Steve Martin, stand-up comedian turned Hollywood movie star, is responsible for many endearing American comic classics such as The Jerk, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Steve Martin was born in Texas, 1945. He quickly found a kinship with showmanship and entertainment by performing magic tricks, juggling, and playing the banjo to small audiences at Disneyland. Martin was, in his own words “born standing up”.
His first big break came in 1967. Girlfriend Nina Goldblatt, a dancer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour”, submitted some of Martin’s work to head writer Mason Williams. Williams liked what he saw to such a degree he paid Martin out of his own pocket. Martin, along with the other writers on the show, won an Emmy two years later. Between the end of the 1960s and the mid-1970s Martin wrote for several comedy shows, appearing from time to time in some sketches. He was also performing his own material as an opening act for The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Carpenters, and Toto. By the late 1970s he had appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and “Saturday Night Live”.
His exposure on “Saturday Night Live” led to successful comedy albums “Let’s Get Small” and “A Wild and Crazy Guy”. Both were successful both critically and commercially. He won Grammy awards for Best Comedy Recording in 1977 and 1978.
This was all achieved under the shadow of an uncomfortable relationship with his father. One of his earliest memories of his father is of him onstage, working as an extra, at the Call Board Theatre on Melrose Place. His father, as Martin later revealed, aspired to be in show business long before his son became famous. Yet, his father publicly criticised his son’s accomplishments. Just before Martin’s father died, he told his son: “You did everything I ever wanted to do.” His father said he wished he could cry at that moment, to which his son questioned why. “For all the love I received and couldn’t return,” he said. It was a poignant reconciliation, and one that forms a major part of Martin’s memoir “Born Standing Up” published in 2007.
Despite this paternal struggle, Steve Martin was selling out huge arenas by the end of the 1970s. But his real dream was film. In 1977 he wrote and starred in a seven minute short film called “The Absent Minded Waiter”. It was nominated in the best short film category at that year’s Oscars. His first feature-film role was in “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”, which he followed with the hugely successful “The Jerk” in 1979.
Interestingly, Stanley Kubrick approached Martin to star in a screwball-comedy version of “Traumnovelle”. Kubrick eventually changed his attitude towards the source material and wouldn’t make the film for another twenty years. In 1999, he released it under a different guise, with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman as its stars. The film was called “Eyes Wide Shut”.
Trying to avoid the dreaded typecast he tried his hand at musical drama with Herbert Ross’ “Pennies From Heaven”. The film was a critical and financial failure, of which Martin openly but wrongly took the blame.
Returning to comedy Martin made the highly successful “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, “The Man With Two Brains, “All Of Me”, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, and “Roxanne” in the 1980s. In the 1990s, he starred in comedies “Housesitter”, “Father of the Bride”, “Grand Canyon”, “L.A. Story”, “A Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Bowfinger” amongst others. He also made darker films with “Leap of Faith” and “The Spanish Prisoner”. Since the year 2000 rolled by, he has largely concerned himself with throwaway family comedy, but did complete work on a film adaptation of his own novella with “Shopgirl”.
Martin’s other work has included several articles in the New Yorker, which were published in his book “Pure Drivel”. He has also written plays, novellas, and memoir “Born Standing Up” which was rated by Time magazine as the sixth best non-fiction book of 2007.
10. The Jerk (Reiner, 1979)
Directed by Carl Reiner / Written by Steve Martin, Carl Gottlieb, Michael Ellias / Starring Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Catlin Adams, Mabel King, M. Emmett Walsh.
PLOT: A childlike adult struggles through life until one day he’s made rich by a strange invention.
“The Jerk” marked the debut of Steve Martin as a feature-length movie writer, displaying the comic at his unrestricted best. The film doesn’t concern itself with plot so much as it hangs a series of sketches and gags on a loosely cobbled together story.
The film was voted highly in several ‘best-of’ comedy lists: Total Film readers voted it the 48th funniest comedy of all time, Bravo placed it 20th in their list of the best comedy films, and the AFI rated it 89th in their 100 Years/100 Laughs compilation.
Quote: “For one dollar I’ll guess your weight, your height, or your sex.”
9. Three Amigos (Landis, 1986)
Directed by John Landis / Written by Steve Martin, Lorne Michaels, Randy Newman / Starring Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, Martin Short
PLOT: Three silent movie stars are fired by their studio after demanding higher wages. Mistakenly thinking the Mexican village of Santa Poco wants a personal appearance and is willing to pay handsomely for it, the Three Amigos set off to do what they do best. When they realise the villagers, who believed their films were real, are under siege from a villainous gang, they panic and flea to the desert.
