Two Love Triangles with Steve Martin: ‘Roxanne’ and ‘Shopgirl’

A young woman moves to a new location to pursue her dreams. There she meets two men. One man fits society’s conventional norms of what the woman should choose in a partner, but only wants to have sex with the woman. The other man cares about her, but has a deeply personal flaw that keeps her from falling for him.  

This is the setup for Roxanne (1987) and Shopgirl (2005). Steve Martin wrote, produced, and starred in both films. Martin adapted both from previous works. In both cases, foreign directors created their own version of Martin’s American world. However, Martin brings a different tone and style to both pieces.

Love Triangles

Every once and a while on the internet, I see somebody say that love triangles should not be used in narrative storytelling due to how they have been handled in the past. Looking back, I can think of many films I love that I would call love triangles.

The problem with many love triangles is not the trope itself, but the fact that these films often do not give the narrative a deeper meaning. In Casablanca (1942), the love triangle focuses on sacrificing for the greater good of humanity. The Apartment (1960) has a love triangle that centers around what it means to tolerate unacceptable behavior in the workplace. In these stories, the love triangle takes on a greater meaning and significance.

‘Roxanne’

Large nosed intelligent fire chief C. D. Bales (Steve Martin) falls for the ethereal and intelligent Roxanne (Daryl Hannah), only to discover that she has fallen for his handsome, but incurious new recruit (Rick Rossovich).

Original Source Material

Martin adapted this film from Edmond Rostand’s play Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). The original play focused on a French army Cadet with a large nose who loves Roxanne, a woman he cannot be with. Jose Ferrer won the 1950 Best actor Oscar for his portrayal of the part, while Gerard Depardieu was nominated in 1990 for his portrayal of the part. 

Martin updates the story to the modern day and makes them comical. The character changes from a cadet to a fire chief with a bunch of dimwitted recruits. In the original play, de Bergerac dies shortly after Roxanne learns of his feelings for her. The film’s character lives to see another day and have Roxanne come around to him.  

Martin also updates little details. For example, the original story focused on characters who literally held duels. An early scene has Martin’s Cyrano stand-in a fight with another man using skis and a tennis racket.

 

Production

Although he liked the script, Australian director Fred Schepisi felt that the first real laugh out loud moment happened on page 61. He and Steve Martin reworked the original screenplay, going through 19 drafts.

In terms of the filmmaking process, almost every printed story describes it as a fun time. Nick de Semlyen’s book Wild and Crazy Guys: How The Comedy Mavericks of The ‘80s Changed Hollywood Forever (2019) described it as more like a vacation than a production at times. 

Besides Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, most of the main cast has disappeared from the acting part of the movie business. Rick Rossovich would eventually leave the business, only to return briefly. Shelley Duvall left the business and moved back to her native Texas. Shandra Beri became a costumer on movies such as Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) and The Prestige (2006).

World of the Film

Schepisi and Martin have come up with a light comic fantasy here. In this film, all of the characters act in a friendly manner. Almost every main character is well liked and amicable. The dimwitted firemen act more like the Keystone Cops than characters who take their job seriously. The perverted characters seem pathetic rather than sinister. Over the course of the story, characters do not really change as much as they come to the realization that they do not belong in a certain relationship or situation.

The film also has relatively low stakes. The lead character does not have some great crisis at the beginning. He does not have to save Grandma’s house or do something by a certain time. In the action climax of the story, the firefighters have to put out a fire to save a cow bought as a promotional mascot. 

Style of the Film

Schepisi films this movie in a cooler color palette. Most of the scenes take place during the daytime. There is not really a big visual change throughout the story as this is not really the film’s approach.

For the verbal comedy, Schepisi films the scenes in two shots so the audience gets to see both character’s faces. In the physical comedy scenes, Schepisi uses a lot of wide shots and handheld camera to clearly capture the action. Schepisi usually reserves closeups to suggest attraction.

The Woman: Roxanne

A graduate student, Roxanne has come to the sleepy small town to look for a comet. Roxanne has just broken up with her boyfriend Richard and wants to meet somebody with a brain this time.

The film’s story focuses on physical attraction versus emotional attraction. An early scene has Roxanne getting her bathrobe stuck in the door. This causes her to run over to the fire station and contact C.D. Bales about helping her out. Although this seems like it could turn into a lascivious and disgusting situation, the film then has a long sequence where C. D. connects to Roxanne over her interests.

Roxanne’s Arc

In both these stories, things tend to happen to the female character rather than the female character pushing the story forward. 

Roxanne finds physical attraction with C. D.’s new recruit Chris, who might serve as Roxanne’s physical equal, but not her intellectual equal. Too scared to actually speak with her, Chris ends up asking C. D. to write her a letter. This leads to Roxanne wanting a date. When their first date goes terribly wrong, C.D. ends up saving it by pretending to be Chris while hiding under a tree. The film uses branches and leaves as foreground to emphasize the divide between them.

