Sharing Steve :: New Stuff
Wednesday, October 19, 2005
 

Recent article from W magazine


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W Magazine
October 2005
All of Him
By Marshall Heyman

Aesthete, intellectual and slapstick star, Steve Martin is a man of many facets.

“Hit, miss, hit, miss, bad review, good review, you’re in, you’re out, you’re up, you’re down.”

This is Steve Martin’s quick run-though of his nearly four-decade-long career as a comedian, writer, movie star and banjo player. Sipping a glass of iced tea at Isabella’s, a crowded brunch spot not far from his Manhattan apartment on the Upper West Side, Martin looks ageless, and his attire—khakis, baseball cup, button-down—seems designed to blend in with the crowd. Were it not for the pair of bright yellow socks on his feet, you’d forget he has a comic streak.

One thing that can be said about Martin is that he’s still, as they say, here. His costars in any number of Eighties comedies, such as Chevy Chase and Rick Moranis, either by choice or bad luck, haven’t had quite the same stamina. Meanwhile Martin, who turned 60 in August, constantly finds new ways to spin his creative energy into gold. This is not to say that he hasn’t had his share of bombs, Mixed Nuts (1994) and Sgt. Bilko (1995) among them.

But the past several years have been good to him. There have been huge box-office smashes. Bringing Down the House in 2003, a comedy of errors costarring Queen Latifah, and that same year’s remake of Cheaper by the Dozen together brought in nearly $300 million. He’s also published countless humor pieces in The New Yorker, strengthening his fan base among the intelligentsia. And his two best-selling novellas have secured his place in literary circles: 2000’s Shopgirl, a lyrical “tone poem,” as Martin likes to call it, about a love triangle between a rich older gentleman, a saleswoman and a slacker; and 2003’s The Pleasure of My Company, a more slapstick work of fiction about an obsessive-compulsive agoraphobe.

He is the first to say that, at the moment, “my career is a real delight.”

Martin is on a break from filming Cheaper by the Dozen 2, which will be released in December, two months after the film version of Shopgirl. February will see a prequel to The Pink Panther, in which he stars as Inspector Clouseau, opposite Kevin Kline and Beyonce Knowles. (Martin compares stepping into the role made famous by Peter Sellers to playing Hamlet.) In Shopgirl, which he adapted himself, he plays Ray Porter, a wealthy but aloof older businessman with a fear of commitment and intimacy, who strings along Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes), a glove saleswoman at Saks.

Reading Shopgirl, one can’t help but imagine that the uncommunicative Ray Porter has to be a version of Martin himself, who, since divorcing the British actress Victoria Tennant in 1994 after eight years of marriage, has had a series of relationships with younger, well-known women, including Anne Heche, Helena Bonham Carter and the artist Cindy Sherman. He was also recently linked to a former fact-checker at The New Yorker. To watch Martin play this character onscreen makes the autobiographical angle even more apparent.

“Steve is revealing a part of himself in Shopgirl that he could have kept concealed,” says Danes. “He exposes vulnerability and a certain unattractiveness—which I think is very brave—playing a guy who’s a little self-deluding and not entirely sure about forging true intimacy with a partner.”

“You’re right, it’s a little weird, playing the scenes you wrote and in some moments lived,” Martin finally admits, after the question of his taking the role arises a few times. “When you’re in a scene where you tell someone you don’t love them, you know it’s not real, but you also get a clammy feeling.”

Still, the possibility of not starring in the film felt even stranger: “I thought, If I’m going to sit there on the sidelines as the screenwriter, the next thing they’ll be looking for is a 50-year-old guy to ply the role, and somebody else takes the glory.”

Coming from a man who made “King Tut” a hit single and wore a monstrous prosthetic nose in Roxanne, what’s even more surprising about Shopgirl is just how elegiac and sad it is. Watching the bittersweet plot enacted--three lonely, depressed characters in their quest for love in Los Angeles—makes you realize how different it is from 1991’s L.A. Story, the film’s closest companion in the canon of Steve Martin. In that satire about Hollywood life, traffic signs offer fortune-cookie advice on relationships, and a romantic escapade involves roller-skating through the Los Angeles Museum of Art.

“Shopgirl is the dark side of L.A. Story,” explains Anand Tucker, the director of Shopgirl. (Martin isn’t willing to make the same observation.) “It’d probably be a great double bill to figure out what’s happened to Steve the artist over those years. I think he’s deepened, he’s more reflexive, he’s got an ability to look out of the eyes of people. That takes some wisdom, and you have to have your heart broken a few times. The man I met was clearly a man who has battled his own demons and come to peace with himself.”

Martin, who splits his time between residences on both coasts, won’t cop to battling any demons, or any mixed sentiments about Los Angeles, for that matter. He says he originally considered setting Shopgirl in Manhattan. “I was going o call it Bergdorf’s Girl, but I thought I was a little on unsafe ground here,” he says. “I know L.A. really well.” Just like that he goes into a list of all the things he appreciates about the city: “your backyard, ad dining outside in your backyard, and having your dog run in your backyard and hearing him spontaneously get himself in the pool.” A regular day for Martin in L.A. might include a hike or yoga in the morning, lunch out, a little bit of writing and then dinner. “I don’t work very hard at all,” he goes on, “I’d like to be working a little bit more, actually.”

Danes, a New Yorker, recalls having to tell Martin she had no interest in moving to sunny California. “He was sort of incredulous,” she says. But the actress doesn’t see Martin as your typical Angeleno. (Born in Waco Texas, he moved to Garden Grove, California, near Disneyland, with his family when he was 10.) “He doesn’t seem to have the cliché values that other people in Los Angeles do. He likes fancy ideas and fancy art.”

Martin started buying paintings at age 21, but was burned by his first purchase: a piece that was said to be by John Everett Millais. “Fake, absolutely fake,” Martin remembers. His collection now includes Ken Noland and Cy Twombly. As with most details of his personal life, Martin insists his love of art is nothing special. He wouldn’t call chasing artwork as “shopping.” “I just occasionally buy a painting,” he says, shrugging.

Despite Martin’s reluctance to label himself as art aficionado, the company he keeps suggests otherwise. He counts gallerist Larry Gagosian and the painters Eric Fischl and April Gornik among his friends. Though he buys some of their pieces, there’s never any pressure. “I don’t expect them to see my movies, and I don’t think they expect me to buy,” Martin explains. “That would kill a relationship.”

That said, It’s hard to imagine a serious artist lining up for tickets to Cheaper by the Dozen 2. There’s something incongruous about Martin’s sense of aesthetics and aspects of his commercial film career—though he doesn’t see it that way. “It doesn’t surprise me,” he says. “I’m just me.” He did turn down Cheaper by the Dozen before recognizing that each time he read the script, he’d cry a bit. Besides that, he says, “it’s great to have hits, no doubt about it.”

Still, falling back on physical comedy, not to mention making sappy family films, is what keeps Martin in business. For someone whose misanthropy is legendary, this is where the joyful persona really seems to come out. “Once you’re doing it, you forget about all the aches and pains,” he says of the especially grueling stunt work in The Pink Panther, where he gets to run, leap and “fall from the ceiling.”

He sets the scene for an active set piece on Cheaper by the Dozen 2: “The day before yesterday, we were shooting on the lake and I’m kneeboarding. The kids inadvertently send me over a ramp, so I’m flying through the air, I land in the water, and then I’m being dragged by a rope. And I’m thinking, here I am, almost 60, being dragged in a lake and it’s kind of fun. Oh my God, it’s great.”

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