In a special feature running all this week, Alex Williams counts down his Essential Actor / Director Partnerships…
Steve Martin and Carl Reiner
The Jerk (1979)
Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982)
The Man with Two Brains (1983)
All of Me (1984)
As comedy partnerships go, they don’t come much better than this. In their work together, Reiner and Martin co-wrote and made some of the best comedy of all time. At the time of The Jerk, Martin was the most popular comedian in America. He was regularly selling out stadiums with his stand up shows, had won the Grammy for best comedy album in ’77 and ’78 and had sold over a million copies of his single King Tut. Meanwhile Reiner had established himself in the early sixties by creating and writing for The Dick Van Dyke Show, a sitcom set in the world of television, and it was here that he first began to direct.
With 1979’s The Jerk, Reiner directed Martin in the role of Navin R. Johnson, a wide-eyed goofball who leaves his adoptive African-American family (Navin being blithely unaware that he is adopted) to seek his riches in the wider world. What follows is the rise and fall of Navin through a series of increasingly bizarre and sometimes deadly situations that test his happy-go-lucky resolve to the limit. Widely regarded as one of the best comedies of all time, Reiner accentuates the madness at times to leave the viewer as dizzy as Navin but also knows instinctively when to just let the camera rest on Martin and let him dazzle.
Martin and Reiner followed up The Jerk with their co-written playful homage to the film noir genre Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, with Martin in the lead role as rough and tumble, bumbling private eye Rigby Reardon. The film ingeniously spliced together clips from nineteen classic film noirs from the 1940s and 50s with new footage that was shot meticulously to match. This allowed Martin to have ‘scenes’ with Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis and many, many more.
Reardon and his would-be dame Juliet (Rachel Ward) are propelled through a plot that quickly reaches a ridiculous level of complexity and ends with Reardon taking on the ubiquitous Nazis in a tropical island lair. Martin pitches Reardon as oscillating between the playfulness of Navin R. Johnson and the hardboiled private dick that is expected. Martin did not watch any film noirs in preparation for the role and that helps him to break through in the film. He brought his trademark elements of intelligent, skilled buffoonery but combined it with the personality of a knowing, slightly overwrought man of the times. The combination of the two allows Reardon to exist in the world of Veronica Lake and Ava Gardner and, at the same time, a Carl Reiner / Steve Martin film.
It was only a year later that the two returned with The Man with Two Brains. Martin starred as the world-renowned brain surgeon and bizarrely named Dr. Michael Hfuhruhurr. Kathleen Turner gave a sultry, psychotic turn as his new wife Dolores. Centring on a plot of Hfuhruhurr’s burgeoning psychic relationship with a brain in a jar by the equally spell-check un-friendly Anne Uumellmahaye (an uncredited Sissy Spacek), The Man with Two Brains mines a vein of absurdist, anarchic comedy. Martin’s manic doctor alternates between genius, maniac, frustrated husband and madcap would-be murderer at the flick of a switch and is ably complemented by Reiner’s frenetic direction.
Martin and Reiner’s work together came to an end with All of Me in 1984. Though neither party had a hand in the script, the film was well received and praise mounted for the chemistry of Martin and co-star Lily Tomlin. Tomlin’s role is that dying millionairess Edwina Cutwater, who attempts to have her soul transferred to her willing assistant’s body. Martin is her lawyer Roger Cobb and inevitably her soul ends up in Cobb’s body, with him controlling the left side of his body and Edwina the right.
Martin was lauded for his physical depiction of the unusual predicament, with the scenes between him and Tomlin singled out for their humorous and touching nature. The film eventually climaxes with Edwina’s soul once again exorcised and finally sent to her scheming assistant’s body.
Martin points to this film as the beginning of his ‘mature’ period, where he was able to play more normal characters without the eccentricities of his earlier work with Reiner. All of Me represents a perfect stopping point for a joint body of work that plots a perfect arc from the explosive, audacious fun of their first feature, through to a more muted and traditional end that nonetheless proved maturity does not have to come at the expense of laughs.
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Kurt Russell and John Carpenter
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson
Essential Actor / Director Partnerships: Molly Ringwald and John Hughes