COVER STORY : A Side Order of Steve Martin : He's had his ups and downs with L.A., but they're back together in his new movie

Times film writer

S teve Martin has always been "out there." During his days as a standup comedian in the 1970s, the prematurely gray fellow in the white custom-tailored suit would face the audience with balloons on his head and go lurching across the stage with an attack of "happy feet." On the big screen, he portrayed a woman trapped in a man's body in "All of Me," and Cyrano de Bergerac as a modern day fire chief in "Roxanne."

His new film, "L.A. Story," (to be released by Tri-Star Pictures on Friday ) has its own over-the-top quirkiness, with scenes of Martin rollerskating through the L.A. County Museum of Art and having philosophical discussions with a freeway sign. Martin sees it as an attempt to break new comedic ground, to explore the intricacies of life and love and to paint an affectionate portrait of the town he's called home for most of his 45 years.

Off-camera, however, Martin is neither wild nor crazy, but a solid, almost stolid practitioner of his craft. The interview process, in his mind, is a chore undertaken because the studio and box office demand it. But he'll only go so far. Discuss his highly regarded modern art collection? His four-year marriage to actress Victoria Tennant? Well, EX CUUUUSE ME!

In a recent conversation with L.A. Times film writer Elaine Dutka at the Four Seasons Hotel, however, the comedian was surprisingly expansive about the trade-offs of living in a company town and the competitive pressures that once led him to leave L.A. He also elaborated on his brand of comedy, the difference between love and romance and the confidence (or naivete) that enables him to do the work that makes him one of a kind.

Question: You moved to Inglewood from Waco, Tex., when you were 5, lived in Garden Grove as a teen-ager, attended UCLA, Cal State Long Beach, performed at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm. It would seem, on the face of it, that you are . . .

Answer: Very California.

Q: Do you identify as such?

A: I don't, but others might. It would be very fair if they did. I just don't identify myself with a place. It's like "Go Raiders!" I just don't get it. Like, why am I cheering for this town? Towns are good and bad but they don't have principles, constitutions. You wouldn't go to war for your town. I didn't base the character in the film on myself, but I didn't write it radically different from me either.

Q: "Roxanne"--the other screenplay you wrote on your own--also deals with love and relationships. Does this reflect certain changes going on inside you, certain preoccupations?

A: Love stories have always been my forte, or at least my area of interest. Even "The Jerk" was a love story. But certainly the presentation of it has changed, gotten more complicated. A friend said to me that he saw this movie as "The Jerk" for adults. "L.A. Story," though, is more about romance than love. I distinguish between the two. Love takes place over 25 years. Romance takes place when you first fall in love. It's a high-concept idea. It stirs all emotions and you can manipulate and be manipulated. It's very fertile ground.

Q: Could you have written this film 10 years ago?

A: No. No. It's not what I say in the movie that is significant but how it is said--and I don't think I could have said it this way 10 years ago. The romantic parts of the movie are not so much dialogue as visual. The director, Mick Jackson, tried to visualize the emotions of being in love. The wind, the rain, the storm, the turmoil, are really metaphors for something else. The scene where we turn into children is meant to represent the feeling that comes over you when you are captivated by someone and everything is new. That's why L.A. is presented so beautifully in the movie. The vision is altered, seen through their eyes.

Q: Did you make a conscious decision not to present the "underbelly" of the city?

A: From page 1. The ugly side of L.A. has been presented so much and I thought it was a cliche and wouldn't be that interesting. Also, I didn't want to muddy the works in this particular story with a big smoggy day. It just doesn't serve the story at all.

Q: Does L.A. get a bad rap?

A: Yes, it definitely does. It's a real scapegoat. A lot of people love putting it down because it makes them feel better. I remember reading an article in the Village Voice in which the writer was just so disgusted from the moment he stepped off the plane. Victoria says when she meets English actors and says she lives in L.A. they go: "Oh, you poor thing." . . . And, of course, the first place they all want to come is L.A. This attitude is definitely out there and it's way overboard. Yet you could make a case for hating it. Or loving it. L.A. is not something that you have to have an opinion about, you know.

Q: This is the first time that you've acted with your wife since you two met on the set of "All of Me" in 1984. Was the part written with her in mind?

A: It was written for an English . . . person. We wanted an "alien" to come to L.A. and be hit with it. In this case, we had not just one alien, but two: the director, an Englishman and an outsider, also had a different eye. It was his decision to present the natural, wild underside of L.A: the deer, a cat, that ceramic leopard in the tree.

Q: Production designers frequently draw on the work of specific artists when creating the "look" of a picture. Was that the case in this one?

