Like many men around my age (41), I was influenced—no, molded by Steve Martin. (And if you were, too, then you know exactly the inflection I used in that last sentence.) Although he was a non-stop presence on TV and in film in the late 70s, it was his LPs that really schooled me in comic timing. It was the ability to re-play those albums endlessly that made them so important for me and my ilk. Simply put, when I was a kid, Steve Martin was the embodiment of pure comedy (summarized beautifully in the still to the right, which came with his 1978 album A Wild & Crazy Guy.)
As I got older and his output mellowed some, becoming a steady stream of a film or two a year, with the occasional (brilliant) appearance on Carson or Letterman, I became more discerning. Some of his films worked (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), some didn’t (The Lonely Guy 1). One that’s always worked for me—perhaps my favorite of his films (after The Jerk, of course)—is Frank Oz’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). I think it’s definitely the most clever film he’s been in, structurally.
The other day I wrote a post about this film and Oz’s DVD commentary for it, a commentary which is a primer on “How to Direct a Comedy.” He worked hard on this film to keep us on our toes, collaborating with Director of Photography Michael Ballhaus to maximize every shot, scene and plot twist.
Here’s a fine example of how he made a scene work. The set up: rookie conman Freddy Benson (Steve) has been jailed in the South of France for plying his trade, and he thinks his one-time meeting with local lothario Lawrence Jamieson will give him the clout he needs to be released. In this clip, the scene is followed immediately by Oz’s commentary for it…
He constantly elaborates like this on what went into making a joke click, whether it was in the writing, acting, shooting, editing, scoring or in the sound effects work. But the real treat in the commentary is Oz’s insight into working with Steve Martin. Repeatedly, the director describes how Steve would contribute a scene-saving gag or punchline—always at Oz’s request. Although Steve doesn’t get a writing credit on the film, you’d think he deserves one. Here’s a short list of what he brought to the table, which includes some of the film’s most memorable moments:
• Freddy’s character-defining costume touches such as his Speedo and flip sunglasses.
• Freddy’s Super Glued hand. According to Oz, prior to Steve contributing this sight gag, the scripted scene had no punchline.
• Ruprecht “going to the bathroom,” perhaps the most quoted joke from the film. (It was actually a joke Steve used to do onstage in the early 70s.)
• The film’s legendary teaser trailer!
And here’s my favorite of Steve’s contributions. Midway through the film, Lawrence and Freddy are knee-deep in their competition over Janet (Glenne Headly) and her money. Freddy’s angle is to be psychosomatically crippled, while Lawrence claims to be a doctor who can heal him. In this scene, Freddy is perched at the top of an outdoor flight of stairs that lead to a beach. Thanks to Lawrence’s insistence that Janet ignore Freddy, she won’t help him down the stairs. It leads to this…
In the original script, however, it was different: Freddy really does lose control of the wheelchair and careens wildly down the steps. Oz wanted to show this in a single shot, and the stunt supervisor began assembling an intricate rig with a pipeline running the length of the steep steps. It wasn’t going smoothly, and the producer told Frank Oz that it would cost $150,000 to make the gag work. In dismay, the director approached Steve… (At this point, I’ll let Frank finish the story in his commentary.)
I remember seeing this film in ’88 and the ten seconds where we can’t see him—but only hear him—we were laughing because we thought he had fallen, which makes the reveal get another, bigger laugh on top of that (as Oz explains “Sometimes you want to…imagine what’s happening”). But there’s something else that happens here, something plot-wise, that Oz doesn’t even mention: Steve’s suggestion allowed another transfer of control in the ongoing cat-and-mouse between Freddy and Lawrence. As scripted, Freddy gets Janet’s attention because he mistakenly falls down the stairs; as filmed, he wins back her attention by his own devices.
So let’s summarize. With Steve’s one-sentence suggestion—“Well, I’ll just pretend I’m out of control”—he: saved days of work and $150,000 of the film’s budget; inspired a great multi-level gag; and added a brilliant extra twist to the film’s plot. What more could you ask from an actor?! 2
I guess the thrill for me—as a fan of the film listening of the commentary—is that it validated my long-standing appreciation of Steve Martin. He really is the embodiment of pure comedy.
I was lucky to field produce this commentary in the summer of 2001, and I was going to share some stories from that wonderful experience. However, it’s just gonna have to wait for another post. Sorry!
BACK TO POST 1 Ignoring, of course, Charles Grodin’s perfect, toupée-free performance as Warren.
BACK TO POST 2 For the record, there are plenty of Steve’s films I haven’t seen, and although I give him all this credit (he’s brilliant, changed my life, etc), many of them I wouldn’t see even if you put a loaded pistol in my mouth. But, based on what Frank Oz says, I wonder if even the dumbest-sounding of his films have some moments of genius, moments that scream…Steve.