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No longer crazy, just wildly talented, it's Steve Martin

In a review published in 1984, I wrote that Steve Martin was "an actor who inspires in me the same feelings that fingernails on blackboards inspire in other people." This judgment, sincerely made at the time, was just a tad premature. In a review published later that same year, I was astonished to find that I genuinely admired his work in "All of Me." And in the years since then I have also appreciated his work in such movies as "Roxanne," "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Parenthood" - not to mention two films that hardly any critics liked, "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "My Blue Heaven."

I am not even sure, in fact, that Steve Martin himself much enjoyed "My Blue Heaven," but by then, the fingernails had long since stopped screeching for me. After his early films like "The Jerk," "Pennies from Heaven," "The Lonely Guy" and "Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid," I wrote about "his ability to make you cringe with his self-abasing smarminess." Recently I have been looking forward to his films with the kind of anticipation I reserve for something involving Woody Allen or Dustin Hoffman. And now here is his latest film, "L.A. Story," based on his own screenplay and suffused with a comic brilliance. All right, then - either I was wrong, or Martin is no longer self-abasingly smarmy.

Interviewing Steve Martin the other day, I didn't know quite how to introduce the phenomenon of my changing reactions ("Why do you think it is, Steve, that your performances no longer remind me of fingernails on blackboards?"). I did sort of gently nudge my way into the subject, casually noting that I "didn't like" much of his early work (no mention of fingernails) and that since "All of Me," I had liked his work more and more.

Martin resisted the masochistic tendency of many actors who agree - or claim to agree - with all negative assessments of their work. He didn't disclaim his pre-1984 film career, and, when pressed, even claimed he would like to play a character like the Jerk again - in an all-joke comedy like "The Naked Gun." But he did seem to think it was possible that his work had improved about the same time I began to admire it more.

"I think in those early films," he said, "I was still finding my way, still trying to figure out what kind of films to make, and I believed that the kind of films I should make, with the exception of `Pennies from Heaven,' should be extensions of what I was doing onstage. The same kind of character, more or less. And then, right around `All of Me,' I dropped that and saw that movies were very different from just doing some crazy jokes. I think in the early films, there are moments that are pretty funny, but the stories are always sort of weak. I wish they'd worked a little better. But I think there's something in each one of them that's a little daring. I really can't evaluate them that well, because it's me."

What's become obvious, I said, is that you've turn out to be quite a good actor. In a straight role like "Parenthood," for example.

"Well, I learned a lot when I did `Pennies from Heaven,' and I enjoy going underneath something. I enjoy getting serious. It's really the same intensity as comedy, only it's the underside of it. I feel better about my work now. I feel that I'm just waiting to do something, all I need is the right words."

When you're making a film, is there a moment when something clicks, and you think, this is really going to work?

"Yes. On every film. Of course, the moment is not always correct."

There is a certain inverted logic at work there, and Martin's wife, the actress Victoria Tennant, believes his humor begins with the fact that he studied philosophy in college. Martin himself thinks it may go back even further: "I remember being 12 years old, and my dream was going to work and wearing a suit." Martin was wearing a suit the other day, a perfectly cut deep blue suit with a white shirt and a tie that was cheerful but not impudent. And he had gone to work. He is on the road promoting "L.A. Story," which in two hours says more funny things about Los Angeles than most films say in a lifetime. (The film will open Friday in Chicago.)

"Another thing is that his humor is never cruel," Tennant said. "He's never mean or sarcastic. There's always a sweetness in his work." She is not only Martin's wife, but also his co-star in the movie, where she plays a British newspaper reporter who is assigned to do a story on Los Angeles lifestyles and falls in love with a wild and crazy TV weatherman, played by Martin.

She is quite correct about "L.A. Story," which is a delicate balancing act involving fantasy, slapstick, romance, satire, unbridled exaggeration and social commentary. It's amazing how the movie finds its way through such a wide variety of material while always maintaining a certain gentle tone. Martin, who took years to write the original screenplay, is like those screen comedians of the past - Buster Keaton and Jacques Tati come to mind - who did not depend on violence, embarrassment and the put-down for their laughs, and instead just simply put genuinely funny things on the screen.

