Top 10 Steve Martin Movies
These days, Steve Martin is known primarily for being a staple of late-night talk shows (often appearing with his touring partner Martin Short), and for his love of the banjo. But he made his name as a stand-up comic in the mid-'70s before moving on to a film career. Although he shifted, ever-so-gradually, into making more family-friendly fare in the '90s, such as the Father of the Bride movies, it's his definitive work in the '80s that forms the bulk of our list of the Top 10 Steve Martin movies, which includes nine films where he had starring or supporting roles, and one where he gave a truly brilliant cameo.
10. Roxanne (1987)
One oft-overlooked facet to Steve Martin’s on-screen presence is his romantic style. In the Father of the Bride films, he’s paired with Diane Keaton; in Pennies From Heaven, it’s Bernadette Peters. In this 1987 romantic comedy, which he wrote as a loose adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, Martin plays a small-town fire chief who grapples with his intense attraction to the title character (Daryl Hannah), but feels inferior due to his very large nose. Instead, he puts his feelings for her into the mouth of a hunky, but verbally awkward colleague (Rick Rossovich). As the lead, Martin is a bit more of a lighter comic presence in Roxanne, but it’s a charming film that implied how Martin could be a white-haired romantic idol when needed.
9. Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
One film you won’t see on this list — not because it’s bad, mind you — is Steve Martin’s breakout film hit The Jerk. Most of Martin’s later films involve him playing smart characters, or characters who at least try to present themselves as being smart. In Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, you get something a little flipped: as Freddy, a con artist in the French Riviera, Martin is playing dumb on purpose, smarter than his character in The Jerk but acting just as stupidly, to swindle other people. He goes head-to-head with Michael Caine, a more refined con man, to seduce a naive American heiress (Glenne Headley) out of her money. It's one of the slicker, funnier films of the '80s, and it, like two of the other films here, united Martin with director/Muppeteer Frank Oz.
8. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
Little Shop of Horrors is as charming as a film as it was on the Off-Broadway stage as a dark comic musical. As in the stage version, the Frank Oz-directed movie is about a nebbishy clerk (Rick Moranis) at a florist’s office on Skid Row who becomes the owner of a massively large, bloodthirsty talking plant that feasts on human flesh. One of the unlucky victims is Steve Martin’s sadistic dentist, a noxious character who gets introduced with a song (written by the composing team of Howard Ashman and Alan Menken) all about his love of causing others pain. Martin’s a hoot throughout, especially in a largely improvised scene with a masochistic patient played by Bill Murray. It remains the only time Martin and Murray have worked together on screen.
7. Three Amigos (1986)
Steve Martin was never an official cast member of Saturday Night Live, but he hosted the show so many times in its first few seasons that he was basically an honorary member of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. His connection to SNL continued in the ‘80s, as he co-starred with Chevy Chase and Martin Short in Three Amigos, a film produced by SNL honcho Lorne Michaels. The film is a goofy take on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. This time around, three movie actors take on their heroic roles in a real skirmish with Mexican bandits to comic results. It’s perhaps a bit too silly — once you get to the singing bush, the film has lost its head of steam — but Martin, Short and Chase (especially the first two) have an undeniable chemistry.
6. Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003)
Though it hasn’t earned the honor of being given a sequel featuring a modern basketball star, Looney Tunes: Back in Action is vastly better than the 1996 film that preceded it, Space Jam. In Back in Action, Martin gets to play the kind of role he’s rarely played: the bad guy. He plays the nefarious head of ACME Industries in this hybrid of live-action and animation, as Looney Tunes characters like Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck team up with a stuntman played by Brendan Fraser and a studio executive played by Jenna Elfman to take on ACME, with predictably wacky results. Back in Action features Martin at his absolute, intentional hammiest; it’s a little weird to see him so over-the-top but still very charming.
5. Pennies From Heaven (1981)
As many comedic actors have done before and since, Martin decided to branch out and play things a bit more seriously. He went for the dramatic roles early, with Pennies From Heaven. An adaptation of a British miniseries of the same name, the film is set during the Great Depression as we watch a traveling salesman (Martin) attempt to eke out a new life for himself amid the darkness of the '30s and his own twisted sexual urges and desires. Oh, and also, there’s plenty of '30s-era singing and dancing. The mix of upbeat music (lip-synced by the actors) and grim material makes for a bracing, bold and daring film that audiences rejected back upon its original release.
4. Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
The future of Steve Martin’s career in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s was presaged thanks to his work in the John Hughes comedy-drama Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Martin plays a suburbanite just trying to get home to his family for Thanksgiving, before he’s saddled with an obnoxious stranger (played masterfully by the late John Candy) for a trip that takes them longer than expected. What makes the film work is the impossibly charming chemistry between Martin and Candy, in both the outrageous moments — “Those aren’t pillows!” — and in more emotional scenes, such as a late scene in which Martin’s character realizes the depth of his companion’s loneliness. The two actors only ever worked the one time together, but it was unforgettable.
3. The Muppet Movie (1979)
Steve Martin was still in the early phase of his film career when he made a cameo appearance in the altogether brilliant 1979 film The Muppet Movie. Ostensibly the story of how Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Fozzie Bear and the rest of the gang met each other on their way to stardom, The Muppet Movie has plenty of opportunities for famous actors to interact with these characters. Martin has the best cameo of all, as a snide waiter at a woodsy restaurant at which Kermit and Piggy have a nighttime rendezvous. From his sarcastic presentation of a bottle of wine, to his comically short shorts to his dry reply to a request for straws — “Yes. I expected that” — Martin is absolutely hilarious and just about steals the show from the Muppets in just a few minutes of screen time. And it doesn’t hurt that the overall film is wonderful.
2. Bowfinger (1999)
This 1999 film marks a truly important milestone in the career of two of the biggest comic talents of the late 20th century. Bowfinger is the first and only time that Martin and Eddie Murphy ever worked together, and represents one of the highest points of both of their careers. Martin plays Bobby Bowfinger, a passionate but woefully inept filmmaker who tries to include one of the world's biggest movie stars (Murphy) in his latest project, only without telling him about it. The ensuing farce is one of the funniest, most underrated films of the last 30 years, and one of Martin’s best-ever works, which he also wrote.
1. All of Me (1984)
The premise of All of Me -- what would happen if a man suddenly had his body halfway possessed by a woman? --is fraught with potential awkwardness, particularly in the modern climate. Martin plays lawyer Roger Cobb, who’s trying to move up in the legal world when he meets Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), an infirm heiress who intends to have her consciousness shift into the body of a beautiful young British woman (Victoria Tennant, whom Martin would later marry) upon her death. But a bit of calamity during the transfer causes her spirit to inhabit half of Roger’s body instead. The ensuing hijinks are incredibly hilarious and weirdly kind of moving — Martin and Tomlin, despite rarely sharing screentime, have a great chemistry, and Martin proves as adept at the frustration of being one of two inhabitants in his body -- his half-masculine, half-feminine walk is genius -- as he is at “being” Edwina, often at the least opportune time. And as a bonus, the underrated Richard Libertini nearly steals the movie as the mystic who performs the transfer.