Midway through Inherent Vice, Paul Thomas Anderson’s woozily intoxicating adaptation of a Thomas Pynchon novel, there is an interlude of such demented sleaziness it almost jolts you out of your bemused neo-hippy stupor and into another, more manic universe. It’s a showcase for Martin Short as a randy coke-sniffing dentist called Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd in a double-breasted purple velvet suit and paisley kipper tie, and a reminder of what a pleasure it is to see Short, one of those actors whose mere presence is now (to me) the guarantee of a good time.
Remember Father of the Bride, the egregious 1991 remake of a 1950 Spencer Tracy comedy? The one bright spot in that ghastly apologia for nuptial excess was Short’s camp party-piece as Franck Eggelhoffer, the terrifying love-child of Karl Lagerfeld and Gok Wan. I used to think his pan-European wedding planner with the strangled vowels was a crass caricature, but the more I learn about human nature, the more convinced I am that Short’s OTT cameos are mercilessly well-observed slices of real life, and only mildly exaggerated.
If you’ve ever chatted to someone who keeps surveying the room over your shoulder you’ll surely relate to Kevin Bacon, playing an idealistic young film-maker meeting his agent, in the droll Hollywood satire The Big Picture, Christopher Guest’s writing-directing debut; “I don’t know you, and I don’t know your work, but I think you are a very, very talented young man.”
In Mars Attacks!, a film stuffed to the gills with flamboyant cameos, there are few more outrageous than Short as the lascivious Press Secretary who mistakes a Martian spy for one of the extravagantly coiffed streetwalkers he’s always smuggling into the White House, nailing the naff chat-up lines and swinger manqué body language with vicious acuity. “We call this the Kennedy Room. Pretty nifty, huh?”
It’s not as though the Canadian actor isn’t capable of sustaining a role for an hour and half. For a while, back in the 1980s, he was a bona fide movie star. He started off with The Second City impro group before following in the footsteps of Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi and Eddie Murphy by graduating from the American TV sketch show Saturday Night Live to the big screen. The first time I ever saw him was in his co-starring role as Ned Nederlander, the juvenile ingenue of the trio, alongside Steve Martin and Chevy Chase in John Landis’ delightful ¡Three Amigos!, which does for Tex-Mex westerns what Galaxy Quest does for space opera by pitting fake Hollywood cowboys, who think they’ve been hired to put on a show, against real Mexican bandits in a town where everyone assumes the sensitive actors are hardened killers.
He shared not just the screen but his body (stop sniggering, you at the back there) with Dennis Quaid in Joe Dante’s delirious SF comedy Innerspace. Short plays a supermarket clerk accidentally injected with a miniature astronaut, who spends the rest of the film navigating his host’s internal organs. Since Quaid spends most of the time in his miniaturised cockpit, reacting to events, it’s up to Short to perform the lion’s share of the physical comedy, which he does with aplomb.
His career as a rom-com leading man (see Cross My Heart) never really took off, and competent but undistinguished buddy comedies such as Pure Luck, opposite Danny Glover, and Three Fugitives (1989), with Nick Nolte, suggested he was fated forever to be typecast as weedy nerds, comic foils for his hunkier co-stars (though he’s actually no shorter than, say, Tom Cruise). I stopped looking out for him after that. He was underused as straight man to Kurt Russell in Captain Ron (1992), while Clifford (1994), in which he plays a naughty 10-year-old boy, was held up due to Orion Pictures’ financial problems before being critically panned, but is bizarre enough to maybe warrant a revisit.
In the 1990s he returned to the stage, starring in a musical version of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl on Broadway. He won a Tony for the 1999 Broadway revival of Little Me, and played Leo Bloom in the Los Angeles production of the musical version of The Producers.
His last starring role in a movie to date was as Jack Frost, lending a welcome touch of malevolence to the kiddy movie The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (2006). He does a lot of animation voice work, popped up (as did anyone who is anyone) on Arrested Development (2005) as “Uncle Jack”, and had a recurring, relatively low-key role in TV’s Damages.
But his guest spot as a psychic in the sixth season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2005) was an especially creepy treat that suggest he would make a splendid villain in a straight-up psychothriller. Robin Williams’ career shift into playing villains seemed like a conscious attempt to distance himself from his usual loveable screen characters, but there are already streaks of corruption and malice running through some of Short’s campiest comic creations.
But mainly I want to see him in more scene-stealing spots like the one in Inherent Vice. The pace is flagging? The film needs a shot of adrenalin? Send in Short! Give this man a cameo.
This piece was first posted on the Telegraph website in January, 2015. It has since been lightly edited.