Here's a guy who's serious about clowning

March 12, 2003|By Andrew Marton | Andrew Marton,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In the market for all that is both cerebral and zany about Steve Martin? Look no further than his latest movie.

Bringing Down the House, which opened last weekend, acts as a two-hour showcase for - and much needed reminder of - Martin's flair for carefully choreographed word-play and off-the-cuff lunacy. But, of course, that's nothing new.

For more than 30 years now, Martin has toggled back and forth between playing the uptight, put-upon, suburban white guy, and some seriously "wild and crazy" guys, either spewing absurdist plays on words or engaging in some of the most inspired physical comedy this side of Buster Keaton.

But even as Martin has carved a niche as one of Hollywood's most idiosyncratic and innovative clown-savants, he has suffered a kind of pop-culture identity crisis. On the strength of Martin's meteoric rise in the 1970s, thanks to an act that offered a little bit of winking social commentary and a lot of loony performance art, his audience just always assumed he would remain in that guise forever.

But he hasn't. He's gotten better by varying his act. Ironically, the reward for Martin's constant versatility as a performer has been a healthy dose of underappreciation.

Top pop-culture personalities are allowed many things by their audience, except change. Trouble is, the 57-year-old Martin (who has finally aged into his premature white hair) has spent the past 20 years doing nothing but changing, altering the outlets for his creativity. He is, perhaps, the lengthiest hyphenate in Hollywood, with a resume that reads stand-up comedian-producer-stage and screen actor-musician-playwright-screenwriter-New Yorker essayist-connoisseur-art collector.

This is the curriculum vitae of the entertainment world's most unsung Renaissance man. In the next six months, Martin will be on the big screen (Bringing Down the House), the small screen (as the cheeky host of the 75th annual Academy Awards on March 23) and in bookstores (thanks to the publication of his second novella, The Pleasure of My Company).

"Steve is doing many things at once. ... The range is enormous," says David Remnick, the New Yorker's editor. "There is no guarantee that a verbal magician like Robin Williams can transfer his talent to paper. Steve can. ... I hate to throw the word `genius' around too often, but why not? He really is one."

Martin's genius first took flight on Saturday Night Live, for which he often served as guest host during its early years. Martin's road-map to the funny bone on SNL has been described as "Dadaesque." And that's pretty accurate. He cemented his surreal credentials by playing the banjo with an arrow through his cranium, or performing a happy-feet dance after juggling several cats, and wearing rabbit ears with a double-breasted white suit while twisting balloon animals.

Martin's wacky SNL shtick earned him cult status, and the performance of his hit single, "King Tut," with Martin in an Egyptian headdress backed up by the Toot Uncommons, became the stuff of television legend.

Martin's comedy even managed to launch two expressions - "Well, excuuuuuuuuuse me!" and "I am a wild and crazy guy!" - into the cultural lexicon. Not bad for a Waco, Texas, native who went from selling guide books at Disneyland to majoring in philosophy at Long Beach State College in California.

Martin's most taken-for-granted talent is probably his physical comedy. But not since Martin's own early idols - Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello and Jerry Lewis - has the cinema witnessed a comedian more in command of his body.

Martin can be so loose-limbed that he becomes almost invertebrate. In 1984's All of Me, his walk is reduced to a spasm of flailing arms and knock-knees, as he rebels against the half of his body being occupied by Lily Tomlin.

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988) may have captured Martin's physical versatility at its best. His slouch sums up the smarminess of his $5 con man before he becomes a spastic virtuoso as "monkey boy" Ruprecht.

"I don't know how he does his comedy, and quite honestly I don't want to know," says Frank Oz, Martin's director on four movies, including 1999's Bowfinger. "He comes at comedy from an angle we mortals don't come from."

During a recent surprise appearance on Saturday Night Live, Martin announced that he was just making a cameo appearance - no jokes, no bits, just a silent cameo. It was a brilliant mini-Martin commentary on stars posturing for any available airtime.

Indeed, much of Martin's comedy, especially as seen in his 1991 film, L.A. Story, has centered on lampooning the entertainment industry's fascination with the superficial and its self-important, preening celebrities. Martin, personally, enjoys continuing the spoof by giving autograph-seekers a card that states, according to several accounts, "This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny."

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