Martin is more comfortable with his acting today than when he made his early comedies. “I’m a much better actor than I ever was,” he says. He feels he learned the craft by working with two “magical” actresses: Diane Keaton and Meryl Streep. “What I always marvel at with them is that there’s almost never, in any take, any kind of falseness. It feels like they’re saying it for the first time. And not the same way they did it the time before, and yet it still holds. It’s a strange kind of spontaneous reality.”
When I mention that on many fan websites it’s the films he made before 1990 that are most listed as their favorites, Steve says, “Critics like to say I haven’t done anything since 1990. But my family films are some of the biggest movies I ever made. Like Cheaper by the Dozen and Bringing Down the House. Critics seem to get very upset about those. But they’re not for them, they’re for an audience. A lot of people liked Father of the Bride. And Bowfinger is overlooked. The box office for Pink Panther did $150 million. The second one was considered a flop, but it made money. I’m proud of them. There was just a resistance of taking on Peter Sellers. But I don’t think I was taking him on, I did it so differently. It was like doing Hamlet, taking on a character.”
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 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, which 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. But then I didn’t want to go there anymore. It just seemed too easy. Writing became more challenging. I would be proud if I wrote a movie like Casablanca. The hardest thing to do is tell a story well.”