Example of a funny thing: A Southern California pedestrian crossing sign that lights up and says, "UH, LIKE, DON'T WALK." Another example: Two polite lines waiting at an automated banking terminal, one of people withdrawing money, the other of holdup men.

A third: The Martin character telephones for a dinner reservation, and is submitted to a detailed background and credit check by the restaurant owner.

"Some of the things in the movie come from my own personal observations over the years," Martin said. "The freeway sign, certainly. They have these enormous computerized electric signs on the freeways in Los Angeles that theoretically tell you how the traffic is up ahead. Fine, except they're never turned on. I've only seen them on once in the last 15 years. In the movie, you have one that actually tells you what to do with your life."

The sign in the movie seems to have a personal relationship with the Martin character. It poses him riddles, gives him advice, and offers him predictions. The first time it starts sending messages to him, he looks around suspiciously: "I just know I'm being filmed right now," he mutters darkly. But he is not. The sign is somehow supernaturally inspired to encourage him to become a better person and fall in love with the right woman.

"The movie is like a Rorschach test for how you feel about L.A.," he said. "I think people who live in L.A. will see it as very friendly to L.A., and the people don't live in L.A., and want to think of L.A. as this disgusting place, might interpret it as that."

Martin himself seems to have an ambiguous relationship to the city. He has lived all of his life there and he loves it, but what he likes most about it is his own home:

"You know, L.A. is only where you live, because otherwise it's just a sprawling mass of everything, and I think if you live in L.A., you get a little network of places you go, and people you see, and when you leave town you do miss those places and your friends."

"L.A. Story" is a movie about a man who could almost be described in those words. Martin's weatherman has been dating the same woman (Marilu Henner) for such a long time that he has almost reached the point when he can predict when she will be finished dressing and ready to go to a party. He has had the same job at the same television station so long, he's a fixture, a weatherman for whom the weather is only an excuse for standup comedy.

And then everything changes when he discovers she's been having an affair, and that liberates him to move out - frees him to be ready for the advice of the roadside electric sign, which encourages him to go out on a date with SanDeE (Sarah Jessica Parker), a hippy dippy airhead he meets in a clothing store, and who, like many Los Angelenas, spells her name as if it were an eye chart. Later, when he is ready for a more meaningful affair, the sign steers him toward the Victoria Tennant character.

All of this is done with a charm impossible to describe, a certain whimsical, lighthearted, romantic goofiness that weaves a spell over the film. In one sense, Martin's screenplay is as insubstantial as a feather, but in another way, it is as well-constructed as any script in recent memory. Movies don't get to be this charming and fanciful by accident.

"I started writing it about seven years ago," Martin said, "before I even started writing `Roxanne,' and then I put it in a drawer, because it's the kind of thing that's very scary to think of ever being made into a movie. You're risking a lot. I'd think, no, I can't do this, then I'd get encouraged again, and I'd pick it up and do it."

Is it the sort of thing, I asked, that you can't just sit at the keyboard and be inspired to write - the kind of material that has to accumulate in its own time?

"Yes, I think so, because a lot of the ideas for the movie occurred to me in little bits. I'd make a note and put it away. In this movie, every scene has to have an angle because the story itself is a sort of regular love story. So there's always something going on behind the action. I always had to think of a place, or an idea, or an attitude, or something that lifts the scene up a little.

"Like, for example, the gravedigger scene with Rick Moranis, which has fun with `Hamlet.' All the scene really achieves, on the story level, is to make the man and the woman interested in each other. But having Rick as the gravedigger gets this other thing happening, too, at the same time, rather than just having the characters standing on the sidewalk. Or like the scene outside the automated teller machine. You're killing two birds with one stone. You're showing a little bit of the relationship between myself and the young girl, SanDeE , and yet you're also getting this gag going on at the same time."

Did you start right out with the notion of a communicating billboard? "No, that only came within the last year and a half or two." And yet that was really the organizing principal, wasn't it? "Yeah. It shows you how drastically things can change. The original draft had me leaving L.A. and ending up in Turkey, because I wanted something that was just the opposite of L.A. Turkey didn't make it into the final draft. I never got out of L.A."

