The Men With No … thing to Prove.

Have you ever read an article that compared Clint Eastwood and Steve Martin before? No? Well, me neither. There’s a first time for everything.

I got to thinking about Martin and Eastwood this week for different, yet strangely connected reasons. First and perhaps more important (for me, at least), I have tickets to see Martin perform tomorrow night at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. I saw him play banjo with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the 2012 Jazz Fest, more out of a lifelong enthusiasm for the man’s work than for a deep abiding passion for bluegrass music; but I loved the show, as I guess I figured I would, and I jumped at the chance to see him again this year.

SteveMartin muppetsThe life road that brings Martin to Rochester is an unusual one, even by his standards. Forty years ago the guy had a banjo on stage with him, along with an arrow-through-the-head prop, as one of the biggest stand-up comedians in show business. But that wasn’t enough to fulfill him forever, and so he moved to clever-goofball movies (The Jerk, The Man With Two Brains), then just plain clever movies (Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid), then clever-sentimental movies (Roxanne, L.A. Story), and then just sentimental movies, beginning with Father of the Bride (1991).

To me, the cinematic resume he started building at that point was not equal to what Martin had been doing previously. (I’m being kind: I hate that period in his film career.) But that was about the time he seemed to become particularly interesting in his offscreen work: writing plays, novels, and some killer-comedy New Yorker articles; staging an exhibition of his private art collection at the Bellagio in Las Vegas; and yes, playing the banjo – for real this time. Call it a midlife crisis, call it a genuinely creative spirit, but it’s hard not to admire Martin for having the courage to venture into completely different artistic arenas, over and over – and finding success each time.

By comparison, Eastwood’s career path has been a lot more conventional – but no less true to a singular vision. His is probably the longest-lived Hollywood career currently in existence – can you name another movie legend who’s worked steadily since the mid-1950s? – and for the last 20 years he’s been using that success to try things we wouldn’t expect from him.


By the time he deconstructed his own iconic screen image in Unforgiven (1992) Eastwood was already considered a director of some talent, but from then on he started concentrating more on his behind-the-camera work, giving us films that could be exceptional (A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby) or pedestrian (Blood Work, True Crime). More recently he’s taken on even more unusual projects – downright experimental, by his standards – including a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover, a two-part story of World War II soldiers, a misguided movie about clairvoyants and, now, the adaptation of the Tony-winning Jersey Boys. I think we can all safely say Jersey Boys is a truly out-of-left-field choice for Eastwood.

Through it all, though, there’s been a consistent offscreen passion in his life – music in general, and jazz in particular. I was reminded of Eastwood this week twice: First in writing a brief preview of Jersey Boys for my weekly column, and then when his name kept coming up in my film retrospective of jazz in the movies. He’s in love with that musical form – often composing melancholy jazz pieces for his films – and if he ever wanted to come to Rochester I’m sure the Jazz Fest would love to book him to play some piano.

This week I also read that Steve Martin has been approached about making a third Father of the Bride movie, which doesn’t thrill me. (UPDATE: He now denies involvement.) But when someone reaches a point in his career where he can do anything he wants, it’s probably fair to assume there’s something in the project that really appeals to him. Similarly, Jersey Boys isn’t exactly racking up boffo early reviews – I haven’t seen it yet – and it’s not expected to pull in big money at the box office. Yet I doubt that will bother its director too much; by now, Eastwood has graduated from being The Man With No Name to the man who, like Martin, has nothing to prove.