Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Thursday, November 11, 2004
A new article on the Cinematheque Award Saturday Night
thanks to Mary Ann
Published Nov. 11, 2004
American Cinematheque Award: Steve Martin
The actor-writer-comedian -- honored at this year's MOving Picture Ball -- might be as smart as he is funny.
By Wolf Schneider
Martin steps into the role of Inspector Clouseau for MGM's "The Pink Panther"
With the "wild and crazy guy" as his suave alter ego and the attention-grabbing "Well, excuuuuuse me!" as his careerlong mantra, Steve Martin has made a gold mine of sending up the human condition. His journey from selling 25-cent guidebooks to Disneyland at age 11 to nabbing a reported $17.5 million paycheck for MGM's upcoming reinterpretation of "The Pink Panther" has been a natural evolution for the prolific film star and writer, whose situational comedy and light drama draws as much on absurdist principles as it does on deeper satirical paradoxes.
By synthesizing the clever, the cerebral and the goofy with his brand of postmodern self-referential humor, Martin has won Emmys and Grammys, filled 20,000-seat arenas as a stand-up comic, starred in 40 feature films during a 25-year span, hosted the Academy Awards and proved his own manifesto, "Chaos in the midst of chaos isn't funny, but chaos in the midst of order is."
Martin is likely to toss off bons mots like that and more when he accepts the 19th annual American Cinematheque Award, which will be presented during Friday's Moving Picture Ball at the Beverly Hilton. Friends and peers will be there to lend their support and share insight about the zany and brainy comedian.
"This idea of jokes that keep folding in on themselves, it's his comedic process," says Kevin Kline, who appears with Martin in the recently wrapped "Panther."
"It's uniquely his; it just keeps commenting on itself and taking another turn," Kline says. "I mean, he can do slapstick, farcical acting and he can do witty repartee -- and in his writing, it spans a spectrum from low humor to high wit."
Behind it all, there is a brain in overdrive.
"Steve is an intellectual," says Diane Keaton, who made "Father of the Bride" hit features with Martin in 1991 and 1995. "That's what he's aces at doing: using his brain. He thinks more than anyone I know or am friends with, with the exception of only one other person: Woody Allen.
"I find the similarities between the two of them fascinating: Both are magicians, they're both extremely hard workers, they're very disciplined, and they're extremely curious," Keaton adds. "Their brilliance is in how they explore human behavior as performers, as writers and as comedians."
Brian Grazer, who has produced four Martin movies and also is a friend, agrees.
"He's really, really smart; I guess when you're really smart and you see the truth of things, he's able to sort of bust the world," Grazer says. "He's always ahead of everybody or deeper into the truth of what's actually going on. The comedians are smarter than shit, man -- they are really smart. Their sensitivity is so fine-tuned."
omedy always has been Martin's calling. Born Aug. 14, 1945, in Waco, Texas, to a homemaker mother and a Baylor University drama instructor father, he grew up glued to Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis movies. When Steve was 5, his family relocated to Inglewood, Calif., then to nearby Orange County, where his father entered the real estate business and Steve got a job selling guidebooks at Disneyland (he later worked at the park's magic shop).
By the time he graduated high school in 1963, Martin had perfected his enthusiastic delivery of, "Well, excuuuuuse me!" and, "We're having some fun now!" as well as the wearing of an "arrow through head" prop -- all of which he would use in his stand-up routines. He studied philosophy at California State University at Long Beach and theater at UCLA then nabbed a berth during the late 1960s as a writer on CBS' "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," which led to a decade of increasing popularity as a TV comedy writer, stand-up comic and frequent guest star on NBC's "Saturday Night Live" and "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson."
In 1979, Martin collaborated with Carl Reiner, the director who some observers credit with discovering Martin and who certainly launched him into feature films.
"He and his friends had written a thing called 'Easy Money,' and David Picker, who was going to produce the picture, needed a director," Reiner says. "Steve already was a major rock-star comedian: He would sell out bowls, the big venues and ballparks doing his crazy, funny thing. The movie is based on his act: There was one line in his act -- 'I was born a poor black child' -- and from that, we built this whole movie."
"Easy Money" was retitled "The Jerk," Martin came away with a girlfriend in co-star Bernadette Peters, and Reiner guided Martin into the '80s, directing him again in 1982's "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," 1983's "The Man With Two Brains" and 1984's "All of Me."
"He's got what we call 'a little curvature of the brain,'" Reiner says of Martin's approach. "He knows the cliche and avoids it like the plague, but he can take cliches and turn them into something new. There's a silliness to him that he plays seriously, and it's engaging. He also looks like an accountant or like he could be a senator."