"L.A. Story" is such an original and particular movie, I said, that it must have been almost impossible to pitch in a meeting with studio executives. Is this kind of project tough to sell, or to get financed? "A little tougher, yeah. I have a feeling a lot of studios wanted to make it, but they didn't want to pay for it. They wanted it to be very cheap. As it turns out, the movie was very cheap by today's standards, but it couldn't be that cheap, it needed some class to it. I think it's a risky film. At least, it was seen as risky when we were pitching it. I don't know if it seems so risky now, when you can see what we had in mind. It's like 'Roxanne' was a very risky film, at least in my head, before we started rolling, but then when it opened people said well, it's OK, I had a good time, I enjoyed it, it's OK to tell my friends to go."

It has seemed strange to me, I said, that the ideas that lead to the worst movies always seem to get financed the most quickly, and the ones that lead to the best movies always seem to have some kind of tangled web of production difficulties behind them. Martin grimaced. "I think the seemingly worst ideas I've ever had have been the best, and the ideas that I think are naturals just don't work. I don't know why. I guess you just don't put your heart and soul into it somehow."

Give me an example. "Well, 'Roxanne,' which was a very problematical idea - setting Cyrano in modern times - did $42 million, which was considered a hit for a very small movie like that, and `Three Amigos,' which was meant to be this sort of big blockbuster movie, maybe did $42 million, too, which was a disappointment."

Another unexpected thing about "L.A. Story" is that it wasn't directed by a proven Hollywood veteran, but by Mick Jackson, previously unknown in Los Angeles.

"Victoria found him," Martin said, "and showed me a tape of a mini-series he did in England called `A Very British Coup,' which was the best thing I ever saw. I mean, I just couldn't believe it! It was exactly the feel I was looking for, for the movie. I knew it couldn't just be three cameras, medium-shot, closeup type shot. There had to be some style, and he delivered it."

I liked the look of the movie. The translucent night sky, for example, which seems to sparkle with stars and the moon. "Yeah, and see, I never would have thought of that. That's what the director and the cinematographer do. They used time-lapse photography. I mean, here's a guy who's been making movies for 25 years, and no one had ever heard of him." One of the things I noticed, talking with Martin, was that although he makes his living as a comic actor, he didn't seem to say or do anything that was intended to be particularly funny. Many comedians are on all the time - are desperate for the instant feedback and reassurance of laughter. I wondered if Martin's reserved, laid-back conversational style was a reaction to his early image as a wild and crazy guy.

"Maybe, and it may be why I don't go out so much. Sometimes you see people laughing at something you said that maybe isn't that funny, and you realize, this is not an honest relationship here. It may make you tend to stick with your friends, because you do want to be relaxed. I don't do my act in private. I used to do it onstage, and that's when I did it. Of course that all originated from my real life, so what I was now, or then, I just don't know. . . ."

What's interesting though, is when people have great success at a very early age, they often turn into great bores who repeat their shticks for the rest of their lives, who in every single social encounter are still doing something that worked for them for about six months in the '50s. How do you cut loose from that?

"I just have a different mind-set than that," he said. "I don't like to look back, and I'm always worried about the next thing rather than resting on the laurels or the degradations of the last thing. I've also know about that type that you described, and I want to be cautious with it. I don't want to end up like that. Like when I finally retire, I just want to go away so no one has to listen to me."

He thought for a moment. "I never thought much about success early on," he said. "I only thought about being a comedian - or just being in show business, is really more accurate. I developed my act, and only in my late 20s, when I'd really done it a long time, and had gotten better at it, and had an act, did I think - `Gee, the future looks really bleak! If something doesn't happen, I'll be doing this in nightclubs for the rest of my life.' And just about that time, my movie career started to happen. Then I worried about being a flash-in-the-pan, because the star ascended very quickly. So that was my next worry, and now that I don't have to worry about being a flash-in-the-pan, I have to worry about being an old bore."

You don't have any need to be reinforced every 10 seconds with approval? "About once a year is good."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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