The “Three Amigos” is notable for the comic teaming of Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short. Thanks largely to “Saturday Night Live” where they all appeared together and separately, the “Three Amigos” collects the talents of SNL producer/writer Lorne Michaels, guest star Randy Newman, and the actors, for a feature-length outing on the big-screen. Now these cinematic excursions haven’t always worked, but the “Three Amigos” is one of those occasions where things just click. Steve Martin is definitely the star of the show, and director John Landis allows the actors to play around with their characters. It’s a frequently amusing little film, with Randy Newman’s original songs brilliantly performed by Martin and Short.
Quote: “Not so fast El Guapo! Or I’ll pump you so full of lead you’ll be using your dick for a pencil!”
8. Leap Of Faith (Pearce, 1992)
Directed by Richard Pearce / Written by Janus Cercone / Starring Steve Martin, Debra Winger, Lolita Davidovich, Liam Neeson, Meat Loaf, Philip Seymour Hoffman
PLOT: Steve Martin is conman Jonas Nightengale who travels the country with his Christian ministry selling the idea of faith and the power of god to bring good health and prosperity to those that come to his show. He uses all the tricks in the book – from cameras and recording equipment, to insiders, stooges, special stage effects, and showmanship – to bring miracles to his hoodwinked audience.
“Leap Of Faith” seems to be one of those Steve Martin films that neither won over critics or delighted fans of the actor. It isn’t a typical Martin film (less comedy, more satirical drama), and it isn’t a typical Martin character (he plays a difficult-to-like con artist who’s self-obsessed and unforgiving). It’s easy to see why it might have passed people by, and, in dealing (some may say very loosely) with the Christian faith, why it turned people away. But there’s a lot to like in “Leap Of Faith”, especially Martin’s virtuoso performance.
Martin is the all singing and dancing Jonas Nightengale. He owns the stage every time he’s on it, prancing around with arms pointing to heaven, the power of God sweeping through his veins. He is the bringer of good vibes, the healer of wounds and ailments, the direct line to heaven. He brilliantly portrays the showman tactics of some faith healers, from the way he works the crowd with his words of wisdom to his physical attributes in enacting God’s power. This is one of Martin’s most unique performances and one of his best.
The film itself is also a lot more worthy than it’s given credit for. It’s inside look at the tricks of the trade in the high-tech era is an interesting expose, with Debra Winger offering good support as the all-seeing director who feeds information to Jonas via an on-stage ear microphone. The film also examines faith itself, questioning both the validity of a higher being, and the meaning of faith. Jonas may not produce the miracles that he advertises, but he has his audience leave the show knowing one has happened. Indeed, faith is only that which we believe. Jonas simply confirms that. People pay for a few laughs, some singing and dancing, and crowd participation, and they go home happier and more fulfilled than they went in. The film asks: is that morally wrong?
Yes, the message isn’t quite clear when the film grinds to a halt by the end. Certainly, the film isn’t anywhere near as good as the performance of its leading man: the cryptic, obscure ending is abrupt, Nightengale goes off into the night without closure, and the blossoming romance between Winger and Liam Neeson is soap-opera at best. But, this is one of Steve Martin’s best performances, and one of his most interesting.
Quote: “A woman is like a slingshot. The greater the resistance, the further you can get with her.”
7. All Of Me (Reiner, 1984)
Directed by Carl Reiner / Written by Phil Alden Robinson / Starring Steve Martin, Lily Tomlin, Victoria Tennant.
PLOT: Millionaire Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin) is dying and has decided to transfer her soul into a willing younger woman. However, something goes wrong and her soul ends up in lawyer Roger Cobb (Steve Martin).
Another collaboration between director Carl Reiner and Steve Martin proves to be a winner. Steve Martin and Lily Tomlin spar off against each other with a perfect sense of comic timing, the unique double-act made more interesting by the fact she is trapped in his body. Martin is in his element as he battles with his possessed limbs. She controls one side while he controls the other; the ensuing physical comedy of Martin trying to walk straight and even go to the toilet, makes for some of the film’s funniest humour.
The relationship between Martin and Tomlin is as endearing as it is unique. In a sense, Martin has to carry the film with only Tomlin’s omnipresent voice to help him. And he has no trouble doing so. The middle 1980s were Martin’s prime period, especially for the work he did with director Carl Reiner. Unlike his trashy, soulless rendition of the Pink Panther twenty years later, All Of Me shows the comic at his best when he really cared for what he was doing.
Quote: “You’re like an energy vampire. You suck the life out of people and take the fun out of being a lawyer.”
6. L.A. Story (Jackson, 1991)
Directed by Mick Jackson / Written by Steve Martin / Starring Steve Martin, Victoria Tennant, Marilu Henner, Richard E. Grant, Sarah Jessica Parker.
PLOT: Harris Telemacher (Steve Martin) is a TV weatherman in Los Angeles. He feels he lacks direction in life until a road traffic sign begins sending messages to help him find love and happiness.
