Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week, we’re looking back on films that feature great comedic performances that the Academy didn’t nominate for Best Actor or Best Actress.
Steve Martin has called 1984’s All Of Me the beginning of his “mature film career”—a break from the loosely structured assemblages of surreal vignettes like The Jerk and The Lonely Guy, as well as the winking genre homages Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid, Pennies From Heaven, and The Man With Two Brains. Unlike those earlier films, Martin said, All Of Me was like an old-fashioned movie, with an actual narrative structure and a character whose complexities went beyond mere idiot or asshole. Martin’s Roger Cobb was a reasonably smart, somewhat ordinary guy whose motivations were both understandable and defined by circumstance, however fantastically absurd. He was a real human, in other words, not just a spoof of one.
That All Of Me also finds Martin getting hit on the head with a magic vase, then accidentally sharing his body with the soul of a sassy woman, illustrates the sliding scale of “maturity” we’re working with here. After all, Martin would still do big, goofball comedies—not just in All Of Me, but subsequent movies like Three Amigos and Little Shop Of Horrors—and it’s a far cry from the augustly serious, playwright-and-art-collector Steve Martin seen in The Spanish Prisoner and Shopgirl. But All Of Me, for the first time, showed that Martin had untapped depth behind his ironic veneer, a sympathetic humanity he would explore to great success in films like Roxanne, Parenthood, and Father Of The Bride before it tipped into the maudlin in myriad early-’90s dramedies.
Here he balances it with some all-time great physical comedy, in the grand Chaplin and Keaton tradition—the kind of balletic slapstick the Academy so often tends to overlook, even as it turns up in its every “Hollywood Magic” montage. All together, it’s an Oscar-worthy performance hiding in an ’80s body-swap movie, of all places. Even the Golden Globes, National Society of Film Critics, and New York Film Critics Circle thought so, with Martin picking up a Best Actor nomination in the former and two wins in the latter, even over weightier contenders like Amadeus’ F. Murray Abraham. Whether All Of Me was really as mature as he made it out to be—and to be clear, it’s still exceedingly silly—Martin was right to be proud of it.
Essentially a revamp of The Man With Two Brains’ possession plot, with Martin again reteaming with director Carl Reiner, All Of Me stars Martin as a restless attorney who’s stuck catering to his wealthy clients, languishing in a go-nowhere relationship with his boss’ daughter, and nursing dreams of playing jazz guitar. One of his insufferably rich patrons is Edwina Cutwater (Lily Tomlin), a haughty heiress who’s spent her entire life in a sick bed. Now that she’s finally at death’s door, Edwina plans to start over by having her soul placed in the body of a beautiful young woman (Martin’s future wife, Victoria Tennant) by a mystical swami (Richard Libertini). But inevitably, plans go awry: The swami bungles his soul bowl and Edwina ends up inside of Roger instead, able not only to hear his thoughts—and speak her own, using his mouth—but also to control the right side of his body. The odd couple in this corporeal apartment then have to work together on getting Edwina out, as well as on simple tasks like peeing.
Tomlin does some of her own career-best work as Edwina, who’s glimpsed in mirrors but most often heard in Roger’s head. As her sarcastic brittleness is gradually stripped away to reveal the lonely, scared woman inside, Edwina makes a believably warm connection with Roger. But this is truly Martin’s show, as he’s often called upon to play both of their characters at the same time—not just imitating Tomlin’s biting vocal cadence as Edwina lets the insults fly and Roger snaps back, but also conveying her physical presence as recognizably distinct from his own. There are showy, trailer-ready gags like Martin acrobatically straining to walk down the street, his limbs yanked in opposing directions, but there are subtler ones, too. Martin imbues every airy hand wave or hip swish with an unmistakable individuality. And in a standout courtroom scene, when Edwina realizes that Roger has fallen asleep, Martin must play a woman who’s acting like a man, all unnaturally deep voices and self-consciously bowlegged swagger. It’s a tricky double dip that Martin volleys through with admirable limberness.
In 2012, amid a flood of announced remakes seemingly inspired by trawling old VHS racks, All Of Me was picked for an update—first as a Queen Latifah vehicle at New Line, then again at DreamWorks, then, most recently, as a Quantum Leap-ish anthology series at NBC. The log line-friendly allure of its basic premise aside, however, it’s easy to see why an All Of Me remake has yet to come to fruition. It takes a uniquely deft—some might say “mature”—performer to make something this ridiculous work.