A: I didn't have anyone in mind, but Mick did. And it surprised me because it wasn't (David) Hockney but (Henri) Rousseau. The lurking lions, everything poking out from the foliage. We were constantly hauling in plants. Hockney is the quintessential L.A. painter, though . . . his images couldn't be anywhere else. We were just looking for a different metaphor.

Q: When you close your eyes and think of L.A., what do you visualize?

A: Green against blue.

Q: Is the portrait, on balance, an affectionate one?

A: I have fond memories of my life here, especially in my early 20s when I was writing for television. There were hopes and dreams about "making it"--a great optimism. At 22, I went to work for the Smothers Brothers and the thing, then, was variety television. I could have ended up hosting some show which would have sank because the form was dead and I would have been this failed TV personality. It was just luck . . . I would have grabbed it at the time.

Q: Could you understand others coming away from the movie with a less-than-positive take on the city?

A: Definitely. It's a little bit like a Rorschach test. Your opinion going in will affect your response. My wife put it best: it's like teasing your best friend. You have to like him, know him pretty well, in order to do it. Anyhow, this movie is nowhere near a lethal blow. It's not mean or ugly, but anything can be misconstrued. Someone can find something awful in a fairy tale.

Q: You've said that the story and the city are integrally linked. Is there a sense of possibility here you don't find elsewhere?

A: This is the place where, truly, anything can happen. Where one day you're down and out and the next day you're on top of the world--at least, professionally. In New York, there's more ladder-climbing but, here, it's almost like a Scud (missile)--undirected. It can land anywhere and it can land on you.

Q: In the movie, Victoria's character says: "L.A. is a place of secrets. Someone said if you turn off the sprinklers it would turn into a desert. But I see it as a place where they've taken a desert and turned it into their dreams."

A: She actually said that to me once . . . and it's true. First there was the desert, then they brought in water and started making movies. The weather, the sunshine, also sets a certain tone. This place is like a retirement village for the young.

Q: But you didn't always feel so enamored of Los Angeles.

A: No. I left in '73 or '74. It was all the obvious things: the smog, the traffic. I was going nowhere. My girlfriend and I packed everything in the car and took off. We passed through Santa Fe and stayed there for two years before moving to Aspen. When I moved back to Los Angeles in 1979, I was less angry. I slammed my fist against the steering wheel less often. Not only at the traffic, I now realize, but at the display of wealth and fancy living which was always in your face.

Q. Was your objection philosophical or personal?

A. I hadn't yet broken through and the fact that I was a failure in show business was constantly hit home to me. All that fancy living reminded me not only of other people's success but the lack of my own. It was a constant reminder of how well I wasn't doing. I was in my middle years and just needed some freshness. I needed to get out. It was a good thing, as it turned out, because my career started happening out of town . . . in San Francisco and Miami--the Coconut Grove, of all places. In Hollywood, I was regarded as just another act. It was that old show business cynicism at work. When I opened for Linda Ronstadt at the Troubadour, in fact, a review came out saying that it was the worst booking in the history of Los Angeles.

Q: How do you insulate yourself from such attitudes and the dog-eat-dog mentality which permeates the industry, in general?

A: I cancelled my subscription to the trade publications, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter and have been a lot happier ever since. But I don't think I've ever reached a plateau where I truly didn't care. Plugging into some of it keeps me alive and competitive. Though perspective insulates you, it also keeps you from enjoying success. You tell yourself: "A hit, after all, is only for now. Who knows what will be next year?" It works both ways.

Q: Are you able to enjoy yourself right now?

A: More than ever before. It's a cliche, but stand-up life is really hard. Life is much more comfortable these days. And, for the first time, I'm truly confident of my abilities. All these years, I've fought it, despite external recognition. Awards mean nothing to comedians. What matters is the audience, how you're doing--artistically, for the most part--at that moment. At one point, I got so paralyzed I could write five screenplays before I could write three jokes for stand-up. Now, I've finally allowed myself to relax quite a bit, to think I can do it because I've done it in the past. The pressure to come up with the material is the same but, because the anxiety about whether I can do it is gone, it's just about coming up with it.

Q: You're in the fortunate position of being able to call your own shots. Can you visualize a time when you'd have to start playing the game again--or would you just as soon cut out?

A: If I no longer had the prerogative of doing it my way, if I had to go back to pitching ideas, I'd definitely say "that's it." I've never had to make concessions. I never had a movie that I wanted to do turned down in my whole life. I always write the script first so it speaks for itself. A friend of mine once asked how to make it in show business and I said "Be so good that they can't ignore you." She thought I was being flip but it's true. The challenge is trying to live up to the opportunities given me.

Q: There was a wonderful line at the opening of the movie: "I was deeply unhappy, but I didn't know it because I was so happy."

