How to understand late-period Steve Martin.

All about the Academy Awards.
March 4 2010 6:23 PM

Late-Period Steve Martin

How to understand the actor, novelist, essayist, playwright, banjo player, crotch-centric variety show performer, and Oscar co-host.

Read the rest of Slate's coverage of the 82nd Academy Awards here.

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This cultural ambivalence—if not plain schizophrenia—was a product of the time when Martin developed his style. Just as his own path was an answer to the counterculture, the '70s were a braid of liberal regret, what-now confusion, and desire to graft the virtues of another, clearer time onto the present. Martin's brand of nostalgia runs like mica through the era's art. The time of his success as a perverted vaudeville act, for instance, was the time when Woody Allen started backing his modern-love movies with scratchy jazz recordings and recasting dissolute cities as big-band-era playgrounds. It was when Polanski and Altman brought neo-noir into the modern mainstream. And it was when Raymond Carver and Ann Beattie launched a new Realist generation—one whose subject wasn't the tortures of a strait-laced middle-class life but, instead, the struggle to salvage domestic community from a burnt-out counterculture.

Martin's unique resonance in that moment helps to explain his uncanny ascent. (In 1975, Martin was having trouble filling clubs; by 1978, he was playing to stadiums and gracing the cover of Rolling Stone.) When he made the transition to film—because, he has said, the heat of a stand-up career came to be too much, and too isolating, and he wanted the long-term security of a movie career (could any justification be more of its era?)—his reach toward a lost culture turned explicit. Martin's first feature, The Jerk, was the story of an idiot savant who goes from rags to riches and back via a series of echt-Americana settings: a rural shack, a gas station, a carnival. The soft center of the movie finds Martin and Bernadette Peters singing "Tonight You Belong to Me" on the beach with a ukulele and a Dixieland cornet—the lowbrow version, essentially, of Diane Keaton crooning "Seems Like Old Times." From there, Martin starred in Pennies From Heaven, a Depression-era period piece studded with song-and-dance numbers, and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, a black-and-white noir spoof. Outwardly, these movies sought to buoy recession-era audiences with glamorized visions of previous lean years. But they worked because they teased out the elements of a known zeitgeist success—Martin's upended version of an old-style variety act—and carried them onto the screen.

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Things changed in the '80s, of course—politically, culturally, economically—and in the next decades, Martin tried to make his nostalgic shtick work without its original counterbalance. His solution was to turn the nostalgia on himself. Martin's '80s movies often hearkened back to his stand-up act: singing and dancing open-mouthed in Little Shop of Horrors, making balloon shapes in Parenthood, staggering with mantis arms in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Increasingly, though, the movies just hearkened back to themselves: Was that scene you remember in Parenthood or Father of the Bride? All of Meor The Man With Two Brains? Who makes two disembodied-consciousness movies in two years, anyway?

In fact, as Martin has grown less reliable about complicating his nostalgic impulses, his movies have developed a bizarre marshmallow quality: sweet, delightful, family-friendly, and almost endlessly preservable. Many seem strangely out-of-time. Is The Pink Panther worth reprising just because the original movies are retro, clownish, and warmly familiar? Without a cultural clutch to lock into, Martin's recreative gears spin toward schlock.

What Martin has lost on-screen over the years, however, he's recovered elsewhere. Much of his recent writing takes on the same conflicts of desire, cultural expectation, and historical idealism that made his early comedy so gripping. Shopgirl,his debut novella, opens with flight toward a lost culture ("When you work in the glove department at Neiman's, you are selling things that nobody buys anymore"). It goes on to follow a questing twentysomething in L.A. who finds herself mysteriously drawn to a flukily successful, highly paid, middle-aged divorcé—make of this premise what you will—then suffers as their urban fairy tale unravels under the pressures of modern life. This attempt to negotiate between two worlds—one imminent, the other nostalgic—also animates Martin's autobiographical essays; and it's easy to see how the same impulse underlies most of the other eclectic pursuits enumerated on his blindingly nostalgic Web site. Let's be honest: What's more quaint, and out-of-time, and culturally beside-the-point than bluegrass?

To some extent, the Oscars were made for Steve Martin in his current incarnation: wistful for an older form of glamour, campy as Ed Sullivan, and based on the premise that charming familiarity is what viewers want. That much is probably true. When Martin takes the stage this weekend, he and Alec Baldwin will face off about who has hosted Saturday Night Live more times. He'll quip about the fact that he's never won a statue. His modern-day variety routine will have none of the edgy restlessness he once brought to the stage. We won't care. These days, we, like Martin, turn to other places for escape.

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Nathan Heller is staff writer for The New Yorker and a film and TV critic for Vogue. You can follow him on Twitter.

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