In his 2007 memoir Born Standing Up, Steve Martin chronicles his history as a stand-up comic, growing from a kid with an almost carny sensibility—he’d trained himself to do close-up magic, to juggle, and to play the banjo, among other things—into an international celebrity commenting through his particular brand of absurdity (bringing back things like fake arrows through the head, staying away from anything pointedly topical, etc.) on the state of American comedy in the 1970s and 80s. Which, at the height of his fame, and because of that fame, he abandoned. At one point, he writes:
Time has helped me achieve peace with celebrity. At first I was not famous enough, then I was too famous, now I am famous just right. Oh yes, I have heard the argument that celebrities want fame when it’s useful and don’t when it’s not. That argument is absolutely true.
That period of Martin’s life and career, spent as a famous stage comedian, spanned roughly four years. His first stand-up album, Let’s Get Small, came out in 1977. His last, The Steve Martin Brothers, came out in 1981. He wouldn’t release another album of any sort until 2009, when The Crow: New Songs for the 5-String Banjo—which is exactly what it sounds like—dropped. Along the way, he has published two collections of humorous essays, three novels, written and produced numerous plays and screenplays, and acted in any number of films and television specials. Currently, he is appearing in a Hulu comedy series that he co-created with John Hoffman, Only Murders in the Building, which is, for me, a rather brilliant satire of true crime obsessives and a genuinely compelling mystery. Martin stars alongside his friend and frequent collaborator Martin Short, and, somewhat counterintuitively but still quite effectively, Selena Gomez.
In Only Murders in the Building, Martin plays a washed-up TV actor who partners with a washed-up Broadway producer (Short) and their younger neighbor (Gomez) to not only solve the murder of one of their neighbors but also, hopefully, produce a successful podcast out of the whole adventure. Everyone in the cast is excellent, but Martin in particular is making something special out of the project. There’s something deeply moving about his turn as a once-famous actor who feels isolated from a world that recognizes him but can’t see past his previous work and the ways in which his new endeavor, however foolish it may seem on the surface, helps him engage with the world once again.
When he quit stand-up in the 1980s, he transitioned into a film career, one that has been wild and varied, in type as well as in quality. His most prolific filmmaking partner was the late Carl Reiner, with whom he made four pictures. The arc of their collaborations resembles, to some degree, Martin’s career as a whole. Beginning with The Jerk in 1979, Reiner and Martin would go on to make two more equally absurd films—Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982) and, my personal favorite, The Man with Two Brains (1983), both affectionate spoofs of old Hollywood genre films—whose only ambition, God bless them, was to make the audience howl with laughter. Then in 1984, they teamed up again for All of Me. On paper, this movie appears no less ridiculous than their previous outings: an attorney (Martin) who is about to enter into what will surely be an unhappy marriage, suddenly finds himself partially possessed by the spirit of a recently deceased millionaire (Lily Tomlin). And while there is ample room for broad physical comedy (Martin and Tomlin often wrestle each other for control of his motor functions), there is also space for genuine heart and emotion. This kind of acting is something that Martin has pursued throughout his career. In fact, by this point Martin had already made what still may be his most ambitious film, the American remake of Dennis Potter’s dark, tragic, musical miniseries Pennies from Heaven, directed in this iteration by Herbert Ross. It was a good movie, but it flopped. But even taking the role showed where he wanted to go.
You can see Martin taking a similar path in his writing, from his screenplays—which run the gamut from The Jerk to A Simple Twist of Fate, his riff on George Eliot’s Silas Marner—to his books. His prose has ranged from the surreal humor of his collection Cruel Shoes (1977, a big year for him) to the more erudite nonsense of Pure Drivel (1998), to, among his novels, An Object of Beauty (2010), which one would be hard-pressed to describe as comedic at all, telling as it does the story of the New York City art world through the rise and fall of an enterprising and somewhat ruthless gallery owner, even taking the time to include a section on the 9/11 attacks.
Martin’s physical presence is key to understanding his success onscreen. His prematurely gray, then white, hair, his slightly dark eyes, and baritone voice lend a certain gravitas to everything he does. It helps him to, when necessary, play even the silliest moments completely, or ostensibly, straight. Which isn’t to say Steve Martin is incapable of mugging like a total goon; I don’t think one could reasonably argue he plays any single minute of The Jerk straight. But on the other hand, the success of Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (which places its cast amidst clips from classic Hollywood crime films, and lets them act against Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and so on) depends entirely on his ability to appear as though he’s starring in a genuine film noir. And with his hair dyed black, wearing a suit and fedora, it’s an easy conceit to buy into, even when he’s pouring out a seemingly bottomless bag of coffee grounds.
This doesn’t just serve him well in his films with Carl Reiner, or similar projects like the underrated Three Amigos, but has also made him the perfect choice for his more dramatic turns, such as the venal film producer in Lawrence Kasdan’s Grand Canyon (1991), or, best of all, as the wealthy and mysterious Jimmy Dell in David Mamet’s thriller The Spanish Prisoner (1997). In that film—and I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers—Martin arrives somewhat late to the proceedings to upend and, in a way, seduce the protagonist played by Campbell Scott, who believes the process he has invented for his company will be successful, but he will be left uncompensated and betrayed (this is all left intentionally vague by Mamet). What Martin does is imbue his character with the necessary austerity, and humor, that suggests, to Scott’s Joe, a way out of this. And Martin proves himself so expert in absorbing and delivering Mamet’s unique rhythms that I almost cannot believe he hasn’t been tapped to do so again.
Where Steve Martin, the performer, seems to live most comfortably is in whatever film or television show allows him to be both funny and dramatic, a mode of acting at which he truly excels. As wonderful as those early Carl Reiner pictures are (and I do truly love them), they feel now like a part of his brand of stand-up preposterousness that he needed to shed. And while he’s returned to it from time to time since then (see his take on the Pink Panther films, and others like Bringing Down the House), it no longer feels like something he should be doing. The turning point, perhaps, was John Hughes’s Planes, Trains & Automobiles, a very funny but also very sweet holiday comedy in which Martin plays the straight man opposite John Candy. Martin is superb in that film, as is Candy, and, straight man or not, very funny. The role allowed him to tap into something almost patrician in his demeanor without pushing the audience away.
Now, in Only Murders in the Building, he goes further by portraying his patrician side as failed, as a joke. This comes across even in his character’s name, “Charles-Haden Savage”—what a place to put a hyphen. Yet Charles, as the other characters call him, is not a joke. He’s perhaps unintentionally funny at times, but he’s a real person who is in a rut, living a life of solitude that he never wanted but which has become routine and acceptable to him. It’s not even something he ever consciously accepted, his subconscious just did it (a nod, perhaps, to the psychology of the COVID pandemic). And now he’s latched onto something that maybe he shouldn’t even be involved with (we’ll see), but it’s given him new life. It’s another step in his, and Martin’s, career.