Photo: Steve Martin with the late John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles
A personal favorite of his is Planes, Trains and Automobiles, with the late John Candy. “I love that movie,” he says, reflecting on how his perception of comedies has changed over the years. “When I was making movies at first, it was all about the amount of laughs. Like, The Jerk had a joke on every page. But as time went on, I would watch hit comedies, and I would try to look at them and relate them to what I was doing. Like when I did The Man with Two Brains — it had lots of laughs, but there would be other comedies out there that did much better. I would see another comedy and it would have just three laughs, but it was about something people were interested in. It has to connect on some other level.
“I come from vaudeville and Disneyland but have had my toe in the avant-garde; I certainly went there when I was doing comedy,” he continues. “But then I didn’t want to go there anymore. It just seemed too easy.”
Writing became the outlet that he looked to for a challenge. “The hardest thing to do is to tell a story well,” he says.
Before An Object of Beauty went to press, famed novelist and friend Joyce Carol Oates offered to read the book. Afterward, she sent him a note saying he told his story well, comparing it to Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. “We gain admission to a world of glittering surfaces to which few have access,” she wrote. “It’s the equivalent of any number of ‘art histories’ of the late American 20th century in the guise of a doomed love affair.”
“The reason I wrote the book,” Martin says, “is that I was trying to find a milieu that I could make believable. The art world from the ’90s until now was the greatest period of artistic inflation — I don’t just mean money, but of interest, awareness, diversity — in my lifetime. Art is my last great area of knowledge, other than show business. But I didn’t want to write about show business.”
Martin’s latest prose doesn’t have the sarcastic edge of his earlier works, like his short-story collections Cruel Shoes and Pure Drivel; rather, it’s a reflection of a more mature writer who has taken a step forward from his two novellas (Shopgirl and The Pleasure of My Company) and five plays (including the critically acclaimed Picasso at the Lapin Agile) to compose a fully realized novel.
Photo: Steve Martin, the hardest working man in show business, has written a novel, cut a record, gone on tour and made a movie — this year.
In the book, Martin’s ruthless heroine, Lacey, gets a job at Sotheby’s auction house, where she is assigned to “Hades,” the basement where the lesser works of art are stored. “The masterpieces were examined by conservators bearing loupes and black lights, while Lacey toiled downstairs in the antique dust like Sneezy the Dwarf,” Martin writes. “The subject matter she faced every day was not the apples of Cézanne, but the kitsch of the 19th century: monks tippling, waifs selling flowers, cardinals laughing, cows in landscapes, Venetian gondoliers, baby chicks in farmyards, mischievous shoeshine boys, and still lifes painted so badly that objects seemed to levitate over the tabletop on which they were supposed to be gravitationally attached. … Through the drudgery downstairs, Lacey was developing an instinct that would burrow inside her and stay forever: a capacity to know a good painting from a bad one.”
Being able to distinguish good from bad might be the quality that has allowed Martin himself to maintain such a high profile in so many creative fields. As a stand-up comedian in the ’70s, he appeared at amphitheaters before the largest crowds ever recorded. His very first movie, The Jerk, was named among the American Film Institute’s 100 Funniest Films. His Born Standing Up memoir was ranked in Time’s Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2007. Along with the Grammy he won for The Crow, his first two comedy albums (Let’s Get Small and A Wild and Crazy Guy) won Grammys in 1977 and 1978, respectively. He’s won two People’s Choice Awards, one New York Film Critics Circle Award and two National Society of Film Critics Awards and has received five Golden Globe nominations for his acting. He was the 2005 recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor and a 2007 Kennedy Center Honoree (along with Diana Ross, Martin Scorsese, Brian Wilson and pianist Leon Fleisher). He’s been called a genius and a national treasure. And even though he lamented in his memoir that he’s “a lousy interview” and “ill suited for fame’s destruction of privacy,” he has still maintained an image of being a nice guy — an artist who has earned the right to remain shy and quiet and distant if that’s what allows his creative juices to flow. After all, what should you expect when, as Martin noted in his memoir, your mother tells a reporter, “He writes his own material; I’m always telling him he needs a new writer,” and your father says of your film debut, “Well, he’s no Charlie Chaplin”?
Martin learned long ago that comedy is not pretty. But he also learned that life is what you make it.
Lawrence Grobel has written 11 books, including Conversations with Capote, The Hustons, Conversations with Brando, The Art of the Interview and Al Pacino.