Tuesday, 19 August 2008


A couple of weeks ago, deliberately and very much on purpose, I decided to waste 3 bucks and 90 minutes of my life watching Shawn Levy's pointless and unremarkable remake of "The Pink Panther", with Steve Martin starring as Inspector Clouseau.

It was pretty crappy, actually, with Jean Reno wandering around looking thoroughly perplexed and just as equally bemused by the proceedings he's found himself a part of. Perplexed no doubt by the total absence of a reason for his character even existing, and bemused by the sizable stacks of cash he was probably being paid for turning up. However, when you're an actor in such a notoriously volatile and fickle industry and you find yourself confronted with the choice of a quality role at scale or a minor role in a piece of crap for a slice of a squillion ... turn up, take the cash for the crap, and fuck off quietly, I reckon. One of the more tiresomely stupid rhetorical questions often asked by idiot critics of actors is "What on earth was he/she thinking when they did this?" Well, what they were probably thinking was something along the lines of, "I need money for food so that I may live".

According to John Cleese in a
Comedy Channel special (6 parts on YouTube), Steve Martin may have been thinking, "I need money to buy some art ... This'll do." Fair enough. Actually, I'm all for Steve Martin making a whole bunch of crap whenever the hell he feels like it as long as he throws in a "Shopgirl" or "Bowfinger" or "L.A. Story" every few years.

Or writes another memoir that's as good as
"Born Standing Up".

As some critics have noted, it's easy to forget that Martin has been at his "trade" for over 40 years now. For an entire generation, he's just that white-haired bloke who plays dads in middle-of-the-road light comedies, not the "wild 'n' crazy" guy from the 1970's who used to play to stadium-sized crowds whilst wearing an arrow through his head and making balloon animals and singing stupid songs about dead Egyptian kings. Those days are long past and it is those days Martin's book deals with.

Without getting all sappy about it, he looks back at his youth, his childhood, his early days as a magic and comedy act, his subsequent breakthrough success and his decision to leave stand-up comedy with a warm, clear eye, refreshingly free of the type of impotent nostalgia and dreary sentimentality that so often mar show-business autobiographies with their over-abundance of self-serving schmaltz and who-cares-now apologia. Instead, there's something warmly and appealingly melancholic about the best of Martin's work, and it's a quality apparent here. By melancholic, I do not mean sad or depressed or even kind of blue. It's what happens when you look back at a thing, at a point in your life, regard it with fondness, know that it is gone and feel a sense of wonder at what has been lost and left behind. Even Martin, early on in his book, writes that he regards "Born Standing Up" more a biography than an autobiography as it is about a person "he once knew".

That “person” once worked in a shop at Disneyland. He did stand-up for years and years in all sorts of rickety and subterranean little clubs, often working 5 shows a day, sometimes to no audience (he had to be seen doing an act through a window so people might be encouraged to wander in for a look-see). He wrote for the then cutting-edge television satire of
“The Smothers Brothers”. He also wrote for “The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour”. Yes, that’s right, Sonny & Cher had a “Comedy Hour”. He hung out with Laurel Canyon hippies. He once opened for a folk-duo who, a few years later, wound up morphing into the Eagles. He did Johnny Carson’s show. He dated Linda Ronstadt, but was so intimidated by her looks and “street-smarts” that on the 8th or 9th date, Ronstadt asked him if he often dated girls and deliberately tried not to get them into bed. He opened for Ann-Margret’s act in Vegas once and met Elvis Presley backstage. Elvis congratulated Martin on his “ob-leek” sense of humour and then proceeded to show him his guns. Elvis had an “ob-leek” sense of humour too, you see.

Then he became a success, playing to stadiums of tens of thousands of people, selling squillions of records. And eventually he realised it was all becoming a bit pointless doing small moments of comic business that would be lost on anyone beyond the second row and that having your own catchphrases hollered at you by a horde of strangers before you’d managed to get a word out yourself wasn’t particularly satisfying.

So, he decided to put it to rest, and went about doing other things.

As Billy Connolly notes in the same Comedy Channel special, it was a brave, some might say foolish, move to make. You’re going from a known quantity at the peak of success in your field to just another face on an 8x10 in the crapshoot of feature filmmaking. Martin could’ve milked his stand-up act for years. He could’ve wound up playing any RSL he felt like. And for a percentage of the door, too. Instead, he threw the world a loop and decided to dance and mime his way through Herbet Ross’s 1981 adaptation of Dennis Potter’s
“Pennies From Heaven” for his second feature. Nobody saw that coming, that’s for sure.

“Born Standing Up” is not written as a “comic” book, but it is often laugh out loud funny, especially when Martin describes the evolution and impact of many of his sketches which were not as randomly thrown together as one may think, but were, rather, often painstakingly deliberate in nature, directed and informed by Martin’s early university studies of philosophy. He always seems to know exactly what he’s doing.

I hope he writes another book soon. Or sometime. About films and film-making, perhaps. He’s very good at it.

But he’s not particularly prolific these days, though. At least not to the extent that he was during the 1980’s. It was 8 years between “L.A. Story” and “Bowfinger” and 6 years from that to “Shopgirl”. He’s provided the storyline for a Don Cheadle drama called
“Traitor” this year, so that may prove interesting. But he’s only one of three screenwriters on his next feature film, to be released next year, which probably means he just wrote a few gags or a bit or two …

Martin’s next film is
“The Pink Panther 2”.

Oh, well.

That’s a bit of a bugger, eh?

Primary production has been completed. It’s directed by Harald Zwart. Harald made a Norwegian film in 2006 called
“Lange flate ballær” which translates as “Long Flat Balls”.

How about that?

Jean Reno’s in it once again, too.

Jeans’ agent is very, very happy.

After all, he eats so that he may live.

From 1981, Steve Martin & Bernadette Peters from “Pennies from Heaven”


Terry Wright said...

Howdy Ross.

LA Story is pure class but Parenthood is it for me. Roxanne and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels are favs as well.

mmmm mmmmm mmm sigh.


Yes, yes, Yes. Yes YES!!!!

Gotta go to the video store!


Ross Sharp said...

Hi Terry,

Yes, "Parenthood" is great fun. You should check out "Shopgirl" for something different from Martin as well.