The top 25 films of Steve Martin
We salute the finest screen work of Steve Martin, a brilliant comedy actor, and an underrated dramatic performer too...
Few people on the planet have made me laugh as hard as Steve Martin. I first encountered him when All Of Me appeared on telly one afternoon, which I could barely watch through the tears of laughter in my eyes. From that point on, I devoured every film I could lay my hands on, as well as his early comedy material. I've found things to like in the many remakes he's tackled, where others, er, weren't so keen. And I'm now going through the stages of introducing my own kids to his work.
For me, though, I had no curator. Steve Martin was the first leading actor or actress whose work I actively seeked out, back in the days when you had to wait for HMV to do a three for £20 offer on videos, or for the video shop bargain section to get one of his movies back in. That, or wait for ITV to stick one of his films on.
This, then, is clearly going to be a very subjective countdown we're about to embark on. But hopefully we can at least be unified in the belief that Mr Steve Martin is an actor, comedian, musician and writer we should be cherishing.
There are some films you may like that aren't on the list, because they didn't do an awful lot for me. But rather than chat about those, I'd rather talk about this little lot...
25. Sgt Bilko
"All I ever wanted was an honest week's pay for an honest day's work"
Let's start with one of Martin's least-liked films. In truth, I can fully understand the backlash that appeared - even in pre-internet times - when it was announced that a remake of Sgt Bilko was on the way. Sacrilege, right? Who could really bring to the screen what Phil Silvers already had, in realising the role of Bilko, the US army's most entertaining scam artist?
Nobody. So Steve Martin didn't try. Instead, he went his own way with the character, and the resultant film is a thoroughly decent comedy in its own right. Helmed by Jonathan Lynn - the Yes Minister co-creator who also directed Marisa Tomei towards the Oscar stage with My Cousin Vinny - it's brisk, likeable, and works. Do I rewatch it often? No. Did I enjoy it? Yes.
The original Sgt Bilko series is still a flat-out classic of 50s television, of course. The 1996 film hasn't changed that.
24. The Pink Panther
"I would like to take a closer look at your bawls"
And whilst I'm taking hits for remakes, I'll say this too: the first of Steve Martin's The Pink Panther movies is really quite fun. I'm not just saying that because Jason Statham's in it, but rather because Martin was clearly having an awful lot of fun playing Inspector Clouseau. His take on the character was different enough to Peter Sellers' for the film to just about work, and again, if you put the originals out of your head, there's a decent amount to enjoy here.
I do share the frustration that at the peak of his box office powers, Martin was tackling remakes such as these, and I don't have much time for the Pink Panther sequel. But still: it's a decent, solid comedy. No amount of hate for the project's existence can hide the fact that Martin is a skilled comedy actor, and his Clouseau is further proof of that.
"I've always said the worst thing a man can lose is his teeth. It's true, I should know"
A decent low key thriller this, that's not the best Steve Martin film involving a dental role, but still warrants a look. Laura Dern and Helena Bonham Carter co-star, in the story of a dentist who becomes a suspect for murder, after being conned into prescribing drugs.
It's a slightly unconventional piece of work, but perhaps not unconventional enough for people to really notice it. With elements of dark comedy to it, there's the sense that a better film could have been made with the same ingredients, but the strong performances really do lift it.
"Wow, you're a genius! You're like the Ernest Hemingway of bullshit!"
Of the two movies that Martin made with Goldie Hawn in the 1990s - this, and the remake of The Out-Of-Towners (a film worth it for Hawn spitting out the line "I have grass, grass, grass in my ass") - it's Frank Oz's Housesitter that I slightly veer towards. I can't say I love the film, but there are two standout Steve Martin moments that wouldn't work with any other actor.
The first looks simple: a stumble over some furniture. That Martin plays it so naturally and carries in is what makes the moment work. It's not a demonstrative yearning for a laugh, it's a very good actor doing some very good acting. The second is the movie's standout moment, where he sings 'Tura Lura Lura'. I'm just going to cheat and give you the video of that one. By distance, it's the highlight of the movie...
21. It's Complicated
"Did you get this high from one hit?!"
Nancy Meyers makes films that feel like they exist in a slightly different, exaggerated, middle- to upper-class world. That's no dig, incidentally - I think she makes films that others aren't really tackling, and there's a familiar feel to movies such as What Women Want, Something's Gotta Give and The Holiday.
It's Complicated certainly fits into the Meyers Movie Universe (TM), and for her third collaboration with Martin (only one of which, Father Of The Bride Part II, isn't listed here) she teamed him up with Alec Baldwin and Meryl Streep too, for a light romantic comedy aimed at grown-ups. It's centred on a divorced couple who come back together for family reasons, and it's a movie that works when its senior trio are on screen. It's a good, solid movie this, and more of a dramatic role for Martin again.
20. A Simple Twist Of Fate
"When you turn a gift away from your door, it goes to the one who takes it in"
Another interesting low key movie this, that saw Martin star alongside Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney and Catherine O'Hara. He wrote this one, based on the book Silas Marner by Geroge Eliot, and it's a modern day telling of the story. It's not an entirely successful one in truth, nor does it stick in the mind too long. But it does boast an excellent central performance from Martin, as the recluse who finds an orphan on his doorstep one day.
