We, the fans, tend to fixate on Steve Martin’s early work — the albums, Saturday Night Live, The Jerk, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, and so on — and why shouldn’t we? That stuff was stupendously great.
But if you asked Steve himself, I bet he’d tell you that his golden age was his middle period, from All of Me in 1984 up through L.A. Story in 1991. This was when he finally became a movie star.
It’s hard to remember now, but for a while there it looked like Steve might not make it in the movies. The Jerk was a big hit, but his next three films — Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, The Man with Two Brains, and The Lonely Guy — were all commercial failures, each one a bigger flop than the last.
You only get so many strikes in Hollywood, especially when you’re a relatively unproven commodity. Everybody in town apparently knew that if Steve’s next movie wasn’t a hit, he was finished. In a 1984 Rolling Stone article, Carl Reiner recounts the following story:
I was grocery shopping at Ralphs the other day, and a box boy came over to me and said, “I just saw All of Me, and hey, that was one good picture. And that Steve Martin, he was really terrific. He sure could use a hit, couldn’t he?” As I said to Steve, when it filters down to the box boys at Ralphs, it’s serious.
So why did All of Me become a hit when Dead Men and Two Brains — at least as good and arguably better movies with the same star and same director — had done so poorly?
The answer, I think, has to do with persona. Steve’s persona in his first three movies was an extension of his onstage persona: an intimidatingly smart guy doing aggressively dumb things for laughs, often practicing the Comedy of CrueltyTM. The younger, hipper audiences who bought his albums, went to his shows, and watched SNL liked that character; the general audience you need to sustain a commercially viable movie career didn’t.
All of Me introduced a new Steve, one who seemed like an actual human being, albeit one caught up in bizarre circumstances. In the Rolling Stone article, Steve said this about Roger Cobb, his character in All of Me:
I never played a real guy before, a guy who could walk down the street and have someone say, “Hey, Roger, let’s have a drink.” For the first time in my life, I was playing a character who could kiss a girl, who wasn’t driven by odd madnesses.
This meant that the comedy was no longer originating with Steve; he was now the still center reacting to the insane things happening to him and around him. (This is a fundamental reversal from being a standup comic, who has no choice but to generate the comedy himself.)
Audiences loved this new persona, and he used it again in his most successful movies of the second half of the 80s: Roxanne; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Parenthood. In between, he mixed things up by playing a mobster (My Blue Heaven); a con man (Dirty Rotten Scoundrels); an idiot in a sombrero (Three Amigos!); and an Elvis-like, sadistic dentist (a brief, movie-stealing role in Little Shop of Horrors).
I would venture to speculate that these were the happiest years of Steve’s life. Although he was rock-star successful as a standup comic, he’s always claimed that he didn’t enjoy it, as in this quote from Rolling Stone:
When I was touring, I was bothered a lot; I really tended to withdraw. When you’re anywhere but New York or Los Angeles, you can’t go outside your room or you’re followed; you can’t have a meal without feeling self-conscious that everyone is watching. I remember photo sessions where you walk into the room, and all these people are looking at you, waiting for you to do something funny, and you get so tense you can’t do anything, you don’t feel like doing anything. People must have hated me then.
Now, with success in the movies, he was beloved by all of America, able to pick and choose his projects, raking in gazillions of dollars, and married to the fetching Victoria Tennant, whom he’d met while making All of Me (in fact, this could just as well be called the Victoria Tennant Era, because it starts when she arrives and ends when she departs). If you look back at his performances in movies made during these years, you can see that they radiate relaxed self-satisfaction.
This halcyon era culminated with 1991’s L.A. Story, where I think Steve is pretty much playing himself: a smart, funny, gentle, insecure, hopeless romantic. He also wrote the screenplay, which is a love letter both to Tennant (who co-stars) and to Los Angeles itself, which endures some mild mockery but comes out looking like a magical land of dreams. I never laughed as much at L.A. Story as I did at, say, The Jerk, but I always walked away from it feeling better about life — and that is no small accomplishment.