Over the course of the story, Roxanne falls for C. D.’s words rather than Chris’s body. When she learns that C. D. wrote the letters, she confronts him, only to realize later that what mattered to her the most had less to do with his physical appearance than how he made her feel. In order to visually illustrate their new connection, the film has Roxanne step out from behind a tree to become the main focus of the shot.

Filming of Daryl Hannah

The film often films Daryl Hannah in the most attractive way possible. This includes many closeups with lots of backlight. Throughout the film, Schepisi chooses to film co-star Shelley Duvall mostly in two shots with other actors, emphasizing her in a comedy role. 

In contrast, the camera photographs Hannah’s face with the most close ups. In an early bar scene, Roxanne sees Chris across the bar. The film cuts into closeups to highlight this relationship that will drive the whole story. These closeups suggest men’s attraction to Roxanne and vice versa.

The Older Man: C. D. Bales

C. D. Bales is the lovable fire chief who is temperamental about his large nose. The film presents many scenes in profile to emphasize the size of the character’s nose. According to Schepisi, this was because he wanted the audience to see the character as fairly normal from the front.

Martin wrote this part partially to make a more grounded comic role with range for himself. This is a showcase for almost all of Steve Martin’s talents except playing the banjo. It allows him to play a big Romantic hero while also playing a comically large character. He gets to fight, do physical comedy, play dramatic scenes, and get together with the love interest at the end.

Many scenes simply exist to showcase Martin as a performer. Bales gets to climb on a roof to talk a heavyset kid down. He also gets to have a scene where he takes a paper out of a newsbox, screams, and throws it back in. In one of the movie’s most famous bits, Martin tells over 20 nose jokes as part of a bet. A former standup comedian, Martin came up with 70 nose jokes and performed them on any willing audience to come up with the best ones. These scenes just end as nice little vignettes rather than building into a larger plot.

 

C. D.’s Arc

This story does not have much of an arc for this character because he acts as an idealized hero from the start of it. He does not really need to learn as much as he needs to confront some of his insecurities.

Over the course of the story, he will come to terms with his nose and realize that it does not really present an obstacle in his love for Roxanne. At the beginning of the story, C. D. tries to fight every person who brings up his nose. The recruits at his station act scared of him. When Chris points it out, he does not get into a fight with him because he thinks Roxanne loves him. When he realizes she likes Chris instead, he goes to a doctor and demands that it be cut off.

The final scene has a firefighter say that they beat the fire by a nose. After an uncomfortable pause, C. D. agrees and moves on. This ends his minor arc of sorts. 

The Younger Man: Chris McConnell

Chris primarily wants to have sex with Roxanne and desires no deeper connection with her. The film presents Chris as a man’s man sort of character who acts in a shy manner around women, especially ones as intellectually challenging as Roxanne. The actor who plays the character (Rick Rossovich) had starred in Top Gun the previous year.

Chris’s Arc

All of the story events happen because Chris and Roxanne are naturally mismatched for each other. Each step has to do with Chris’s inability to woo Roxanne, from his timidity in talking to her to his inability to seduce her. When she tells him she wants to really connect with him on an intellectual and emotional level, he runs away.

At the end of the story, Chris runs off with Sandy (Shandra Beri), a waitress and bartender that he has a much more natural rapport with. Any hurt feelings are glossed over in a quick letter.

The Other Woman: Sandy

In both these stories, Martin creates a more sexualized female character that the character not played by Martin ends up with in some way. In this case, Chris runs off with Sandy because she shares more of his social and intellectual interests.

Sandy is a flirtatious bartender who Chris finds himself attracted to at the end of the movie. In her first screen appearance, she admits that she mistook sex for love and “it was great.” Throughout the opening scenes, she describes how attractive Chris is. 

Unlike Roxanne, Sandy has much less ambitious dreams. She wants to be a cocktail waitress in Reno and plans to move to Tahoe when she gets older. The film does not look down on this character, but presents her as an open and honest person for Chris. She likes small talk and bar games and stuff that Roxanne has no interest in. The sexual jokes seem less about her as a freakish character and have more to do with how she values sex.

‘Shopgirl’

Mirabelle Buttersfield (Claire Danes) tries to navigate life as a struggling artist in Los Angeles while working at Saks. Along the way, she meets two suitors: rich yet ineffectual Ray Porter (Martin) and inelegant yet oddly sweet loser Jeremy (Jason Schwartzman).

Original Source Material

Shopgirl comes from Martin’s 2000 novella of the same name. The novella has a few extra steps to the story and largely takes place in the character’s internal words. With the film, Martin adds lots of little changes to make the audience see the characters externally. An internal monologue turns into a radio show. What characters thought in the book now becomes something they describe to a therapist. In adapting the novel, Martin thought about the actual events of the book and wrote it that way. 

