I’ve just got back off holiday, and my reading of choice was Steve Martin’s superb autobiography, Born Standing Up. There’s barely a wasted word in the book, that tells the tale of Martin’s youth through to the peak of his stand-up career, and the moment he walked away from it all.
I’ve been a Steve Martin fan for a long, long time, to the point where I’ve sat through some of his, er, ‘less ambitious’ projects. But I’ve rarely seen a film in it – and this isn’t fanboy blindness – where the man’s sheer comedy talent doesn’t shine through.
Thus, I’ve put together a list of my favourites of his films. This isn’t, obviously, a definitive guide to his best films ever, as inevitably you’re going to disagree with many of these choices. But across film, television, stand-up, books and plays, I’ve found Steve Martin to be one of the funniest and intelligent members of the entertainment industry, and inevitably have formed an idea of my favourites.
Without further ado…
10Dead Man Don’t Wear Plaid
If you want proof that this is a personal list, rather than any attempt to scientifically gauge which Steve Martin film is best, then let the appearance of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid at ten be it. I’ve put it here fully appreciating it’s a better film than some I’ve ranked above it, and it’s a clever, skilful piece of cinema too. And I do like it a lot (although I was still tempted to put the not-overly-popular The Lonely Guy here). Under the stewardship of director Carl Reiner, it sees Martin spliced in with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Bette Davis and James Cagney, and that a coherent and enjoyable film comes out at the end of it is some achievement.
It’s a lovely homage to the detective movies of the 40s and 50s, and a very funny one at that. And it also demonstrated Martin’s ability to pitch a performance precisely. There’s not actually too much behind the film, but there’s more than enough fun to paper over an hour and a half. And there’s been nothing quite like it since.
Possibly the best, wittiest and cleverest screenplay Martin has written to date. This is his modern-day working of the Cyrano De Bergerac story, and he’s cast in the lead role of fire chief C D Bales. Bales, of course, has a nose of some magnitude, and the story stays close to the spirit of the original play, in that Bales loves Daryl Hannah’s Roxanne, but she’s infatuated with another fireman, Chris. Cue Bale writing his thoughts down, which he allows Chris to use. Just your average everyday romance. Ahem.
Things I love about Roxanne, then. Firstly, I think it’s really well directed. Secondly, the centrepiece comedic moment, with Martin’s 20 jokes (actually 25) about the size of his nose, is something I’ll never, ever tire of seeing. Thirdly, though, it’s a romantic comedy that actually works, and that – in spite of its innate sweetness – never comes close to making me want to vomit. It’s tenderly handled, marvellously played, and also very, very funny.
8 The Spanish Prisoner
Martin’s tackled a number of serious roles, and as the 80s progressed, his genuine acting talent became more and more the focal point of many of his films. That’s not to say that the physical comedy with which he made his name would disappear, just that he – with the help of Pennies From Heaven – soon established himself as more than just another comedy actor.
Of his serious roles – and I could have easily opted for his turn in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon here – the one that I like the most is his quite creepy supporting turn in David Mamet’s twisting The Spanish Prisoner, made as the 1990s drew to a close. It’s not a big role, but it’s a significant one in a tight, taut film, and Martin – along with the rest of the cast, to be fair – doesn’t put a foot wrong. If you like your Martin movies that bit more serious, then it’s also incidentally worth giving Shopgirl a try.
7 Leap Of Faith
His is not a pleasant character, and there’s no attempt to cloud that, and that gives the film a slight edge that stops it falling into one or two mawkish traps. It’s no classic, but it’s a fine film to stumble across by surprise, and Martin’s central performance is both mature and compelling.
6 Planes, Trains & Automobiles
A majestic double act forms the heart of the late John Hughes’ brilliant comedy. Co-starring with John Candy, every time I watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles, I can’t help but wish the pair had gone on to make more films together.
The tale here, of course, is a simple one, as Martin and Candy encounter a bevy of contrived circumstances as they both attempt to get home for Thanksgiving. But it’s the wonderful double act, and one of Hughes’ best scripts, that generates the gold. “Those aren’t pillows” might be the most remembered moment, but the snarling Martin and the loveable Candy offer many moments of skill and genius here. It proves again that Martin is both happy and capable of sharing the screen and credit with another major performer, something he’d do as well with the fun-but-didn’t-make-my-list Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.
Martin talks in his autobiography about the role naivete has to play in the creative process, and his screenplay for Bowfinger appears structured around such a thought. It’s a film about making a film that the star doesn’t realise he’s in, and as such, it gives Eddie Murphy his finest comedic performance since the days of Coming To America.