Woody Allen wrote about his beloved New York City, making the classics “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” to name just two. With the same zeal and affection, Steve Martin did the same for his adopted home Los Angeles. The city of angels, with its quirks and idiosyncrasies seen through the eyes of Martin’s existential book of gags, is depicted as a town built on illusion and excess. In “Bowfinger” Martin pokes fun at the industry that made him a star, in “L.A. Story” he parodies a pastiche of moments, traits, and people that make Los Angeles unique.
“L.A. Story” is one of Martin’s finest scripts. It’s a multilayered romantic-comedy that dares to comment on two very different themes: ‘love’, and ‘love’ in Los Angeles. It also, less pretentiously than Martin’s “Shopgirl”, looks at the relationship between an older man and a younger woman. Amongst his other targets are L.A. traffic, upper-class social gatherings and artificial small talk, corporate television, gun and street crime, and the snobbery of art institutions. The beauty of his screenplay lies in its satire and celebration of L.A. life. It is also an original, refreshing tale about love, that attempts to discover how romance works under such social peer pressure. Martin hints at the idea this ‘pressure’ is an imagined cultural constraint, and to break away from it is to return to an innocence lost on those suffering the Los Angeles ‘condition’.
The film would certainly be rated higher in our top 10 had it had the confident and restrained direction of Roxanne-director Fred Schepisi. Mick Jackson, who helmed “L.A. Story”, sometimes struggles to implement Martin’s more surreal moments, the child-sequence proving to be a defining example of him getting it wrong. And, despite Enya’s awful music played too long and too loud at various times during the film, it’s more the fact it’s unneeded grandiose than a matter of personal music taste. Other than these minor interruptions, “L.A. Story” is one of Martin’s best, and most rewarding, movies.
Quote: “Let us just say I was deeply unhappy, but I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time.”
5. Bowfinger (Oz, 1999)
Directed by Frank Oz / Written by Steve Martin / Starring Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy, Heather Graham, Christine Baranski, Jamie Kennedy
PLOT: Bobby Bowfinger (Steve Martin) is a down-on-his-luck movie producer who can’t get a film made. When he finds the ‘perfect’ script, he approaches Hollywood’s hottest action star Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy) to be in it but Ramsey declines the part. Bowfinger, deciding not to be discouraged, cobbles together a makeshift crew and shoots the film anyway. What Kit Ramsey doesn’t know is he’s still the star of the movie.
Bowfinger is a delightful comedy with Steve Martin providing one of his most original and funny scripts. He brings together an ensemble of quirky characters in a story that celebrates film while parodying the industry. Martin’s targets are spot-on, from the initial script ‘meeting’ and sale, and the ego of his top star, to the flirtatious young actress who will sleep with whoever can further her career. Martin also delivers one of his best performances as the lovable and charming yet over-zealous Bowfinger.
Quote: “Let’s try it one more time, uh, Slater, this time without the erection.”
4. The Man With Two Brains (Reiner, 1983)
Directed by Carl Reiner / Written by Steve Martin, Carl Reiner, George Gipe / Starring Steve Martin, Kathleen Turner, David Warner
PLOT: Steve Martin plays Dr. Hfuhruhurr, a brilliant neurosurgeon who saves the life of the beautiful Delores (Kathleen Turner). The doctor sees the woman as the reincarnation of his dead wife, quickly marrying her. But, Delores is only after his money and won’t stop until she’s got rid of her new husband and inherited his millions.
Voted the 35th greatest comedy movie of all time by readers of UK magazine Total Film, it is surprising how “The Man With Two Brains” passes so many people by. It’s from the existentialism stable of movies that have formed part of Martin’s work since the stand-up turned movie-actor started making films. That is perhaps why the likes of “The Man With Two Brains”, along with “L.A. Story”, “Roxanne”, and “The Lonely Guy”, have fared less well than his more straight-forward, narrative-based crowd-pleasers like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, and “Parenthood” with most audiences.
However, Martin, who writes or co-writes most of the films he appears in, made existentialist jokes his forte as a stand-up comic. That is why, when he focuses his comedic attention on such gags, they work so exceedingly well. In “The Man With Two Brains”, he’s rarely written such spot-on humour. Indeed, if the film isn’t the best movie he’s made, it’s certainly one of the funniest.
The film is also notably for Kathleen Turner who has rarely been as alluring and fiendishly nasty as she is here. Think equal parts “Body Heat” and “War Of The Roses”, and you get Turner’s basis for the devilishly frightening “Scum Queen” she is in “The Man With Two Brains”.
Quote: “Dr. Beckerman was murder in Europe you know?” / “Exactly. Not only is he dead, he’s 6000 miles away.”