The book serves primarily as a coming of age story for the three leads. Although she is 28 years old, the book constantly describes Mirabelle as being younger emotionally. At one point, the book describes her emotional age as being 5 years behind her actual age. Similarly, the book describes the 50-year-old Ray Porter as dating women like he did as a 20 year old. Jeremy begins as a ne’er do well soul before having a big transformation at the end of the story.

When it came time to edit the film, British director Anand Tucker found that certain parts of the story slowed down the storytelling. In the original book, Martin goes into great detail about Mirabelle’s childhood. It describes how her father (Sam Bottoms) had an affair and how that affected her. The subplot seemed to not really move the story along and dragged the pacing of the film down. He also cut an entire sequence of Mirabelle waiting for Ray to call her in favor of a simpler idea.

Production

Anand Tucker previously directed the Academy Award nominated British drama Hilary and Jackie (1998) and fills the crew with people associated with high comedy and drama. The cinematographer, Peter Suschitzky, worked extensively with David Cronenberg. Tucker chose him after liking his work on Crash (2006). Production designer William Arnold did Magnolia (1999) and Punch-Drunk Love (2002). This crew creates the ever changing world of the film.   

The entire movie’s shoot took place in California, which doubles for Vermont and the open roads of America. For Seattle, the filmmakers created a Matte painting on a computer that makes the Seattle Space Needle seem as tall as the other buildings.

World of the film

In Shopgirl, every character seems sad and lonely. Unlike the light world of Roxanne, the characters all act in fairly self interested ways much of the time. Tucker notes in the Hollywood commentary that the film does not follow traditional Hollywood structure. Characters break up after being cheated on, only to get back together a few scenes later. At the end of the story, many of the characters do not receive closure. Change occurs more through remorse and regret than understanding.

According to Tucker, Martin filled the book and movie with real Los Angeles locations that mattered to him, from Mirabelle’s Silverlake neighborhood to the Cha Cha Cha restaurant that Ray and Mirabelle go to on their second date.

Style of the Film

In all of the behind the scenes material, Tucker describes designing the movie in 5 visual parts, all involving Mirabelle’s emotional state at the time. Tucker describes the story as Mirabelle emerging from underwater into the light in the commentary.  

He begins the story with sickly greens and pale skin tones. Fluorescent lights light various scenes. Tucker uses a more vibrant color palette to emphasize Mirabelle meeting Ray and their courtship. When Mirabelle experiences depression, the camera becomes static. The color palette is full of blues. In the final part, Mirabelle breaks through her depression and pastels come in. In this part, Mirabelle wears a lot less green than she wore before.

The Woman: Mirabelle

Mirabelle has come from a small town in Vermont to live in LA. The film paints her as a lovable yet unlucky character. She exists tucked away behind the glove counter at Saks.

In his compositions, Tucker often makes Mirabelle appear as a part of a large canvas. Throughout the film, her apartment changes colors because the production painted the walls to represent the emotional state that Mirabelle was in at the time. 

Mirabelle’s Arc  

Shopgirl tells a story about events that happen to Mirabelle rather than Mirabelle proactively leading her story. In an interview about the book, Martin said that he liked that the character of Mirabelle was passive because he found it more interesting than many of the active female roles he had seen.

In the act, Mirabelle meets two men: Jeremy and Ray. With Jeremy, she has a less than pleasant first few dates. Ray provides a more elegant profile. He buys her a pair of black gloves from Saks and uses them to invite her to dinner.

Throughout the story, Mirabelle suffers from depression and takes antidepressants for her condition. When she meets Ray, she stops taking the pills and falls into a deep depression. After learning of Mirabelle’s problems, he drives her to the doctor and gives her the pill like a father figure.

Ray cheats on Mirabelle, leading to her reconsidering their relationship and her life. After many ups and downs in their relationship, Mirabelle decides to leave both Ray and her old job behind. She takes a new job at an art gallery and eventually becomes an artist featured there.

The Older Man: Ray Porter

A very controlling wealthy character, Ray Porter works as a symbolic logician and owns a private plane. Ray seems to want to be with Mirabelle out of convenience. He knows the store Mirabelle works at because it exists 10 minutes from his house. Over the course of the story, most everything he does (eating, dating, sex), he does because of the convenience of it rather than the morality of it.

In the film, the struggling Mirabelle seems to want to be with Ray mainly because of his wealth and common interests. He buys her dresses she would be able to afford and pays off her student loans. Mirabelle sees these things as akin to fulfilling her deeper needs. Ray sees them as gifts to get him closer to his goal.

Framing of Ray

Martin originally did not want to play this part and thought about casting Tom Hanks in the role. As the character, Martin plays the role less as a charming lothario and more as a technical and calculated manipulator who purposefully keeps others at a distance. 

