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The Man Behind the Madness

Call Steve Martin the comic as magician. It’s hard to imagine any performer today who captures both the physical grace of silent comedy and the cool irony of modern-day humor. Even when he’s performing a silly scene, walking a quartet of Afghans with a huge bandage wrapped around his head, Martin displays a quiet, contemplative dignity.

“He makes everything look so easy,” says director Mick Jackson with obvious delight. “He hones every little movement to perfection. When the dailies aren’t synced up, we often watch them without the sound. And when Steve’s on screen it’s like you’re watching a silent movie. He has the body language and physical grace you’ve always associated with Chaplin.”

Away from the set, shoulder hunched, shuffling painfully through a Beverly Hills eatery, Martin has momentarily lost that special physical grace. “I exercised today for the first time in two months,” he says, gingering taking a booth at the far corner of the restaurant.

Wearing a sienna jacket and beige slacks, with Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s biography of Jackson Pollack under his arm, Martin is candid enough to admit he can’t wait to finish making the movie. “It’s not that I’m not enjoying it,” he says, sipping an iced tea. “But the last day of a movie--it’s like getting out of school. Finals are over.”

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He grinned, a bit uneasily. “There’s a certain amount of torment that goes into the whole process of making a film. You go from agony to state of grace--and back again.”

Martin has the whole process mapped out. “When you’re writing, especially writing with no deadline--that’s a state of grace. When you get a deadline, that’s agony. Going to dailies when you’re shooting--state of grace. But seeing the rough cut--that’s agony. Re-editing--state of grace. Showing it to an audience.” He sighs audibly. “Agony.

As Martin tells it, he began working on “L.A. Story” even before he wrote “Roxanne,” but put it aside for several years. “First I get this image of the script--not a complete vision, but a tone,” he says. “Then I do a half-(baked) plotting out and write a first draft from beginning to end which is always awful.

A broad grin. “Then I do the years of refinement.”

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Martin visualizes “L.A. Story” as a fanciful romantic comedy. “It’s love not as it really is, but as we wish it was,” he says. “I’ve always had a special fondness for the romantic comedies of the 40’s, and I think it’s because we wish we were in those situations.”

If Martin satirizes L.A. throughout his film, it’s with a tantalizing mix of cynicism and affection that neatly captures the mixed feelings most Angelinos have toward their town.

“I think that love-hate attitude comes from the guilt of being so comfortable against a responsibility for having culture,” he says. “I have a line in the film where a character says ‘There are no plays in L.A.’ And someone asks, ‘How many plays did you see last year?’ He says, ‘Four.’ And they respond, ‘Well, were they any good?’ ”

At 44, Martin has a curious ambivalence about the value of culture. He rests comfortably in the upper niche of Hollywood stardom. He has an expansive art collection, can quote his favorite New Yorker writers and expound on the architectual loss of California bungalows.

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Yet he’s also a comic actor, a breed that rarely gets respect in Hollywood and whose work is geared toward as broad an audience as possible. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with making movies that are accessible to people,” he says. “I think comedy teaches you to make your ideas clear--what’s the point of doing obscure jokes? My movies are meant to reach an audience. And I think they have quality.”

He laughs. “They just lack hardware.”

A man who rarely gives the public a glimpse of his private passions, it’s hard to tell how much Martin identifies with the character he’s created for himself in “L.A. Story.” The film depicts a lonely guy, adrift in the chic, trend-obsessed world of Los Angeles. At the beginning of the film, Martin introduces him with a voice-over: “I was deeply unhappy,” he says. “But I didn’t know it because I was so happy all the time.”

Asked about that line, Martin fell silent for a moment. “I guess it captures a mood of quiet desperation,” he said finally. “It’s very easy to go along in life-working, talking, getting married--and never pausing to say, ‘What should I really be doing?’

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“L.A. can do that to you. One day you look back and say, ‘What did I do for the last ten years, except figure out to how make a left turn on Santa Monica Blvd.?’ ”


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