On Friday, the American Film Institute announced that Steve Martin would receive their 43rd annual Life Achievement Award. AFI CEO Howard Stringer described the new recipient as “an American original” and he went on to further laud the actor, comedian and writer by saying, “From a wild and crazy stand-up comic to one who stands tall among the great figures in this American art form, he is a multi-layered creative force bound by neither convention nor caution. His work is defined by him alone, for he is the author – and a national treasure whose work has stuck with us like an arrow in the head."
Martin is an inspired choice. He’s perhaps the major, singular comic voice of the last 50 years. From his time as a writer on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” in the late 60’s, to his sold-out stadium stand-up days in the 70’s, to his influence on “Saturday Night Live” and the generation of comedians who’ve come after him, Martin’s legacy is unarguable. We could not have had Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Will Ferrell or Jimmy Fallon without him. Martin was the comedic voice of his generation and he turned that into movie gold as well.
Starting with “The Jerk” in 1979, Martin was able to blend the sophomoric with the intellectual, and that one-two punch has made most of his films both uniquely silly and intellectual simultaneously. On its surface, “The Jerk” may appear as all broad caricature and sight gags, but Martin injected his story with plenty of biting commentary on the American class system and racism.
In films like “Roxanne” and “All of Me” the outrageousness of the slapstick visuals that Martin excelled at like few others were juxtaposed against the comedian’s scathing indictments against prejudice and sexism. In “Roxanne”, perhaps Martin’s best film, he not only updated the story of “Cyrano de Bergerac” to show that expectations of beauty and manliness haven’t changed that much since the 17th Century, but he brought a pathos to the whole shebang that was worthy of Charlie Chaplin.
“All of Me” showcased Martin’s incredible physical grace as two personalities took over his brain, fighting for control of his body. Throughout, Martin wove sexual politics into the laugh-out-loud farce. Clearly, he had learned well in his early days, writing Emmy-winning sketches for the liberally adroit Tom and Dick Smothers, and throughout his career, Martin added gravitas to the lightest of fare. He was a serious man, who was serious about comedy, and serious about making the comedy have true bite.
Martin could be a triple threat, writing, directing and starring in his scathing satire on Hollywood moviemaking with “Bowfinger” and he was a formidable serious actor as well. He played self-centered cads (“Pennies From Heaven”), unlikable Hollywood sorts (“Grand Canyon”), and corporate villains (“The Spanish Prisoner”) in straight projects that had nary a sense of humor. One of his greatest onscreen performances was in John Hughes’ “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” where his priggish ad exec is forced to travel with a gauche salesman (John Candy). Of course Martin gets the laughs, but he also aces the pathos, particularly in the last act when he realizes how much his companion has been an asset on their journey home for the holidays.
Martin exhibited a rich, haut cool on screen when needed, like in “Shopgirl” of “It’s Complicated”, but he could also play an utter ‘everyman’ and gave terrific performances in films like “Parenthood” and “Father of the Bride”. Even in efforts like his attempts to reboot “Sgt. Bilko” and “The Pink Panther”, Martin demonstrated a sense of comic timing and physical hilarity that cannot be taught, even if it didn’t exactly save those misfires.
What may be the most important part of Martin’s film legacy was his ability to master comedic language and physicality equally. There are few true great comedians in film today, and even fewer who could play both anywhere close to Martin’s capabilities. Throughout his work, especially in film, his tongue is as funny as his body. And in movies like “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, Martin is hilarious whether he’s talking the talk or walking the walk, or sitting in a wheelchair faking paralysis.
All in all, the AFI has made a shrewd and worthy choice in choosing Martin. There can never be enough accolades for comedic stars that too often get the brush when it comes to such awards. Every actor will tell you that comedy is harder to do than drama, but the number of Oscar-winning comedies is inconsistent with that, and that’s somewhat of a tragedy. Indeed, the AFI failed to honor the likes of Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Blake Edwards in their time, and it’s great to see such comedic standouts as Martin, and Mel Brooks a few years back, getting their just due from this venerable institution.
The only troubling thing about choosing Martin now is that many others that were due, and older, were not called. Stars that started their sterling movie careers in the 1960’s, like Michael Caine, Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall, have yet to be called and may never be called now as the AFI seems to be culling from the 70’s and later periods. It’s also a shame that no ‘below the line’ stars have been lauded yet, including a household name like composer John Williams. He is most certainly worthy of the AFI Life Achievement honor, but whether the Institute will be that bold remains to be seen.
Still, Martin is a bold choice. The Academy Awards never saw fit to nominate him for an acting award for “All of Me” or “Roxanne” even though he’d won tons of critics awards for them. To see Martin get both an honorary Oscar last year, and now be pegged for the AFI’s most prestigious honor, says a lot about not only the man’s enduring legacy but also about the due that his comedy, all comedy, truly deserves. Wild and crazy, isn’t it?