A: That's not exclusive to Los Angeles. It's everywhere. Filling up time may be what life is about. You temporarily take a job and end up staying for seven years, just like my character did. He didn't really plan for things to go that way but couldn't energize himself to get out of it. It's a pitfall of society, the way things are structured. Often people don't have choices. There are children, rent payments. I was lucky because I was able to gamble. Don't ask me why. I didn't come from a wealthy family. I had no money. Maybe it goes back to naivete which is your greatest asset when you're young. If I was starting in comedy today and if it didn't work the first time, I'd probably quit. But I kept at it, kept at it.

Q: Is it a mixed blessing to be living in a company town?

A: There's nothing mixed about it. That's the worst part of it. Pretty soon you think your whole life is only about movies and you find yourself concerned about such things as how so and so's movie did--in the fourth week. You're playing a game because numbers are so seductive. The trade-off is that I like the people and the company.

Q: Are you afraid that some of the humor is too "L.A.-specific?" Will people in the heartland, for instance, be able to relate to the need to eat at 5:30 or 11:30 in order to get a last-minute reservation at a chic restaurant?

A: The further out of L.A. and New York, the worse the snobbery in restaurants. The more flambes on the table, the more complicated the dishes: white fish with the mustard sauce and kiwi and raspberry. The food is one of the most obvious changes in this town. It's as good as anywhere I've ever been.

Q: Rob Reiner was accused of treading on Woody Allen's turf when he portrayed New York City's upscale neurotics in "When Harry Met Sally . . . ." In the same way "L.A. Story" has been called a take-off on (Allen's) "Manhattan." Does that bother you?

A: Not at all. I used to describe my movie as "Manhattan West" . . . if only. But it's not a lift from "Manhattan" at all--only in that it's about a place.

Q: You've said that Woody Allen's work is characterized by the presence of a "radical" concept: In "Manhattan," his relationship with a 17-year-old-girl; in "Crimes and Misdemeanors," by Martin Landau's murder of his mistress. Is there a radical concept in your film?

A: There is within the humor, I think. The freeway shootout is kind of an edgy, scary bit. For me as a writer, at least, it's right on the edge of good taste. One of my purposes is to find a new place to go in comedy, somewhere that's just slightly different. This represents that--an attempt to push it out just a bit. I don't think you can keep repeating yourself. Eventually it winds down and doesn't work anymore.

Q: Still, in some ways, the film's absurdist, non-sequitur comedy and visual gags seem a throwback to your stand-up days.

A: Not really. Stand-up is unique unto itself, but I do think of this movie as a synthesis of everything I've ever done: surreal comedy, plain old dumb jokes, complicated metaphors. It's not a pastiche, but where I was always headed. I feel like it's the end of an era. This is my one chance at this kind of film, so I was very nervous as I was writing it.

Q: When you're creating a fantasy, how do you decide how far you can take the audience without losing them?

A: Your only guidepost is your own instinct--and judicious editing. In my (stand-up) act, I learned that, in the first 10 minutes, I could say anything and it would get a laugh. Then I'd better deliver. In the movie, it's the same thing. You get a lot of laughs when people first sit down and then the story better kick in. My 20 years in front of an audience, I would hope, gives me a sense of what works.

Q: Still, film and stand-up are two very different media.

A: That's something I had to learn. I've found that any type of humor can be transferred to the screen, as long as there's clarity. The audience wants to know just what they're supposed to be feeling, when they're supposed to laugh. In the orgasm scene from "When Harry Met Sally . . . ," for instance, the big laugh came not when Meg Ryan's character was writhing in her seat at the restaurant, but when they flashed to the face of another customer . . . Her look said it all. Yes, we can hear it. Yes, we are shocked. Any device will work, as long as there's clarity. The audience doesn't want to feel tricked or outsmarted. When that happens, it's not because we're smarter than they . . . just that we're doing things badly.

Q: You've always been "off-base." What gives you the confidence to be one-of-a-kind?

A: It's partially stupidity, not knowing that it's supposed to be done any other way. When I first started doing my act, I played the banjo, did comedy, magic tricks, juggled, read poetry. I stuck it all in. I didn't know you were supposed to just stand up and tell jokes. Essentially, that's what my act became: those five elements--except I dropped the poetry.

Q: Have you always thought of yourself as a "creator" rather than a performer?

A: Since the age of 19, anyhow. I was sitting in a college class one day and this revelation hit me like a sledge hammer: I knew that I could no longer get my stand-up material from joke books, that it would never be unique unless I wrote it myself. And that was very depressing because I had no skills in writing comedy. I didn't know what a joke was, but, as someone once told me, your emotions follow your intent. If you create the intention of starting a comedy act, slowly your mind starts adjusting and you arrive at a new emotional state.