Martin recalled his Texas roots for the 1986 cowboy-comedy sendup "Three Amigos" -- which he wrote with Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman and in which he co-stars with "SNL" cronies Chevy Chase and Martin Short -- and shows what he had learned about the business by wagging his finger at Joe Mantegna's studio mogul character and declaring, "No dough, no show." Ever adept at physical comedy, Martin twirls guns, renders rope tricks, rides horseback and executes some fancy footwork and tush-wiggling during the movie's "My Little Buttercup" sequence.
"He's got what we call 'a little curvature of the brain.'" -- Carl Reiner
"Steve loves to rehearse and get it right, and I'm a little obsessive too," Short says. "So (there was) a lot of tush-rehearsing on the 'My Little Buttercup' number."
Short picked up a career longevity tip from Martin during production of "Amigos."
"He has an ability to not take things personally, and that's how you survive," Short says. "You're finished? You don't take it personally."
Frank Oz then helmed Martin as a demented dentist in the 1986 comedy "Little Shop of Horrors."
"At that time, it was (written like) 'Happy Days,' and he didn't want to be Fonzie," Oz says. "I said, 'Absolutely.' He wanted to be more of an Elvis Presley character; I said, 'Absolutely -- sounds great.'"
Oz directed Martin again in the farcical 1988 feature "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels," in which Martin plays a dimwitted swindler -- a "moron," in the words of Michael Caine's cultured French Riviera con artist, whom Martin's character emulates.
Off-screen, though, Caine was surprised by Martin.
"He is so schizophrenic," Caine says. "If you meet him, you think you're going to meet this wild and crazy nut case; that was always his thing -- the 'wild and crazy guy.' It's ironic, really, because that's exactly what he isn't: He's the quietest, most intellectual sort of computer nerd."
Caine was impressed when, after rehearsing a scene in which his character dominates, Martin told Oz: "Let's not shoot this tonight; this isn't funny enough. I'll write something for Michael."
Says Caine: "The next day, he gave me two pages of very funny dialogue to say! He'd gone to all this trouble for another actor.
"What I learned is that if you are with someone who is doing zany, you have to be absolutely straight because you both can't do it," Caine adds. "(Martin) taught me how far you can go with zany and still be natural and sincere about it."
The following year, Martin starred in the hit comedy "Parenthood" produced by Grazer, who went on to produce the Martin starrers "Housesitter" (1992), "Sgt. Bilko" (1996) and "Bowfinger" (1999). Of the latter film, Grazer notes: "When Steve gave me the (Martin-penned) script for 'Bowfinger,' it wasn't written for (co-star) Eddie Murphy -- it was written for a white action star. It was written for Keanu Reeves, literally. I said, 'Why does it have to be an action star?' He said, 'That's the joke.' I said: 'What if it were Eddie Murphy, and Eddie Murphy played two characters? That could be really funny.' He said: 'You know, that'd be great -- that'd be brilliant. Let's do that.' He processed it in about a minute, and he made a creative sea change."
Martin shows a tender side in 1991's "L.A. Story," which he also penned, and again mines his emotional depths on the "Father of the Bride" movies.
"I came to it thinking, 'I'm the actress, and he's the comedian,'" Keaton says. "(But) one day, he blew me away when he just started crying in a scene."
At 57, Martin proved his urban-youth appeal by slouching undercover hilariously as an Eminem-imitating "white homeboy" opposite Queen Latifah in 2003's "Bringing Down the House," which grossed $132.5 million domestically.
Later that year, Martin made "Cheaper by the Dozen" with director Shawn Levy, who also is helming "Panther," in which Martin fills the late Peter Sellers' shoes as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau.
"What makes Steve funny is two things: First, his ability to create absurdist circumstances and play them straight, whether it's an arrow in his head or an entire magic act played through the fly of his pants," Levy says. "(But) he can also take the real world and a realistic context and find the absurd therein."
Although characterized as a romantic comedy, Buena Vista's upcoming release "Shopgirl" -- for which Martin wrote the screenplay and in which he stars with Claire Danes -- is based on Martin's best-selling novella, which is as melancholy as it is trenchant. In telling of an affair between a listless department store employee and a wealthy older businessman, Martin writes of a philanderer who "is using the hours with her as a portal to his own need for propinquity."
"(The script) was even more strangely intimate than I had anticipated," Danes says. "It's based on an actual relationship that he had."
That made for a set with a shifting emotional undertone.
"We're all so accustomed to his clownish, extroverted persona; he's not antithetical to that (in actuality), but he's very observant and thinking," Danes says. "Occasionally, he'd crack a joke, and I'd go: 'Oh, right! You're an iconic comic; you're one of the funniest people on the planet.' But we'd all forget."
Perhaps what Martin does best, then, is find humor in pain.
"I think turning angst into art -- turning existential agony into art, and yes, turning misery into art -- is very much a part of it," Levy says. "When he does that conversion, it's not just with humor -- it's with genuine humanity."
Published Nov. 11, 2004