It's quite a quiet and straightforward drama, nicely played and quite touching too. A bit of a tear jerker as well, if you're in the right mood. It barely got any attention on its original release mind, and it's so unfussy, I can understand why. But it's a quiet, impressive piece of work.
19. Father Of The Bride
"Drive carefully. And don't forget to fasten your condom".
A sizeable box office hit at the start of the 90s, and for the most part, this is a straight leading man role for Martin (perhaps his most obvious movie star role of the decade). A good one, too. It's a remake of the 1950 Spencer Tracey movie of the same name, with Martin starring opposite Diane Keaton in a straightforward story of a man watching his daughter get married. Nancy Meyers penned the screenplay for this one, with Charles Shyer directing.
There's a real generosity to Martin's performance here, and he's happy to stand back and let Martin Short waltz in to steal the movie as Frank, the wedding planner. Furthermore, it's hard not to warm to his struggle to let his beloved daughter go, contrasted with the rising cost and scale of the wedding too. A few comedy slapstick moments are thrown in - a comedy dog chase the main one - but this is actually a fairly straight character comedy for the most part, and a warm one.
The sequel, which in turn was based on the earlier movie Father's Little Dividend, is best avoided though. Thankfully, all concerned decided that a trilogy was a bad idea...
18. The Lonely Guy
"I'm not really jogging. I only ran about fifty yards. This is not real sweat, either. I sprayed it on"
A real oddity this amongst the movies that Martin made in the early 1980s. It paired him with director Arthur Hiller, best known for making Love Story, and it contrasted deeply with the comedy roles that Martin had thus far been taking on for Carl Reiner. We'll be talking about those shortly.
The Lonely Guy is quite a sombre film, and one that I recall Martin in an interview agreeing didn't quite work. But still, it's an ambitious character piece, about a man who comes home from work, and finds his girlfriend with another man. There's humour in it too - as you'd expect from a movie penned by Neil Simon - although tonally it feels just a little uneven at times. That said, there's still plenty to get your teeth into here, and it remains a quietly interesting film in the Martin back catalogue.
17. The Muppet Movie
"Don't you want to smell the bottlecap?"
I've tried to resist including Martin's supporting and cameo roles in this list (sorry, Baby Mama), but I couldn't resist adding The Muppet Movie into the mix. Mainly because I love The Muppet Movie.
Martin's cameo here is as the waiter who serves Kermit and Miss Piggy. Said waiter has a rich line in sarcasm too. "Don't you want to smell the bottlecap?" Ah, it cheers me every time.
Martin also popped up in The Muppet Show, of course, so take this entry in the list as a commendation of his united Muppets work. I'd happily watch a fresh Muppet film, with Steve Martin as co-star.
16. Grand Canyon
"All of life's riddles are answered in the movies"
After a string of successful comedies in the late 80s and early 90s, Martin took a part in the ensemble for Lawrence Kasdan's drama, Grand Canyon. Furthermore, it put Martin on the receiving end of one of the most genuinely shocking moments of screen violence in the 1990s.
Here, he plays movie producer Davis, one of six central characters in 90s Los Angeles that Kasdan's film explores. Davis' films are violent, and that's what he's built his career off the back of. And in a film where each character experiences something that turns their life in a different direction, Davis becomes the victim of a real act of violence. Even writing about it now, nearly 25 years since I first saw the film, I can remember the shock at how casual Kasdan put across such a moment on screen. There's no build up, no fanfare. Just simple, cold brutality.
Martin's story is one of the standout narratives of Grand Canyon, a film that doesn't quite measure up to Kasdan's earlier The Big Chill (nor, arguably, his subsequent Mumford, a movie I have a lot of time for). It's still, at best, a very good drama, and it has moments and performances that ensure that at least some of it sticks in the head for a good deal after you've watched it. Over 20 years in my case...
15. L.A. Story
"Why is it that we don't always recognise the moment when love begins but we always know when it ends?"
A really charming film this, penned by Martin and co-starring his then-wife Victoria Tennant. Directed by Mick Jackson, who would go on to helm The Bodyguard, it's Martin's love letter to the city of Los Angeles. A love that's brought home in his conversations with a traffic sign. It shouldn't work, but it really does.
It's a gentle, relaxed comedy this, that pokes fun at the L.A. life (and thus tends to garner a lot more love from Los Angeles folk), but also puts a sweet romance at the heard of it. L.A. Story also boasts a smart cast, not least including the mighty Richard E Grant, and at its heart is a lovely, grown-up piece of writing
14. Pennies From Heaven
"I'm Arthur... and I love you"
Early in his film career, this was the first sign that Steve Martin was willing to take a left turn and try something different. The Jerk had hit big at the box office, and he took on Herbert Ross' film of Pennies From Heaven, adapted from his own work by Dennis Potter.
Martin was Golden Globe nominated for his work here, in a depression-era musical that tends to leave as many people cold as it does warm in truth. There's an argument too that the 1978 television series is your better bet, and it's certainly what interested Martin, who lobbied for the work, and spent months preparing for it.
Pennies From Heaven disappointed at the box office, but certainly doesn't deserve to be forgotten. A bold choice from Martin, and very early proof that he had plenty to offer the screen.