Martin serves as both the character and an omniscient narrator there to highlight Mirabelle. Many of the narrator’s observations relate more to Ray and Mirabelle rather than to Mirabelle and Jeremy or Mirabelle and her family. The film also tends to portray his sexual escapades with Mirabelle in a serious manner, while portraying Jeremy’s sexual escapades as comedic.

Ray’s Arc

Over the course of the story, Ray’s relationship with Mirabelle becomes complicated as he starts to have paternal feelings for her that conflict with his sexual relationship. Ray cheats on Mirabelle because a more convenient partner (Rebecca Pidgeon) takes him out to dinner. In the end, Mirabelle and Ray break up for good when he says that he will buy an apartment in New York in case he meets somebody and wants to have kids.

At the end of the story, Ray turns up at Mirabelle’s art show with his new girlfriend, a gynecologist. Mirabelle gives him a nude drawing of her sleeping. Ray admits to Mirabelle tha he really loved her. The end of the movie emphasizes the lesson that Ray learns (you have to accept a full person and not just part of them), while the book emphasizes how meaningful this relationship was. Mirabelle and Ray both receive a new outlook from the relationship, but Ray realizes what he lost with Mirabelle.

The Younger Man: Jeremy

The character of Jeremy begins the story as a mooch who acts terribly towards Mirabelle. He seems awkward with women in general. In this story, he has to actually grow up and change in order to win over Mirabelle. This probably provides the most definitive and physical arc of the story.

Jeremy’s Arc

He begins the story as the worst possible candidate to end up with Mirabelle. He asks Mirabelle for money multiple times, but brags about how much money he saves. When he accidentally grabs a mint instead of a condom, he asks Mirabelle if he can borrow a Jiffy bag and use that. The reason he ends up having sex with her is that he asks her neighbor for a condom. 

A stenciler and employee for an amplifier company, Jeremy seems to care about Mirabelle in his own way and even designs a font for her. However, Jeremy talks at Mirabelle rather than actually having a conversation with her.  After Mirabelle off-handedly suggested that Jeremy should pursue his dream of revolutionizing amplifiers, he decides to go out on the road with rock musicians to realize this dream. 

On the road, Jeremy learns how to change into a better person. He begins listening to Yoga and self-help books after Luther (Mark Kozelek) introduces him to them. By the end of the story, he has cleaned himself up. He dresses a lot better and slicks his hair back. He still brags, but this time it is about his girlfriend.

Jason Schwartzman

In the DVD commentary, Tucker says that he and Martin built this role up from the way the book wrote the character. The novel’s version describes Jeremy’s big transformation at the end, while the film’s version dramatizes it. The character who helps Jeremy change does not even have a name in the book.

Tucker also decided to cast Schwartzman because he felt that the actor could handle the arc of going from disgusting to a potential love interest for Mirabelle. Schwartzman came to mind after Tucker remembered his role in Rushmore (1998). Along with these decisions, Tucker also allowed Schwartzman to adlib while keeping the other actors more on script.

The Other Woman: Lisa

Another Saks employee, Lisa (Bridgette Wilson-Sampras) tends to relate to men sexually. In the commentary, Tucker describes the character as not knowing how to ask for love in a different way. In the behind the scenes featurette, costume designer Nancy Steiner describes all of Lisa’s costumes as being designed to attract a man. This includes black dresses, lingerie, and a leopard print dress. The filmmakers also give her a red apartment filled with candles and sex toys. On top of all this, actress Wilson-Sampras had a long career of playing the “other woman” in genre films before this.

The book version counterpart is largely similar. However, the film also takes a lot of her thoughts and has her express them in different parts of the narrative.

Lisa’s Arc

Lisa first sees Mirabelle as she leaves the store. In Lisa’s first reaction with Mirabelle, she explains to Mirabelle how to string a guy along and get what she wants (never call him, give him a lot or oral sex, then cut him off, etc). Mirabelle tells her that she could not do all that because she is from Vermont.

When Lisa sees a dress that Mirabelle wears, she calls her a sales associate to ask about it. This leads her to the name Ray Porter. Lisa ends up sleeping with Jeremy because she sees him with Mirabelle and thinks that he is Ray Porter. She does not realize her misunderstanding until the next morning.

At the end of the story, Lisa is seen alone as Mirabelle leaves. She briefly smiles at her, but the audience does not get to see much beyond that. With this ending, she never finds a new guy or a new calling.

Conclusion

In both stories, Martin fashions a love triangle around issues and insecurities that the characters face. The first story focuses on appearances, while the second focuses on money and status. Roxanne has a light playful tone, whereas Shopgirl focuses on a more depressing story that does not obey Hollywood rules. Along with the different tones, Martin also changes the types of characters that inhabit these worlds.