' ' Cinema Romantico: Steve Martin and The Holy Trinity Of Comic Screenplays

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Steve Martin and The Holy Trinity Of Comic Screenplays

When told he had been named recipient of an Honorary Oscar, Steve Martin observed that he had long since given up hope for an Academy Award seeing has how comedians do not win them, demonstrating how in any given situation the comedian is angling for the joke. An Honorary Oscar in Martin’s case, however, for a lifetime body of work as opposed to a statue for a singular performance seems apropos because it spotlights the quiet evolution of his career. At the same time, I find it more personally satisfying, because while best known as a performer before the camera, I have always valued him most as a writer, particularly for an astonishing trio screenplays spanning an eleven year period.

Steve Martin was born a poor black child. Wait, that’s not right. In fact, it’s a little obvious, and obviousness is not one of the hallmarks of Steve Martin’s career. His contribution to the movies may be massive, but he is also a novelist and a playwrite, an accomplished banjoist, an avid collector of art, and a first-time father at the unobvious age of 67. Even as a comedian he refused the “shamanistic high life of seventies comedy” because, as Rick Anderson wrote in New York Magazine, “he was relentlessly square.” And yet for being a relentless square, for wearing a suit onstage, for kinda, sorta apprenticing at Disney, he was edgy and inventive. He didn’t seek to perform comedy so much as perform – to quote his memoir “Born Standing Up” – “a parody of comedy.” His act was almost a critique of the comic persona as it was then known. To wit, it was his college courses in psychology, at both Long Beach State and UCLA, where he began formulating the ideas for his own act, analyzing the deeper meaning of the punchline rather than writing punchlines.

Martin was uninterested in automatic applause, a “distance” that Rick Anderson refers to, “an odd performative gap between himself and whatever he happens to be doing.” This is glimpsed not only in his stage comedy but in his earliest films, most of which I like, though perhaps do not outright love, such as the seminal “Jerk” and the Carl Reiner-helmed “The Man With Two Brains.” In these productions you can feel that distance throughout. The old Roger Ebert rule of comedy stipulates that a funny hat by itself is not funny, and that instead a man must not know he’s wearing a funny hat. In these films Martin does not know he’s wearing a funny hat exactly, but you can sense him having picked out the proper funny hat just before filming.

C.D. Bales in “Roxanne” doesn’t know his nose is funny. Well, he knows his nose is funny to others, it's just not funny to him. Written by Martin and based off the exalted Edmond Rostand play “Cyrano de Bergerac”, the 1987 Fred Schiepsi comedy, timeless even if the soundtrack and fashion are dated (aside from Daryl Hannah’s sleeveless jean jacket, which looks as chic now as it did then), “Roxanne” marked the first time Martin truly explored that distance he had cultivated between himself and his audience. The character knows his overlong schnoz automatically opens a social chasm between him and whomever else, and so he seeks to compensate.

This is most famously rendered in the sequence where he bets the name-calling jerk at the bar he can conjure up twenty better insults than “big nose”, and proceeds to do so. Each one is funny, absolutely, but the scene’s subtext makes clear the way he uses humor as a shield. That, and the way he uses performance, speaking for and writing letters for Rick Rossovich’s knucklehead Christian-stand-in who can barely converse with Roxanne without hyperventilating, to avoid expressing his true feelings.

Martin's script is ultimately intelligent enough to not only make Roxanne herself intelligent (she has her own life, so much so that she briefly exits the film to go live it) and to make his romantic rival an identifiable panicky goofball rather than a mean-spirited nemesis but to allow C.D. the opportunity to learn his self-worth rather than the heaven-sent astrophysicist teaching it to him. It also, I think, betrays Martin's inner-whimsy, forgoing the tragedy of Rostand's source material by allowing its characters to see the good in others and in themselves.

