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The Hidden Gems of Steve Martin

When people think of Steve Martin’s work, invariably certain movies spring to mind. The Jerk (1979), Parenthood (1989), Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) and L.A. Story (1991) are just a few high-profile titles that helped to propel the former stand-up into the pantheon of silver screen comedic geniuses. However, as with any major box office star’s filmography, there are certain “hidden gems” that are those efforts that maybe didn’t receive the critical accolades or interest from fans. 

They are always the most interesting films to explore because typically, the star goes off their beaten path. One can see that in the case of Bill Murray. In 1984, Murray decided to adapt W. Somerset Maugham’s book, The Razor’s Edge. It is a novel about a man named Larry Darrell, who has PTSD from WW I. He traverses the globe on a quest to find inner peace. Definitely not a comedy like Caddyshack (1980) or Stripes (1981) which is the formula that was a winning one for the actor. When he stepped outside his cinematic comfort zone and took on a passion project, audiences didn’t respond and this ended up being a failed effort. However, in 2003, director Sofia Coppola, envisioned the star as a jaded action hero, Bob Harris in the bittersweet Lost in Translation and pursued him to take the role. Genius on her part because after the film’s release, the world stood up and took notice that there was more to Bill Murray than goofy characters and deadpan delivery. 

For whatever reason, funny men and women have a harder time breaking out of their stereotypes in Hollywood, if they choose to do another fare. Perhaps, we have this deep-rooted need to not see comedians attempting to play more serious roles because we already have them forever pigeonholed as our personal court jesters. Steve Martin has endured the same fate. Yes, he has made the transition to playing more subdued fathers and husbands but mostly in comedies.  L.A. Story was lauded, and in his portrayal of Harris K. Telemacher, the “wacky weather guy,” you could see the depths that Martin could go to even though some of the more humorous moments. He has that uncanny ability to shine the spotlight on the incongruities in society, particularly among the rich and famous that makes us think and at times feel a bit uncomfortable.

David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner (1997) saw Steve being a Machiavellian con man. His Jimmy Dell was the ultimate villain masking his intentions under the guise of being a mentor of sorts to Campbell Scott’s Joe Ross. Every minute he is on screen is mesmerizing. Martin is a confident performer and more than capable of handling the gravitas of a “heavy” role and he wields his power with ease. After watching him, you wonder why he doesn’t make more pictures like this one. Why he hasn’t found his Lost in Translation yet. 

But what if it has been hidden all along in his varied filmography? So, I decided to go on a quest to unearth some of his buried treasures that Steve Martin fans should definitely take the time to watch. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you find. 

A Simple Twist of Fate or Silas Marner (1994) According to Steve Martin

I will admit, I am not a fan of Victorian novels. That being said, this modernization of George Eliot’s, Silas Marner, is heart-wrenching. This is a 360 for Martin. He digs deep inside his soul to pull out this performance as a man who has given up on life. His Michael McCann wasn’t always that way. He was in love once until his trust was shattered by his cheating wife. Broken, he hides from the world in a rural location. Solitary and industrious, the former choral teacher now spends his time making cabinets. What profit he gets, is invested in gold coins that he buys from an antique proprietor played by the delightful, Catherine O’Hara. McCann’s world gets decidedly more complicated after his money is stolen one night by the drunken brother of a local wealthy; prospective politician named Newland (Gabriel Byrne). After the crime takes place, a distraught Michael is awakened in the middle of the night by a little girl who has wandered into his house. Her mother, a drug addict who passed out in the cold after a bender, ultimately freezes to death leaving her daughter to her own devices.” 

Immediately smitten, McCann takes the child in and names her Mathilda. There are amusing bits as he tries to navigate from loner to devoted father but he doesn’t provide laugh out loud antics. There is nothing over the top. As the bond between them grows, Newland and his wife make a discovery about Mathilda which results in a looming custody battle. You don’t want to see Michael lose the one thing that redeemed him from a life of loneliness. Martin is so sincere and extremely honest as McCann. Clearly, he is capable of creating a three-dimensional character that goes beyond mugging and mining dialogue for laughs. Give him a role to sink his teeth into and watch how he delivers a beautiful performance. 

Bobby Bowfinger: King of Indie Filmmaking 

Bowfinger (1999) is one of those under-the-radar comedies. This piece of meta about the world of filmmaking is decidedly underrated. Sure, it wasn’t marketed like The Jerk nor did it have the cache of a John Hughes film. What it did have was a wonderfully well-written script by Steve Martin and a dialed in sardonic look at the industry which employs the comedian. That is the beauty of this production. Bobby Bowfinger is a down and out producer/director type that runs rampant within Hollywood. He’s never had a hit movie and has no agent or anyone to assist him with getting his foot in the door. At an advanced stage in his life, the clock is ticking for him to make his mark. Desperate to be “somebody” he decides the time is right to create his magnum opus, Chubby Rain. He is a man with a dream. To hear that Fed Ex coming to his door with a script. 

