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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Steve Martin

I just finished reading his memoir, Born Standing Up- A Comic's Life, and I liked it a lot. It's only funny in few places because he's basically a serious man who's lived a not very happy life. That Steve Martin is not the wild and crazy guy we first encountered in the 1970's is generally well known, so if the book is not very funny nor does it contain many surprises, what, you may ask, is the appeal?

It's an honest book, for one thing. Martin came from what is now called a dis-functional family with a cold and distant father, but there is no "poor, poor, pitiful me" in his writing. Martin believes the lack of paternal approval probably contributed to his drive to succeed in show business despite many unsuccessful early years.

He also doesn't bemoan the sacrifice of privacy that fame brings and quotes an observation that celebrities want fame when it's useful and don't when it's not. He feels he's reached a happy medium on this subject: "At first I was not famous enough, then I was too famous, now I am famous just right." He devotes more space to his early girl friends than his later relationships and marriages. As well as being basically a private person, he may legitimately feel the earlier romantic couplings are easier to understand and put in perspective.

His devotes attention to his first film, The Jerk, and says he immediately loved the social aspect of movie making in contrast to the lonely process of being a stand-up comedian. He praises the director, Carl Reiner, who he says taught him more about being a social person than any other person in his life. He doesn't say much about his subsequent movies. Personally, I like the earlier ones like Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid and Pennies from Heaven and L.A. Story but have found his more recent movies to be mediocre. I suspect he had a lot of creative input to the earlier ones but since then has been a hired actor. He also doesn't discuss his growing career as a writer except to note that it was his play Picasso at the Lapin Agile that finally won him praise from his father. I went back and reread the introduction, and he does make it clear that the book's focus is on his career as a comedian. That accounts for the omissions about his later life, I guess.

One reason I like memoirs is that they are generally written by someone who has achieved some success who looks back on his life and presents what he feels is significant. With Steve Martin's, it may be notable what he chooses to leave out. I have heard that performers should leave the audience wishing for more, and with his economy of words and understated style, Martin achieves this with his memoir, at least for me.

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