Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Saturday, November 13, 2004
November 12, 2004, Friday
SPECIAL SECTION1; Pg. A1
Wild and renaissance guy
Author, actor, playwright, producer: multifaceted Martin conquers all
By the time a blue chip organization such as the American Cinematheque gets around to honoring an artist's career with its annual award, we not only know specifically what that artist has accomplished, but we have a fairly standard idea of what to expect in future work. With Steve Martin however, you never know what's coming next.
Martin is this year's award recipient, but unlike other protean figures such as Orson Welles or Peter Ustinov for example, outside of Happy Feet, a snappy physical angularity and the strenuously controlled panic attack, Martin scarcely owns a signature style. Not in his books ("Cruel Shoes" is not "Shopgirl"), not in his comedy ("King Tut" is not "the Great Flydinger") and not even in his movies, for which the Cinematheque is honoring him as writer as well as performer.
The comically manic figures of "The Jerk" and "All of Me" are not the coolly unsympathetic characters who appear in "Grand Canyon" and "Planes, Trains and Automobiles." "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid" doesn't prefigure "Parenthood," and neither prepares us for the seriousness of "The Spanish Prisoner."
And who would have expected, after a lifetime in commercial entertainment, the modernist esthetic and ambition of his stage play "Picasso at the Lapin Agile," or the mounting collection of short humor pieces that put him in the company of Robert Benchley and S.J. Perelman?
"He's a silly guy, apart from being brilliant," says writer-director Carl Reiner, who is a friend and has directed Martin in four films ("The Jerk," "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," "The Man With Two Brains" and "All of Me").
By "silly" Reiner doesn't mean dopey or puerile; he means someone who sees odd juxtapositions and morphing categories that bump into each other --- an alertness to sudden possibility drawn from Martin's connoisseurial closeness with modern art.
"He's extraordinarily well-coordinated but not terribly graceful, which is one of the things that makes him so funny," adds Reiner. "'Happy Feet' best describes him. He can do the wild and crazy thing that's hysterical and so hip, then all of a sudden he can change. He's a very thoughtful comedian.
"Most of the things we see him do have been considered beforehand. He took tap dance lessons from Danny Daniels for 'Pennies From Heaven.' He prepared at home for the scene in 'All of Me' where the bowl of water falls out the window and the woman's soul enters his body. That brilliant walk --- where he's physically torn between a man and a woman fighting to take over his body --- was completely thought out beforehand and done in one take.
"There's an evolution to this guy. He studied philosophy in college. He's not finished. The most fascinating thing is that he doesn't stop to smell the roses. He goes right on to the next."
How has Martin managed such a voluminous career while avoiding the burnout mentioned by Lily Tomlin (his co-star in "All of Me") when she said, "The trouble with this industry is that it doesn't allow for the organism to rejuvenate"?
The answer may be in his insistence on the nourishing freedom of privacy. Nobody sees him take work home. He's notoriously skimpy with interviews. His name doesn't show up in standard encyclopedias and reference volumes, not even in Who's Who.
What little you'll find is cursory and even contradictory. Born Aug. 15, 1945, in Waco, Texas, Martin moved at age 5 with his parents to California. Learned magic tricks and sleight-of-hand early on. Worked at Disneyland. Left college (a couple of Web references cite UCLA; his publicist says Long Beach State) to write for "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," then took his act on the road.
For the rest, what we see is what we get. Stand-up was in rough shape during the '60s, when rock music was king and, with few exceptions, comedy was in transition between Borscht Belt "take-my-wife-please" address and the brick wall and hand mike boom of the late '70s. The club scene was small; we knew George Carlin and Bill Cosby largely through television and records. Only Martin, with his white suit, banjo and an arrow through his head, knew how to make a spectacle of himself alone onstage in huge rock venues that would dwarf a less visual performer.
The career that followed has indeed been encyclopedic.
"Well excu-u-u-u-s-e me" has become part of the national parlance. His shake-and-shimmy appearance with Dan Aykroyd as "two wild and crazy guys" was a comic send-up of every young women's dating nightmare and a must-see on "Saturday Night Live."
He was a favorite of Johnny Carson's when Carson was king of latenight. His Flydini routine, in which a number of presentations --- hankies, flags of the world, a singing puppet --- are made through a magician's fly, is a cripplingly funny classic.
"When I see Steve Martin, I see a writer's mind at work," says writer Larry Gelbart. "He works direct, without speed bumps. It's pure, no influences. I was amazed at the job he did with 'Roxanne.' He took a foreign cartoon period figure and made it American and current. The trip he's made in the public mind, from arrow in the head to everything he's become now, including hit author, is very surprising."
And apparently unending.
Adds Gelbart, "Every once in a while he opens a new office in his head."