3. Roxanne (Schepisi, 1987)
Directed by Fred Schepisi / Written by Steve Martin / Starring Steve Martin, Daryl Hannah, Shelley Duvall, Rick Rossovich, Fred Willard
PLOT: Steve Martin falls in love with Daryl Hannah’s Roxanne but there’s one very big problem – his nose. When good-looking Chris arrives on the scene, he asks Martin’s C.D. Bales to help him write love letters to Roxanne. C.D. agrees, opening his heart to the girl, posing as Chris. But how long will it take before C.D’s growing love for her becomes too much for him to pose as someone else?
Steve Martin wrote Roxanne as a modern day take on Edmond Rostand’s play about Cyrano de Bergerac. As in the theatre production, Martin plays on the idea Bergerac had an unfortunately large nose. He uses it to create an unlikely love story between a small town fire chief and the titular title character, a beautiful blonde astronomer played by Daryl Hannah.
Martin’s screenplay, part of a loose quadruple of stories about love written by the actor/comedian (which include “L.A. Story”, “A Simple Twist of Fate”, and “Shopgirl”), is his finest. The bittersweet romance has a beautifully dry edge with C.D. Bales’ defiant humour. There’s a couple of great scenes when Bales takes on two rich-kid businessmen who think they can make fun of his unsightly appendage, and again, when a beer-guzzling drunk dares him to make twenty better jokes than ‘Big Nose.’ Martin has rarely been better, both as writer and actor, when he reels off twenty gags in front of a packed bar, simultaneously rising above the bully’s pettiness while demeaning his machismo. It’s funny and tragic, witty and personal. Martin’s jibes burst the bully’s ego, conversely empowering his own stature in front of a fervent audience.
Martin also writes a note-perfect romance between himself and Daryl Hannah’s Roxanne. It doesn’t have the forced, dirty-old-man effect of “Shopgirl” or the clichéd sentimentality of “A Simple Twist of Fate”. There’s an authenticity to their relationship. She’s the beautiful girl who is sick of being used for sex, who wants a caring and intelligent man. He’s the self-defeating gentleman who thinks he’s too ugly to be attractive to women. But he’s smart and funny, the perfect catch for Roxanne. Yet, Martin doesn’t play it straight – he twists his love-story around a case of mistaken identity. And it works brilliantly, especially in underlining the film’s message that you should not judge a book by its cover.
Quote: “I have a dream. It’s not a big dream, it’s just a little dream. My dream – and I hope you don’t find this too crazy – is that I would like the people of this community to feel that if, God forbid, there were a fire, calling the fire department would actually be a wise thing to do. You can’t have people, if their houses are burning down, saying, ‘Whatever you do, don’t call the fire department!’”
2. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Oz, 1988)
Directed by Frank Oz / Written by Dale Launer, Stanley Shapiro, Paul Henning / Starring Steve Martin, Michael Caine
PLOT: Two con artists, who cheat rich women out of money, find that the French Riviera isn’t big enough for the both of them. Betting on who can extract a set fee from a wealthy American heiress, the two go head to head, the loser having to leave and never return.
Steve Martin is always on form when he works with directors he admires. Carl Reiner was the first, the director and actor teaming up for “The Jerk”, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, “The Man With Two Brains”, and “All Of Me”. And Frank Oz was the second, directing “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” as well as “Little Shop Of Horrors”, Housesitter”, and “Bowfinger”. In “Scoundrels”, the beautiful locations in southern France, witty script and colourful characterisations, and chemistry between Martin and Michael Caine make for a delightful and entertaining comedy.
Quote: “Oh, Lawrence! This is the happiest day of my life! I think my testicles are dropping!”
1. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (Hughes, 1987)
Directed by John Hughes / Written by John Hughes / Starring Steve Martin, John Candy
PLOT: Steve Martin plays Neal Page, an advertising executive trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving after a business trip to New York. When his plane is grounded due to bad weather he finds himself stuck with the innocent but accident-prone Del Griffith (John Candy).
As much John Candy’s best film as Steve Martin’s, “Plane, Trains and Automobiles” is one of the most widely loved movies of the 1980s. Written and directed by “The Breakfast Club” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Out” creator John Hughes, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was an important film for all involved. It showed a marked diversion away from teen-centric drama for Hughes, and gave both Candy and Martin a mainstream pedestal for their singular brand of humour. It also showed a more reserved Martin, who was known for his existential humour and physical eccentrics.
Quote: “If I wanted a joke, I’d follow you into the john and watch you take a leak. Now are you gonna help me or are you gonna stand there like a slab of meat with mittens?”
Over to you: name your fave Steve Martin films?
Written and Compiled by Dan Stephens
See also: Top 25 Films to make you happy
Steve Martin’s official website
Sensational Steve Martin – Time Magazine
Review of Steve Martin’s memoir: “Born Standing Up”
Bio at FilmBug
Steve Martin: A Wild and Crazy Guy
Best Movie Scenes: Planes, Trains and Automobiles
Steve Martin Broke Into Movies at Disneyland Thanks to Oldest Living Fan Film Filmmaker