THE LATE PERIOD
In trying to break up Steve’s career into distinct phases, I realized that it was going to be much more difficult than I thought to cram it into a single week. For instance, today’s topic will be Steve’s Late Period, which in the schematic that I’ve devised includes everything after 1991’s L.A. Story. That means covering 14 quite productive years in one fell swoop, which is downright disrespectful, but I’m afraid I’m left with no alternative.
I am unabashedly stealing the concept of the Late Period from a 1993 New Yorker article by Adam Gopnik. This piece offers a lot of insight into why Steve de-emphasized his movie career in favor of other pursuits.
“Making a movie means five thousand people with opinions, two years of work, twenty-five million dollars of somebody else’s money, and then I have to go on ‘Entertainment Tonight,'” Steve told Gopnik. “I want to do something else. I want to do something that I can have more immediate control over.”
When this article was written, Steve was in the process of mounting the first production of his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile. Interestingly enough, in the two days since I started writing this, an entry for a movie version of Picasso has popped up at the top of Steve’s Internet Movie Database page. The cast includes Ryan Phillippe, Kevin Kline, and Steve himself, and I’ve been sitting here pondering who’s going to play what part. The three main characters are Picasso, Albert Einstein, and the Elvis character, who’s called “The Singer.” So is that Phillippe as Elvis, Steve as Einstein, and Kline in flamboyant mode as Picasso? Wait, Einstein is 25 years old in the play; it has to be Phillppe as Einstein…but then one of the other two has to play the young Elvis…this tangent is now officially out of control and is going to have to be terminated.
Another insight I gleaned from the Gopnik article is that the beginning of the Late Period coincides with Steve’s divorce from Victoria Tennant. This makes sense; I’ve always thought that L.A. Story is most likely the apex of Steve’s movie career in his own mind. While not as screamingly funny as some of his earlier stuff, L.A. Story is suffused with a peculiar blend of satire and sweetness that is quintessentially Steve. It is also a love letter to L.A. — his lifelong home — as well as to Tennant. You can imagine that, coming off this incredible creative high and then losing the woman he loved, he would become disillusioned with the movies.
His filmography since then includes only one performance that I would call truly noteworthy, and that is a non-comedy — if not exactly “straight” — role in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner. Although he in onscreen far less than Campbell Scott, he plays the con man who is at the center of the events, and the movie depends entirely on his performance. Which is a strange and disorienting one; understated, dignified, vaguely (then openly) sinister, and always threatening to bust out of the frame and become something else altogether. In playing the con man he also plays the character the con man is playing, while at the same time suggesting Steve Martin, movie star, and somewhere buried deep underneath, Steve Martin, human being. I have seen The Spanish Prisoner five or six times now, and it still befuddles me. I hope that someday before I die I will get it.
Aside from that, Steve’s starring roles in the Late Period have mainly been in middle-of-the-road, not unpleasant, family-friendly fare like the Father of the Bride movies and The Out-of-Towners. There have also been a few outright disasters like Leap of Faith. In Bowfinger, both Steve and Eddie Murphy showed flashes of their old form, but the movie ended up being not especially memorable. I couldn’t bring myself to see Bringing Down the House, and I feel the same way about the upcoming Pink Panther remake. Watching the preview for it, I was treated to the sight of one of my favorite movies and one of my favorite comedians combined to produce a series of painfully unfunny gags.
But all that doesn’t mean the Late Period has been a waste of time; it just means that, instead of being in a few easily identifiable places, the great stuff has been dispersed into smaller bits in a wider variety of media.
IMDB lists 27 TV appearances since 1991, and while I haven’t seen all of them, those that I have seen are universally excellent (he was the best Oscar host since Johnny Carson). And that doesn’t include all the times he’s been on The Late Show with David Letterman, which are never ordinary talk show appearances but genuine events that Steve puts a great deal of effort into. I particularly remember one that included a short film called “Dave and Steve’s Gay Vacation,” where the two comedy legends frolicked on the beach hand-in-hand.
Cecil and I were fortunate enough to catch a performance of Picasso at the Lapin Agile in San Francisco a few years back, and found it to be smart, funny, thought-provoking, and altogether worthwhile. I am less familiar with Steve’s other plays, which include WASP and The Underpants; I pledge to devote some future period of time to educating myself about them.
Steve has published three books in the Late Period, each of which is also available in an audio version in Steve’s own voice.
I’ll admit to being not completely sold on 2003’s The Pleasure of My Company and 2000’s Shopgirl. They are both carefully crafted, compassionate books about modern people with modern problems, written in an old-fashioned prose style laced with dry wit and elegant turns of phrase. But there is a persistent lightness about them, and not the good kind; the comedy seems too gentle, the drama lacking in tension. Listening to them read by Steve makes for a more pleasant experience, although his voice is sometimes so soothing as to border on the narcotic. I’m not sure how I’d feel about these books if they’d been written by somebody else; I might expect less and so enjoy them more, or I might not bother with them at all.
Much more fun is 1999’s Pure Drivel, a collection of short pieces, most of which originally appeared in The New Yorker. Some of them are hysterically funny, such as A Public Apology; some are funny in a gentler, more whimsical way, such as Mars Probe Finds Kittens; and one, Michael Jacksons’s Old Face, is weirdly, genuinely, powerfully poignant.
In fact, as Steve has grown older, the undercurrent of melancholy in his work has come more and more to the fore. I attribute this partly to developments in his personal life; partly to the natural effects of aging; and partly to the depressive streak that runs through all great comedians. The latter has always been there, and you could argue that its increasing presence in his work makes it that much more an expression of his true self – which is, after all, what we’re all trying for, isn’t it?