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Steve Martin Dances Between Hilarity and Tragedy: The Man with Two Brains (1983)

Genre spoofs can go either three ways – they can work well and remain faithful to the genre or subgenre they are paying tribute to and also be a successful comedy; on the other hand they can fail at doing both; but thirdly they can definitely celebrate the source material as well as be funny and also on top of that, create something new – elevating the marriage of homage and spoof. The Man with Two Brains (1983) is a proud example of the latter. It takes the subgenre of horror belonging to the mad scientist terrain and gives it a healthy dose of fresh comedy styling from the film’s star and co-writer Steve Martin as well as a screenplay brimming with a steady cavalcade of jokes galore, as well as social satire.

Steve Martin’s filmic career up to this point was gradually building into something formidable and impressive. With small parts in two very different movie musicals of the seventies – one being the atrocious Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1979) and the other being the divine The Muppet Movie (1979), Martin would then take on two very different films that would showcase his incredible knack for both unique, incredibly physical and chaotic comedy and introspective, self-reflexive drama. The Jerk (1979) would allow Martin to embrace all aspects of his take on broad and then subtle and intricate examples of his distinct comic style, while the incredibly dark and moody musical Pennies From Heaven (1981) (both co-starring his then girlfriend at the time, Bernadette Peters) would highlight his insight into delivering torturous elements of the human condition. However, after these two very different and yet both tonally complex films, Martin would throw himself into what would be one of his greatest achievements – a celebratory “pisstake” on Film Noir in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982). Here, Martin completely shines as a man perplexed by the cultural trappings of a genre born from World War 2 and a desire for stark realism painted by in stylised elegance. Integrating sophisticated and cutting comedy into the model of a film designed to read like Billy Wilder’s Double Indemnity (1944) could prove disastrous, however, it most certainly works, and works too well. As soon as this film got Martin the attention he deserved at not only a master comic but also as a well-read cinephile who is not making fun of such films as Wilder’s masterpiece, but instead paying loving tribute, the talented actor/writer/comedian joined forces with friends George Gipe and Carl Reiner and started work on The Man with Two Brains. Although the film would be a broad homage to the mad scientist subgenre of horror, it would still employ efforts made delectably seductive in Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid in that it would be founded on the archetypal role of the femme fatale that would primarily populate those forties Noirs.

Kathleen Turner plays an oversexed, manipulative and psychotic gold digger, who is introduced to the film torturing her wealthy elderly husband and drives him to a heart attack. If this is how she is initially represented in the film, this is how she will remain and Turner’s palpable enjoyment of sinking her teeth into such a liberating and hedonistic role is obvious. Here is an actress having so much fun with such juicy and violently maddening lines to deliver, high energy physical performance and a role that insists on a rabid sexuality. Steve Martin counters Kathleen Turner’s vigour with a manic frustration and that is the fundamental platform that the film is built upon. He is anxious and brimming with insecurities and sexual repression while she is a ravenous lunatic, destined to devour life without any remorse even if the word she leaves behind is one in decay.

Steve Martin’s character’s surname is clearly a direct set up for running gags to power through the energetic script, and this is something that was made popular in the works of Mel Brooks who would christen his characters with names that would spark irony, jovial hilarity or even a continuous call back that would generate laughter – one that comes to mind is Cloris Leechman’s character in his tribute to horror Young Frankenstein (1974). The film successfully marries Martin as the physically apt comedian he is with his uncanny ability to turn the mundane into something remarkably and significantly funny. For example, his mood transition from a man who is reasonable to a man perplexed by others’ stupidity is a delight to watch and the film allows for a sensitivity in his character’s growth and experience. When he accidentally runs Kathleen Turner down, he is genuinely upset, but then salvages such desperation by utilizing his skill as an incredible brain surgeon to bring her “back to life”. Martin’s performance in this film is layered, nuanced, intelligent and thorough in its scrutiny of making do with what the human condition slams upon us – desire, guilt, frustration, anger, anxiety and so forth. As Turner’s character comes into her maniacal own, there is a wonderful moment where a muscular Latino gardener ends up becoming a sexual release for her, unbeknownst to Martin who submits to her sexual denial and frigidity. As wild and as sexually charged Kathleen Turner is in the film, she also exhibits a beautiful degree of restraint in her comic timing, and her smoky voice adds to such knowing parody. Turner is a sublime actress before she is a wonderfully talented “funny woman”, and this is a film that showcases such attention to detail for a character that is completely a cartoon concoction.

Steve Martin plays the sexually frustrated angle remarkably well, and this is because there is a comic that relies heavily on embracing and making fun of the tortures of the human condition. Martin has an uncanny knack for playing the pent-up neurotic and therefore when he lashes out it is a relief and tension breaker. His world famous “Excuuuuuse me!” is a testament to such tightly wound up mania, and here in this film which is packed with penal erection gags and various forms of sexually charged comedy, it is far more satisfying to see him suffer at the hands of Kathleen Turner than it is being annoyed by the likes of John Candy in the wonderfully written Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which presents Martin in many sequences as insensitive and mean, as well as someone out of touch with human interaction.