What ensues is a farce of sorts. Chubby Rain is a sci-fi B movie mess about an alien invasion. Bowfinger needs to capture the attention of the industry so he looks to cast action heavyweight, Kit Ramsey (Eddie Murphy). There is a hitch. Ramsey has no idea who Bobby is and there is no way that he would agree to star in the movie voluntarily. So, Bowfinger devises ways to film the star unbeknownst to him. As luck would have it, one day as Bobby is “auditioning” the future stars of his film, Kit’s twin brother, Jiff stumbles into the mix and becomes a “go-fer” on the production. He supplies Bowfinger and his cameraman, Dave (Jamie Kennedy) with Kit’s daily itinerary so they can film his scenes. Yes, this is clearly a comedy and you will be crying with laughter because it is that sharp. For anyone who has dabbled in show business every part of Bowfinger rings true. If you have lived in Los Angeles, it feels like everyone is an actor or actress in waiting and that no one has a traditional job. 

The chemistry between Martin and Murphy is solid. Both of them are comedy veterans so they know exactly how to milk every scene for what it is worth. Murphy is compelling as twins, Jiff and Kit. Another impressive bit about this movie is who Martin surrounds himself with. Pay careful attention because the characters are also tropes. Christine Baranski as Carol is hilarious and convincing as the over the hill actress struggling to make her mark as a leading lady. Heather Graham is the ambitious and “dumb as a fox” country bumpkin, Daisy. Think of her as a rural Eve Harrington (All About Eve) and you are on the right path. Manipulative and ambitious, there is nothing she won’t do to get to the top. 

Her leading man, Slater, is a not too bright young actor who has looks but is a tad short in the intelligence department and Robert Downey, Jr. as agent Jerry Renfro is a treat to watch. He nails the part of the hip and condescending suit who knows how to schmooze talent but has a heart of stone encased in Hugo Boss threads. Bowfinger is smart and an underrated comedy that deserves its moment in the sun. 

Shopgirl (2005): The Emergence of Steve Martin as a Romantic Lead

Based on Steve Martin’s novel, Shopgirl is one of those romances that haunts you. After viewing it, you will think about it like a lover that got away. Martin plays, Ray Porter, a businessman with means who falls for Mirabelle Butterfield (Claire Danes), a retail worker at the posh Saks department store. They meet cute. He purchases a pair of black gloves on her recommendation. When she goes home that evening, she finds said gloves gift wrapped and on her doorstep with a note from Porter asking her out to dinner. And so, their affair begins, if you could call it that. 

There is another man, well, boy in Mirabelle’s life. Bumbling, wannabe musician, Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman) who doesn’t have a clue about wining and dining a woman. He appears to be perpetually stuck in high school while the girl he pines for has designs on becoming an artist. Clearly, this is not a match made in heaven. Ray on the other hand, knows how to treat a woman showering Mirabelle with anything her heart desires. While he doesn’t offer to commit to her, he is willing to open his bank account up so that he can buy her the finer things in life like expensive dresses and fancy getaways on his plane. Basically, what some women dream about. 

Mirabelle is struggling. Her student debt is overwhelming and her retail job is barely enough for her to get by. This is why Ray seems like the more likely candidate to become involved with then Jeremy. As time passes, she finds that she is becoming more attached to Ray which is hopeless in and of itself because he refuses to think of her as a companion or love interest but yet he dictates how she should comport herself. 

The Steve Martin of this film is unlike anything he has ever done on screen. While his character isn’t necessarily one that you would root for, at least he is upfront in his intentions for better or worse. He’s not leading her on. Along with Mirabelle, you find yourself falling in love with him knowing that down the road, heartache will be knocking on your door. For those of us who have given our hearts to those people that are perpetually unavailable, Shopgirl stings but it is a beautiful effort.In August, Martin will turn 75. After reuniting with his lifelong pal, Martin Short for Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life (2018), the actor only has one project in the can. A short entitled, Cruel Shoes is based on the essay of the same name from his compilation of the same name. Got that? He will be narrating the film which is essentially about the idea of beauty is pain. Which is befitting in these modern times where people will literally go under the knife to achieve the desired looks that they want. Steve spends his days playing his banjo during the quarantine. His videos are always a joy to watch because his skill as a musician is unparalleled. While he is still performing, I hope there is an enterprising director out there with a script that will become his Lost in Translation (2003). It’s time for this court jester to ascend to the throne…

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About Susan Leighton

Susan Leighton has written for many entertainment sites including 1428 Elm, VHS Revival, Cult Faction, The Queen of Style, TV Series Hub, Heroic Hollywood, That's My E and Crash Palace. She is known for her interviews with genre icons, Bruce Campbell, Joe Lansdale, Joe Bob Briggs, Dee Wallace, Michael Ironside, Jeffrey Combs, Josh Becker, Danny Hicks, Brent Jennings and Alice Krige. As well as prominent paranormal experts, Christopher Garetano, Chuck Zuckowski, Paul Bradford, Daryl Marston and Kristen Luman. She has also hosted two podcasts, Nerdrotic & Pop Culture Minefield. Her short stories are featured on the Get Scared Podcast on all platforms. Currently, she is writing a paranormal TV series and a feature film script with the hope of eventually obtaining "hyphenate" status, lol. Look for her collection of essays to be included in Lee Gambin's upcoming compilation on great sitcoms of the70's and 80's, "Tonight, on a Very Special Episode."

2 comments

  1. When I think of Steve Martin’s best work, I think of his first 2 albums…..Essential.

  2. Of course!

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