Q: You've gone on record as saying that movies are not art, but entertainment . . .

A: I knew it would be reduced to that. Movies definitely can be artistic but a lot of it is just movie-making or product-making. "The Killing Fields" is art. "Die Hard 2" is entertainment that really works.

Q: And "L.A. Story?"

A: I'd call it entertainment with high aspirations.

Q: What do you hope people take away?

A: I don't know what is actually said by the movie. I know what I intended. One of the big story points was: If you're in a relationship and it's not working, maybe you shouldn't blame yourself--or her or him--but just realize you're with the wrong person. Represented, of course, by Marilu Henner's character in the movie.

Q: Then in this age of analysis and angst , you think we're too introspective--that sometimes it may just be an instance of "it's just not meant to be?"

A: Right. I always felt guilty in my relationships, like I was a really bad boyfriend or always making someone unhappy. And then I met Victoria and said "Oh." I knew, then, it wasn't me.

Q: Did you ever give any thought to directing this film yourself?

A: No. I like what a third man brings. A kind of oblique vision, seeing something in the material that you didn't know was there. As a comedian, I'm always listening to the audience. And in movies, sometimes the only audience you have is the producer and the director. I like having someone else's opinion, especially if you're on the same wavelength. Directing is not an ambition of mine.

Q: Do you miss stand-up?

A: No. I feel like I did it and it came to the end. I couldn't get any bigger. I had nothing left to say. I quit. The collaborative nature of movies is not a frustration but a relief. I've always enjoyed writing comedy with someone else. It makes everything fun.

Q: You've received your share of praise from the critics--most notably when "Roxanne" was released. Yet, when it comes to Academy Award time, your achievement was overlooked. Does Hollywood, in general, have a dismissive attitude toward comedy?

A: Comedy is perceived as a kind of stepchild of drama. The only time it is recognized, at least by the Academy, is when a serious actor does it. Dustin Hoffman in "Tootsie", Kevin Kline in "A Fish Called Wanda." Both of those performances, by the way, were very deserving and I was glad to see Kevin win it. But, in the end, you can't be upset if someone doesn't give you an award . . . it's their game, after all. They are the players and I've won my share--the New York Film Critics Best Actor Award for "All of Me" and the Los Angeles Film Critics Best Actor Award for "Roxanne." I was flabbergasted . . . and really honored. The academy, it seems, is a different beast. I can't figure it out, but I always go in expecting the worst. Anyhow, it's not something I give much thought to except at awards time.

Q: You've said that winning the WGA award for the "Roxanne" screenplay was more rewarding than any acting prize you've received. Do you still feel that way?

A: Yes, because writing is something I took up rather than anything I had an inclination toward. I like acting--delivering someone else's message--but writing is more of an accomplishment. I'm a little on edge now because, with comedy, there are more ways to go wrong. This movie needs strong critical response, a bit of a preamble, so people don't walk in cold. They need some hints as to how it works. My philosophy, taken from Carl Reiner, is that in the first moments of the movie, you establish the rules--how far you can go. The montage upfront is intended to let people know we're going a little further than real.

Q: Are you working on anything now?

A: I'm writing a script that, unlike this one, is very story-oriented--an adaptation of a 19th-Century novel, updated like "Roxanne." I can't be more specific because it's in the public domain.

Q: Any more acting roles on the horizon?

A: In March, I start a Larry Kasdan film called "Grand Canyon" starring Kevin Kline and Danny Glover. I have just a small part, playing a movie producer, of all things. It's not a comedy so I'm really thinking about it: I don't want to do a parody . . . it has to be real. After that, I'm doing a modernization of "Father of the Bride" directed by Charles Shyer for Disney and then a movie with Meg Ryan. Working title: "House Sitter." It will be directed by Frank Oz, who I've worked with twice before: on "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and "Little Shop of Horrors."

Q: Do you have a sense, as a film is being shot, of whether or not it's working? So many times, you wonder just how it is that talented people can go so wrong.

A: When you're inside a movie, it's the most wonderful thing that ever happened. You're working with people you like. You feel like you're being funny. The overview is something completely different. Unfortunately, personal vision doesn't necessarily match up with that of public's.

Q: Do you feel like you have more riding on "L.A. Story" because you wrote the screenplay? Do you regard it, in a way, as your child?

A: Probably. It's hard to admit, because I come from this WASP background, that I'm so involved and care about something that much, but it's true: there's an extra chill that sets in every time the movie starts to screen. Maybe because I don't want to go down in flaming disgrace. Writing is so blind, and there's no precedent for something like this. In the end, it's mostly about nerves and nerve.

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