It’s very easy to dismiss talent based on a “what have you done for me lately?” timeline. Many of the greats of yesterday have been marginalized by today whether by their own decisions, age discrimination, or other assorted intangibles. For people raised in the 90’s and 00’s the name Steve Martin may not carry much weight. Maybe he’s the guy from the Cheaper by the Dozen or Pink Panther movies. Or that guy with the banjo on TV who looks familiar. It’s hard to believe that the comic legend is 71 years old, but during his heyday no one could touch him. Here are a few examples culled from our loving memories.
Bob Aquavia on The Three Amigos
Three Amigos holds an odd, special place in my heart. I remember a bunch of us in elementary school going to watch it in the movies and thinking it was the funniest movie there was. I’m also the kid who had a birthday party to go see L.A. Story, so our brand of humor wasn’t exactly as mainstream as it was with other kids. It’s not one of Steve Martin’s most famous roles, but maybe one of his more infamous? Because we know, “infamous” means “more than famous”.
Three Amigos was written by Martin (along with Lorne Michaels and Randy Newman) and stars himself, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase. It tells the story of three washed-up silent movie stars who are unknowingly recruited to help save a Mexican village. The villagers think their exploits are real, while the actors think this is all a show. Once the truth comes out, the actors rally and become the heroes that the villagers think they are.
It’s become a cult classic for a reason, with endlessly quoted lines (a plethora of quoted lines?), clever wordplay, random bursts into song, and some of Martin’s trademark physical humor. All three actors are the top of their comedic game in this one, and well-worth checking out.
Nick Nunziata on L.A. Story
Of all the films Steve Martin has ever done this may be the one closest to his comedic core. A critical but warm love letter to the city Martin made his name in, L.A. Story is absurd and utterly entertaining. It features so much of what makes Martin a master. His odd approach to normal things. His ability to deliver social comedy in a way that is unique and inoffensive. The attention to detail. The movie features an amazing performance from its leading man and somehow makes Sarah Jessica Parker adorable. The love story is fresh and weird and Victoria Tennant (Martin’s then spouse) is a great foil. It’s Steve Martin distilled into a perfect capsule, one which ages like a fine wine and continues to deliver. Though not as known and beloved as the others on this list, it’s a surefire classic.
Troy Anderson on Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is the John Hughes movies that kids didn’t understand. Hughes was coming fresh off of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Steve Martin had just released Three Amigos. Now, you were expecting people to buy into a sentimental movie about traveling during the Holidays? Time passes as it does and the film remains. That’s when an older viewer realizes what they missed out on as a kid. The movie didn’t change, you changed.
John Candy’s Del Griffith becomes a little sadder, the travel nightmares become far more grounded and an older viewer can easily identify with Martin’s Neal. When Steve Martin has to play the straight man to the token funny guy, Martin goes to interesting places. He spends most of the film annoyed or angry at various authorities or agents for delaying his holiday plans. What keeps this film from becoming something rather pedestrian is Martin’s ability to eventually understand the tribulations of John Candy’s character.
Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is heartfelt, but in a way without being schmaltz. Through comedy, it’s rare to see a mutual understanding happen so organically. Most viewers understand in comedy that there is the charming underdog and the person to overcome. But, what if the underdog realizes they’re not alone and all obstacles only exist in the mind? Steve Martin was going next level back in 1987. It’s just a shame that we have yet to see Martin return to this kind of role. That being said, who could step in for John Candy or John Hughes?
Drew Dietsch on Little Shop of Horrors
Before he became typecast as a bumbling and boring old guy, Steve Martin was a master of taking over-the-top characters and infusing them with manic joy. No other role better personifies this than Orin Scrivello, D.D.S., the sadistic dentist from Little Shop of Horrors. Martin co-opted an Elvis Presley attitude and mixed it in with a stereotypical mad-dog biker from the ‘50s. It’s an utter delight to see him groove his way through a musical number as he gleefully inflicts pain on anyone in his path. While Martin would use the same acting toolset later in his career to bring to life simpler and baser characters, he pulls it off with such perfection in Little Shop of Horrors. It’s a highlight in his career and possibly the most memorable element of the film.
Andrew Hawkins on The Jerk
Steve Martin’s The Jerk is so good it’s stupid. Based on an original story by Martin and Jaws screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, this movie is one comedy bit after another wrapped around the tale of a simpleton finding his way through life. The Jerk is part coming of age tale and part success story with a touch of Mel Brooks thrown in to keep things goofy and fun.
Without The Jerk there would be no Dumb & Dumber, Billy Madison or even Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure. Steve Martin’s brand of comedy and satire translated perfectly onto the big screen with the help of famed director Carl Reiner. If you’ve ever laughed at any of Steve Martin’s stand-up routines or his classic bits hosting Saturday Night Live, The Jerk is a must see.
What I love the most about The Jerk is the character of Navin and his journey. Navin is a born fool completely ignorant to the ways of the world. His family is loving and supportive when he chooses to leave home. Steve Martin must have been influenced by Blazing Saddles here because the two films are incredibly enjoyable while also satirizing serious social and racial issues. There’s a lot to love about The Jerk and it certainly deserves to be held in regard as one of the best comedies of all time.