For those of us born Millennials or Generation Y-ers, it seems as if Steve Martin was just always there. Now that the comedy legend has racked up his 70th year on the planet, it might be just as apt to ask where all the time went as marvel at how long it’s been since he first burst onto screens. The fact that he has had the same prematurely white hair since 1978 just adds to the odd feeling that he is sort of timeless.
In a career now spanning over 40 years, Martin’s treated us to absurdist standup, comedy-bluegrass fusion gigs, cockle-warming family capers, some of the wackiest characters committed to film, and televisual gold in even the smallest of guest roles. Read on, and marvel in appreciation of the man who may or may not have invented “air quotes”.
Steve Martin began his career as a TV writer (if you discount a high school stint at Disneyland as a guidebook seller-cum-balloon-artist) and progressed to performing standup on a number of popular TV shows, such as The Tonight Show, The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour (yes, this exists) and – like so many American comedy stalwarts – Saturday Night Live. Martin is still the second-most frequent SNL guest host, losing out by a mere episode to Alec Baldwin. At the peak of his standup career, when thousands would flock to his shows, and every one of his new comedy records would notch up another Grammy, Martin decided to master a new medium: film.
In 1979, Steve Martin starred in his first co-written film, The Jerk, directed by Carl Reiner. The premise was a simple gag from one of his standup routines: “It was never easy for me; I was born a poor black child” – and follows the epically inane rags-to-riches tale of Navin R. Johnson (who puts the ‘idiot’ into ‘savant’) and his invention of a nose brake for glasses. It remains one of Martin’s most popular films. In complete contrast, his next project was acclaimed musical adaptation Pennies from Heaven (1981), Martin’s first dramatic role. This was sadly received with much less gusto by the viewing public, who were no doubt confused at seeing a famously goofy comic actor assume a more serious tone.
Two more Reiner films, with Martin co-writing, soon followed: Dead Mean Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and The Man with Two Brains (1983), the latter of which is quintessential Steve Martin. It is both silly and knowing, packed with crazy non-sequiturs (“Get that cat out of here!”), beautifully snappy one-liners, gratifying sight gags, and the world’s most medically-savvy 5-year-old.
The late ‘80s provided a strong succession of Steve Martin cinematic endeavours, from the commercially popular ¡Three Amigos! (1986), to cult favourite Little Shop of Horrors (1986), to the sentimental Roxanne (1987), cementing Martin’s reputation as a credible film actor with considerable range. It was following this run of three that Martin starred with John Candy in the now classic Planes, Trains and Automobiles, which enabled Martin to segue nicely from the more brash, zany comedies of his early career into the gentler, family-oriented vehicles that became predominant in the ’90s. It’s even possible that Steve Martin may have single-handedly evolved the Frustrated Dad trope, and from 1989’s Parenthood onwards, he continues to star in a number of these roles, such as Father of the Bride I and II, Bringing Down the House and Cheaper by the Dozen 1 and 2.
Fair-weather fans may not know that Martin is also an accomplished banjo player and a huge fan of bluegrass music; so much so, that he established his own award in 2010 – the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. A banjo, guitar or ukulele will often sneak its way into his films, providing a nutty but oddly charming musical interlude.
As if there were no end to this man’s talents, he is also a playwright, a frequent contributor to the New Yorker, and has penned his own novella, which formed the basis for his quietly underrated 2005 film Shopgirl.
In short, Steve Martin makes the unworkable work. In the hands of a lesser comic genius, the portrayal of a man with half of his body possessed by the soul of a dead woman (All of Me, 1984) would prove just as dumb and clichéd as you might expect, but not with Martin. Yes, obligatory flouncy hand gestures abound, but Martin carries the sheer lunacy of it off with panache. He has to; this (almost) one-hander wouldn’t be anywhere near as sweet and credible otherwise. Equally, under the guise of Ruprecht – Michael Caine’s erratic and somewhat deranged fake brother in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – Martin proves the art of a well-executed (ahem) toilet joke, and suffers for his aforementioned art by repeatedly poking himself in the eye with a fork.
Yes, he’s done a saccharine remake of Cheaper by the Dozen, and starred in a completely pointless reboot of the Pink Panther franchise, but we forgive you, Steve. Even when the film isn’t top drawer, Martin’s performance always is. Indeed, Steve Martin’s key strength is the ability to elevate a simple premise, or straightforward, silly humour to another level with sheer conviction and an irrepressibly affable quality that makes even his grouchiest (Planes, Trains and Automobiles) or downright mentally-unhinged characters (The Man with Two Brains) the ones we are rooting for. So whether he’s agonising over the nuptials of his beloved daughter, or about to inject window cleaner into a sex worker’s bum, you can be sure that Steve Martin’s going to sell it, and as ever, with tongue always firmly in cheek.
Top 5 Steve Martin Films:
The Jerk (1979): Steve Martin in his first film and Carl Reiner vehicle, about growing up a poor black child in Mississippi, and his brush with an unlikely bit of optometric inventory.
The Man with Two Brains (1983): Martin’s third Reiner outing/co-written film, and a masterclass in quasi-absurdist sci-fi comedy. About as silly as an adult film can be, with just enough wry cleverness to balance it out.
All of Me (1984): The final Reiner film on this list, and considered by many to be one of Martin’s best performances. The sterling double-act of Martin and Lily Tomlin is both playful and oddly touching.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988): Michael Caine and Martin star as two conmen engaged in an all-or-nothing bet. A tight, clever comedy, but worth watching alone to see Caine whack Martin repeatedly on the legs with a metal whip, while the latter maintains a look of painless serenity.
Shopgirl (2005): Perhaps the most atypical film on this list, and one of Martin’s most personal, since it was based on his own novella. A thoughtful, illuminating look at the effects of clinical depression, with Martin in an unusually suave but callous role, Jason Schwartzman in an equally unlikely sweet, caring mode, and Claire Danes as the titular shop girl.