Bowfinger‘s strength is its central idea simply feels original, and backed with a funny, pacey script, it’s not short of some heavy guffaws by the time the credits role. Martin the performer is happy to take a straighter role here, generously giving Murphy many of the film’s best moments, but the film as a whole remains one of the strongest comedies of the 90s for my money. And I’d pay to see Chubby Rain in an instant…
4 The Man With Two Brains
As I noted once upon a time in the brief ready reckoner I put together on Steve Martin back in 2008, The Man With Two Brains has the finest erection joke in the history of cinema. It also has the marvellous moment where Martin calls on high to be sent a sign, cueing everything around him to start spinning.
There are plenty of gasping-for-air funny moments here that gamely paper over what’s otherwise arguably the weakest script of Martin’s collaborations with director Carl Reiner. Nonetheless, the film arguably has the funniest moments Martin has committed to celluloid, and for its moments more than its whole, it catapults up my list. A quite brilliant comedy.
3 All Of Me
If you ever doubted that Martin was an excellent actor as well as a top-of-the-range funnyman, check out All Of Me, his fourth and final collaboration with director Carl Reiner.
His performance here is simply outstanding, sharing the screen with Lily Tomlin who, thanks to a bit of script jiggery-pokery, ends up sharing Martin’s body. There’s been a bit of talk of remaking All Of Me, but what this always leads me to wonder is what current comedy actor has the sheer range to pull off the lead role in the way Martin does here? Heck, I like Seth Rogen a lot, and have chortled my way through many an Adam Sandler movie, but neither, surely, would be up to the challenge here? Jim Carrey, you suspect, wouldn’t replicate the wonderful balance between straight acting and physical comedy, and the only answer, surely, would be to give Steve Martin a call to reprise his role.
Might be worth getting the excellent Lily Tomlin back, too…
I still struggle to come up with an ensemble comedy of the late 80s and early 90s that comes anywhere near close to Ron Howard’s outstanding movie. Appreciating you need to slice the horribly tacked-on ending off, Parenthood is packed to the rafters with brilliant lines (“I wouldn’t live with you if the world were flooded with piss and you lived in a tree.”), a cast who bounce off each other superbly (and was this Rick Moranis’ last great movie, too?), and Martin at the head of things eating up scenes like a pro.
His Cowboy Gil child entertainer is the physical comedy highlight, but it’s his deadpan delivery of the line “Show him, honey” to Mary Steenburgen that always, always cracks me up.
Parenthood is brilliantly written, exceptionally funny, and doesn’t seem to have aged a day. It’ll be interesting to see how the second attempt to spin it into a TV show, coming up in the months ahead, fares. It’s got a hell of a lot to live up to.
Steve Martin’s leading man movie debut, the only film he really talks about in his autobiography, remains one of the flat-out funniest films of the past three decades. In Navin Johnson, The Jerk has a character constructed to showcase the quite astounding physical comedy talents of Martin, with one of the very best comedic performances seen on the big screen.
And the film offers an avalanche of outstanding, and utterly hilarious. Pulling a small church? Finding his special purpose? The Opti-Grab? Navin finding his name in the phone book? Shithead the dog? I could go on.
It’s fascinating now looking back at some of the reviews the film attracted, given the high regard in which it’s now held, and to be fair, some of the criticisms do hold water. It is a bit daft. It is episodic. It isn’t quite as good when Navin makes it big. But, ultimately, it’s an insanely funny comedy, and one that inspires guffaw after guffaw all this time later. As Martin has pointed out just this year, comedy isn’t really a critics’ medium. With The Jerk, he’s certainly had the last laugh – and spared plenty for us, too…
Nearly made it:
A Simple Twist Of Fate (a gentle, underrated tale)
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (Steve Martin does double acts very, very well…)
L.A. Story (it’s far from perfect, but there’s some great writing here)
I like them, even if, er, you don’t:
Sgt Bilko (cast aside thoughts of the Phil Silvers show, and I thought this was a fine comedy film in its own right)
Father Of The Bride (although it was comfortably stolen by Martin Short)
The one I really didn’t like:
I’m no fan of Cheaper By The Dozen 2, but I found Bringing Down The House easily the weakest of his recent movies (I thought he did a decent job in the Pink Panther films, even if the movies themselves were lacking). But it’s his teaming with Rick Moranis in My Blue Heaven that just edges Mixed Nuts as the Martin film I’ll reach for the remote control for if it comes on the telly…
Share your thoughts in the comments…!