Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Sunday, August 14, 2005

New Steve Article #2
Toronto Star
Aug. 14, 2005. 11:04 AM

Steve Martin has reinvented himself three times so far in his long career, with his latest act being that of the serious artist and Renaissance Man. This phase includes turning his novella Shopgirl into an upcoming film, in which he co-stars with Claire Danes, above. Will there be an Act 4?

Funny man with a plan; From dervish to droll in 30 years

F. Scott Fitzgerald proved himself both a lousy prophet and mathematician when he made the famous observation that "there are no second acts in American lives."

Had the jazz-era scribe lived to watch the career of Steve Martin, who implausibly celebrates his 60th birthday today, he could have counted at least three acts in the funny man's remarkable career.

In Act One, Martin is the proverbial "wild and craaaazy guy," the arrow-through-the-head clown from Waco, Texas, who combines idiocy and intellect to redefine 1970s comedy.

He stands on stage in outlandish fake noses, arrow-through-the-head props and King Tut outfits, making balloon pets (a trick he learned at a Disneyland summer job), playing the banjo (honed at Knott's Berry Farm, another job) and generally acting the fool. A Rolling Stone cover story from 1977 depicts him as a madman in a box, dubbing him "Bananaland's Top Banana."

His sold-out shows, hit LPs, best-selling books and eagerly awaited Saturday Night Live appearances are a form of performance art. Martin sometimes pokes fun at himself, sometimes at others, most times at the whole idea of comedy. He conscripts his entire audience to assist him in mocking a poor mook who gets up from the show to go to the bathroom, and who returns to discover he's part of a colossal in-joke.

Martin tells a crowd of hundreds to follow him out of a concert venue to a drained swimming pool nearby, where he proceeds to swim laps atop their outstretched arms (did Martin invent moshing?) Another gang is cajoled into following him to a restaurant where they order a single French fry to go.

He tells conspiratorial stories of taking drugs, which he calls "getting small" — a term that briefly becomes a catch phrase.

Yet Martin's comedy increasingly tilts toward the intellectual and surreal, befitting a prematurely grey-haired man who studied philosophy at California State University, who dresses in tailored three-piece suits and who is a staunch vegetarian. He stops doing drugs and drinking to excess. Interviewers describe him as remarkably austere off stage.

His jokes make sense only in their exquisite timing and absurdist paranoia. Such as when he claims his pet cat is embezzling his cheques. Or robots are stealing his luggage. Or how the best way to apologize for shooting someone dead is to simply say, "I forgot the gun was loaded."

Act Two launches the movie career, beginning in 1978 with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a colossal bomb fashioned on Beatles songs. Martin plays smirking Dr. Maxwell Edison in a mercifully brief clip based on "Maxwell's Silver Hammer."

He survives unscathed and proceeds to his first starring role, in the hit 1979 Carl Reiner comedy The Jerk, co-written by Martin. He plays "a poor black sharecropper's son" who is too stupid to realize he's the only white boy on the plantation. Modelling his performance after Jerry Lewis, an early influence, as was sad clown Red Skelton, Martin demonstrates that his stage act can be successfully transferred to the screen.

At the same time, he makes a conscious decision to sober up his stage act. He still does sold-out tours of stand-up comedy, including a stop at Toronto's Maple Leaf Gardens, but he no longer uses the arrow prop and he stops referring to himself as the "wild and craaaazy guy." He tells interviewers he wants to get into a more serious brand of comedy, which for most comedians would be like handing a suicidal person a loaded gun.

Not for Martin. He demonstrates his new resolve in his next big movie, Pennies From Heaven, a Depression-era musical in which he sings and dances alongside Bernadette Peters, his co-star in The Jerk. The film brings mixed reviews and is only a modest success — people can't quite figure him out. But Martin and Peters are now dating, remaining a couple until about 1983.

That's the year Martin makes the hit body-switch comedy All of Me with British actress Victoria Tennant, whom he marries. They remain paired until their divorce a decade later.

A pattern quickly establishes itself in Martin's movie choices. He alternates between slapstick comedies (Three Amigos, Planes, Trains and Automobiles), grown-up charmers (Parenthood, Father of the Bride) and well-observed satires (Roxanne, L.A. Story). He's not universally applauded for his versatility. Movie biographer David Thomson scolds him in print for seeming false in his performances and for being "fundamentally averse to acting."

Martin will continue this pattern, his best work generally being the stories he writes himself. He also produces, but resists the director's chair, reasoning he's a performer, not a manager.

Act Three is Martin as the serious artist and Renaissance Man. Still a work in progress, it arguably begins with David Mamet's The Spanish Prisoner in 1997, Martin's first role as a truly evil man. He's an unscrupulous businessman out to dupe the unwitting inventor of a potentially lucrative financial innovation known as The Process.

Martin turns 50 shortly before making the movie and unwisely laments to an unsympathetic Esquire writer that he feels he's entering "my last viable decade." He frets about ever meeting a woman again whom he'll want to stay with. He's been left shattered by his last serious girlfriend, the actress Anne Heche, who is less than half his age and who leaves him for another woman. He wonders if he still has any new ideas left in him and ponders if his middle-age crisis has already passed, or is still to come.

His movies become both sillier (Cheaper by the Dozen, Bringing Down the House and the still-to-come Pink Panther remake) and more serious (Joe Gould's Secret, Novocaine and the still-to-come Shopgirl). He's that rare artist who can have movies simultaneously selling popcorn in multiplexes and filling seats at the Toronto International Film Festival.

While promoting Novocaine at that year's Toronto fest, a movie in which he plays a diabolical dentist (shades of Little Shop of Horrors) Martin tells the Star he doesn't think that much about his career.

"I just don't worry about it. I don't have a manager. I don't plot my career. I never have. I've never been clever enough."

The words sound disingenuous; Martin is a very clever man. He's also very astute. About this same time, he lets the public in a secret that he's a major collector of art, one who has steadily amassed a valuable collection of original art by the likes of Picasso, Hopper, Hockney and de Kooning.

His Picasso passion includes a play he wrote called Picasso at the Lapine Agile, about a mythical encounter between the artist and Albert Einstein. It receives good notices and will eventually become a movie by the same name.

Martin also contributes satirical essays to The New Yorker magazine, shaping his absurdist wit to suit a highbrow and high-heeled audience. One memorable piece describes in detail his attempt to have a child with the actress Gwyneth Paltrow, a woman he has never met and who has zero interest in him.

He becomes an occasional host for the Academy Awards, when Billy Crystal doesn't feel like doing it. He's appreciated, but it seems as if he could be Crystal's straight man. His madcap days seem further away than ever.

Will there be an Act Four for Martin? The wise person wouldn't bet against it. He remains as vigorous as always, but unpredictable in his choices. If he suddenly decided to become a champion whittler, a rodeo star or a monk, he'd find ways of making it work — and making it pay.

He continues to insist, as he did to the Star in 2001, that he's on a path with no map and with no ego to guide him.

"Whenever I get to thinking, `Should I do this, or should I do that?' I remember that no one is thinking about it but me. It really doesn't matter."


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