Kathleen Turner’s overt sexuality is made humorous here of course, but when she would later take on Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion (1984), her body itself becomes a place of danger and unsettling land to explore, examine and question. Turner has a phenomenal handle on how to tip into pure eroticism that is primal, liberating, explosive and also even sentimental. In Ken Russell’s jaw-dropping film, Turner uses sex as an instrument to disturb and it is intoxicating to watch. When nervous and jittery Anthony Perkins falls under the spell, it is Turner “flipping the bird” to an audience believing that they can expect something safe and easy to swallow, and also be shaken up by extremities and other complexities in sexual representation in film. In The Man with Two Brains, she is a product of male fantasy that has gone “wrong” and will not submit, and in Crimes of Passion it is a monster show – a woman that refuses to be caged and a woman that will drive terror into the hearts of those who enjoy a degree of comfort in sex. The role of the femme fatale in comedy is something that is used as a device more than a concrete example of sturdy characterisation, however, there are some examples of realised and complicated archetypes borrowing from a classic formula and interjected within the compounds of comedy. Kathleen Turner would eventually lend her uncredited voice to the role of the literal cartoon vixen Jessica Rabbit in the Noir/animation/live-action hybrid masterpiece Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) – and here, her character from The Man with Two Brains pops up in sultry delivery, but even in ‘toon form, breathes a complex and vitally “real” life.

With character archetypes interacting with one another in a broad comedy that sells itself remarkably well, the core genre send-up here is the lampooning of the mad scientist in horror and therefore, the meeting of David Warner (a mesmerising British actor who steps into a film and does wonders with whatever role he is given) is the marking point of the subgenre’s tribute. Just after his lecture goes bad, the reveal of Warner’s laboratory is a staple set piece in the film channelling gothic horror in all its classicist glory. On top of this, is the harkening back to Golden Age B-Hollywood where a gorilla would take centre stage, established by a man (Don McLeod) in an ape suit. This is once again another tip of the hat to legendary men in gorilla suits from yesteryear such as Ray “Crash” Corrigan and Bob Burns. Another factor in this spoof on horror is the severed brain that Steve Martin is wooed by. In an extension of him mourning his late wife – who was lovely, unlike the manic and murderous Kathleen Turner – Martin finds himself drawn to a singing vital organ floating in a jar. Sissy Spacek’s uncredited voice as the brain that Martin falls in love with is an oddity unto itself. One would ask “Why on earth would Academy Award winning actress Spacek lend her vocal talents for a film and not be credited?” But that is part of the charm and tenacity of Hollywood during quite possibly the last period where there was a sense of family and solidarity in artistic circles. Spacek would be friends with Carl Reiner as well as Steve Martin and give the severed brain a speaking voice as well as singing voice with her sweet rendition of “Ukulele Lady” which she duets with Martin. In all the madness of such a scene, there is a tenderness here, and you genuinely see Martin fall in love with this bottled brain who connects with him in an unpretentious and completely sane manner. Spacek’s voice gives this potential life partner of Martin’s sincerity and a much needed soothing femininity in a film that is ultimately dominated by a harpy out for blood.

In regards to the aforementioned Don McLeod – an actor and performance artist – here is a performance artist who would find a lot of work as gorillas in film and television, and here in The Man with Two Brains he performs the gorilla that is bestowed with the brain of the oft-mentioned doctor Beckerman. McLeod comes from a long line of actors in film history who would don the ape suit and monkey-it-up on set, from previously referred to Ray “Crash” Corrigon to Bob Burns, and here in this film McLeod is able to play comedy with a broad sensibility and a playoff to David Warner’s stoic, turgent British scientist. Warner himself would make a career out of playing specialists in a number of films during the seventies and eighties – one being the incredibly underrated Arthur Hiller film Nightwing (1979) which featured him as a professor of biology, determined to combat plague carrying bats in New Mexico – and here he plays it straight (as straight as can be) in a comic landscape. It is as if Warner had been cast because of such a coolly calculated methodical performance style that Martin can overplay his manic agility against such a staunch realist in Warner.

The film is not at all attempting to say anything about the contemporary cultural disorder, but it does breathe through an apparatus of social commentary that belongs to a bygone era. This is the very nature of comedies that tribute (or tip the hat to) genres that normally formally do not engage with humour. Of course, this is not entirely true however, seeing that films such as James Whale’s masterwork Bride of Frankenstein (1935) thoroughly ramps up satire that lives inherently in its veins, while every single Agatha Christie murder mystery employs coy tongue in cheek humour as well (another genre of film that would be up for the spoof machine, as seen in Murder By Death (1976). But what Carl Reiner and Steve Martin do with the mad scientist mould is bring it to a starting point against the formulaic traits of the films it is lampooning, here, in such a colourful example of irreverence and maddening absurdity, the film suggests that what it homages is an engrained fragment of collective consciousness and something that feeds into this brand new take on such a subgenre. Cleverly it never relies on owing too much to its “source material”, because it doesn’t need to and because it would be foolish to. Martin is a smart writer (and an even smarter actor) who understands film history but never rests his laurels on such insight when delivering comedy for an audience who want a good time. In many regards, Martin is the competent comedian who respects audience thresholds and engages with them as well, which lends his comedy to favouring an overt flamboyance that the earliest clowns of vaudeville would possess. Clear, direct, profound, intelligent, divorced from pretention and aesthetic rule, Martin manages to deliver a critically important factor when telling a joke, delivering a physical gag or surrendering to a mug and knockabout, and this is never more evident than in The Man with Two Brains. Stuck in the middle of an electric body with a demented brain and a sweet brain without a body, Steve Martin dances between hilarity and tragedy with ease and finesse and never skips a beat – audiences, mostly men, would find themselves understanding such apparent dilemmas, in that this altered misogyny of wanting the woman with the great body and sexual liberties also comes at a price (namely your own wellbeing and life) whereas the dismembered brain (commented via the film within the film in Donavan’s Brain (1953) playing on his TV early in the piece) cannot serve any function besides excellent conversation, sing-a-longs and emotional sympathy. What Carl Reiner and Steve Martin have tapped into here is a brutal insight into maleness and the quest to understand women’s liberation rhetoric that was now implanted in the culture by the time of the film’s release through the advent of second-wave feminism.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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