ‘I Am Dentist’ is sensational. Bursting with impersonation, and Martin’s energy, the number lifts the entire film. No longer stuck in the doldrums of Skid Row, Martin takes us to his demented nirvana of pain. Wielding his arms as weapons of mass destruction, threatening the innocent with imminent and excruciating dental work, it almost makes you want to sit in the chair.
Emanating swagger and liquid – or rather oxidised – cool, Orin Scrivello’s narcissistic joy at causing people pain is infectious. Yet, it’s only when he faces his toughest patient does Martin’s character truly achieve a legendary status. Masochistic Arthur Denton, none other than Bill Murray, arrives to receive root canal treatment – but rather than fear, Murray thrives on the moment reaching almost orgasmic highs through Scrivello’s tortuous ways. As he waits outside, restless with glee, Arthur rushes to the chair immediately stuffing cotton rolls into his mouth. As Murray screams, “YES! YES!” from the chair, flickers of restricted smiles appear at the edge of Martin’s mouth.
Martin and Murray prosper through each other, working off every reaction and instinct to deliver comedy gold. To witness two comedic legends go toe-to-toe in their attempt to steal the scene is a pleasure to watch. The rest of the film is utterly charming, but it simply cannot match this high of two comedic actors at the top of their game slugging it out to create cinematic magic.
Eventually, disgusted by his enthusiasm and enjoyment, Scrivello throws Denton from the chair, and out of the practice. In just two scenes, an entire character has been formed, explored and celebrated before our eyes. Martin’s brash and bold performance allows his potentially pantomime role to become an anchor for the film.
It would be rude to ignore Alan Menken’s composition and Howard Ashman’s words, as they provide Martin with the necessary ammo to thrill. For example, it would be tough for anyone to fluff this gem of a verse: “She said, ‘My boy, I think someday/You’ll find a way/To make your natural tendencies pay.’/You’ll be a dentist.” Yet it takes someone of Martin’s skill to elevate these lyrics to the level they deserve.
His eventual exit through nitrous oxide poisoning restores the film’s poignant and darkly romantic tone, but, even long after his death, Orin Scrivello’s presence is seared onto your mind. Martin’s endless energy as the sadistic, twisted dentist provides conviviality of the highest level. Never wavering through repeat viewings, only further joy can be found through a missed gesture or simply marvelling at the overall performance.
The biggest ego for the biggest moments; Orin Scrivello delivers the biggest and best laughs, making you wish had a dentist just like him. Well, sort of.