Although Martin had movies in between, his next screenplay was not until 1991, “L.A. Story”, and at first glance it might appear to harken back to his earlier sketch comedy ways. Martin said he worked on the screenplay for seven years and this is easy to sense – marvelous scenes are at a premium and the teeniest of gags are sprinkled throughout, as if written on a cocktail napkin at the last second. For such an array of side-splitting gags, however, the film has a noticeable and fascinating mystical component.

In the film, Martin plays Harris K. Telemacher, a weatherman in Los Angeles, an occupation which provides ammunition for all manner of jokes but also slyly suggests the ultimate existential crisis. His eventual aide-de-camp is quintessentially Angeleno - that is, a freeway sign, which magically pulls him over one night and presents life advice via glowing block lettering. This is his Call To Adventure, which he initially refuses, before finally accepting and, thus, Crossing the Threshold into a place that, frankly, is as much about New Age spiritualism (Enya peppers the soundtrack) as it is stellar comedy bits.

The script centers around Harris falling for a kooky Brit, Sara (Victoria Tennant, Martin's then-wife), but overall it's not a Love Story. It's an "L.A. Story", and ultimately the film plays like its creative force (though Mick Jackson was the director) is having a dialogue with both the city, resisting it and admiring it, and a higher power, the performer relinquishing his place center stage and letting the divine take him where it will.

That mysticism becomes even more interesting when considering "Bowfinger", a film which followed "L.A. Story" eight years later. There Martin is quite consciously taking shots at Scientology in the form of Mindhead, a vaguely defined new age religion to which fictional movie star Kit Ramsey adheres (played by Eddie Murphy, a man who has become rather unlikable but who becomes likable in dual roles through the conduit of Martin's writing). In fact, Martin is taking potshots at Hollywood as a whole, playing a wannabe movie director named Bobby K. Bowfinger. Here the performative gap is between the Industry and Bowfinger, him standing outside its gold-encrusted guarded walls and trying to claw his way inside. He eventually does, making a guerrilla big-budget movie with a low-budget and with Kit Ramsey as star even though Kit Ramsey doesn't know he's in it.

It's a satire, and a brilliant one, loaded with massive gags - the highway "stunt" sequence which has made me laugh, hard, every single time I have watched it - and small gags - at the end Bowfinger is hired to direct a film in Taiwan "starring Kit Ramsey's brother", a witty nod to it all being about who you know as opposed to who you are. But whereas early period Martin likely would have made the mockery the overriding point, "Bowfinger" quietly opens up into something so much more soulful without shunting the humor, "debt, desperation and dreams" as the late great Roger Ebert put it.

When a filmmaker or an actor or a writer is really humming during a particular era, the works created will not merely stand on their own as genuine achievements but actually converse with one another, illustrating the core attitude of their creator and saying something far-reaching. This trinity of scripts, which I in my addled cinematic state of mind believe to be holy, eternally proved Steve Martin as more than a mere parodist and revealed his comic earnestness. It was when he stopped holding himself at a remove and instead gave himself over to us. It was when, to quote "L.A. Story", he let his mind go and allowed his body to follow.

Life is absurd and cruel, and Martin observes those facts with sharp wit, and it's complicated and infuriating, and he never denies this, but in spite of its imperfections, it is something to savor. Early in his career, "Bowfinger's" film-within-a-film, "Chubby Rain", would have been pure irony. But by 1999, by the completion of those three screenplays and the wraps of their filming, he had forged new ground. "Chubby Rain" may have been awful but it was created with good intentions, and he let those intentions win out.

And at the end, when he had breached Hollywood's walls, when he was inside the palace and had a chance to loot, pillage and plunder, he instead recited the lines that are, to me, the most moving in the Martin canon, not for their cleverness but their loving simplicity, a sign the student had become the master. "Not bad seats. Not bad seats at all."

Congratulations, Steve.


Alex Withrow said...

A great post. L.A. Story is one of my favorite Hollywood-insider films of all time. Martin's script is flawless.

Nick Prigge said...

Now that you're an L.A. resident I can only imagine that "L.A. Story" speaks to you in a different way.