HOLLYWOOD -- Steve Martin looks a little naked without his nose. Not his real nose, silly; the big putty nose he put on every day for three months while making "Roxanne," his acclaimed new update of "Cyrano de Bergerac." It took 90 minutes every morning to apply the horrendous honker.

"And two seconds to take it off," says Steve Martin, scowling. "Oh God, I hated that thing." Maybe so, but it has pointed the way to Martin's most critically praised screen performance yet. He plays ski-town fire chief C.D. Bales, fatally smitten with Daryl Hannah as Roxanne, but forced to ghostwrite love letters to her from another suitor. Martin wrote the screenplay and is executive producer. It's strictly tour de force time.

Critics have adored the writing, but have also likened Martin's comedic agility onscreen to Charlie Chaplin's. There have been references to things like "comic genius" bursting forth. Steve likes that. Who wouldn't?

"It sure makes you feel good," he says. "I can't deny that it does. Because I've been vilified and I've been praised, so when these moments of praise come along, I'm going to enjoy it, rather than say, 'Well they don't know what they're talking about.' I say, 'Yeah, they do!' It's just easier on me. When I started writing this, I said, 'This is going to be so hard that if it works, I am finally going to say to myself, "You did something good." '

"But no, I don't buy that 'comic genius' stuff."

There is some question whether summer movie audiences will buy this romantic comedy stuff. "Roxanne" is a gentle and sweet-natured picture, which definitely sets it apart from the wham-blammers. "This picture is so small compared to everything that's out there, and everything else has something humongous going for it," says Martin, who is known as a devout worrier. "I don't know if we can compete against these pictures. I try to put myself in the audience's situation: 'We're lookin' for fun on Saturday night. Do we want to go see "Predator," about an evil creature that kills everyone? Or do we want to go see what we've heard is a "funny romantic comedy"?'

"That's the problem. But I do believe these type of films are the ones that remain. At least, that's what you try for."

In practical terms, "Roxanne" cannot fail big. "This picture was made for a price," Martin says. "It's not a $20 million movie. It's not a $15 million movie. It's about a $12 million movie. Which makes it way under the normal scheme of things. And so the movie doesn't have to make $60 million." He smiles his rubbery smile. "I keep telling myself that."

Teen-agers are the most crucial movie audience now. Will kids who loved wild and crazy Steve as "The Jerk" in 1980 be receptive to this mellower, subtler model? "Well, they're seven years older now," Martin says optimistically. "Actually, the research said that young girls love this movie. Fifteen- to 18- to 20-year-olds. Of course, that's market research. You don't know. Maybe 'Heaven's Gate' tested larger than anything."

For Martin, 41, "Roxanne" might appear to be a great comeback picture. But he says, "Hmm. I thought 'All of Me' was a comeback picture." That was almost three years ago, though, and in between there's been the very marginal success of "Three Amigos!" (which he cowrote) and an electrifying cameo as a sadistic dentist in "Little Shop of Horrors." The impression remains that, since "The Jerk," Martin's movie career has been pretty slumpy.

The period when he found himself "vilified" was, Martin says, from 1981 to 1985. He confesses to having been crushed by the failure of "Pennies From Heaven," the depressing Depression musical he made as a daring departure from his crazed comedy persona. "I was completely lost in what direction to go with movies," he says. He was just coming down from a dazzling five years as America's most popular and uproarious stand-up comic.

" 'Uneven' is what I always read" in reviews of his film work, he mopes.

"It's the cycle of a career. You know: They don't know who you are, then they discover you, then they love you, then you get too big, then they start to see the chinks in the armor, and write about that, then you're down and out. You say, 'Hey, wait a minute!' You're always on this roller coaster."

No matter how bad things may get, Martin would never go back to stand-up comedy. "My genre has been so exploited that there's nothing left to do with that," he says, pretty much closing the book on it.

"I just don't look at old stuff. It's too excruciating. I always feel like I'm more refined now, so therefore that's more crude. I've really committed to film."

During the low periods, Martin says, "I get mad at myself. You know it's inevitable that you have failures. In fact, it's almost more inevitable that you'll have failures, unless you're Eddie Murphy. Or very clever. But it's hard to gear up for it. And I feel so strong now. And I feel like 'Roxanne,' whatever the box office is, at least it's a critical success. Just think if it had been, 'How dare he?' Oh my God, oh and I wrote it! Oh, I was so presumptuous! You know."

The idea to redo "Cyrano" came to him about five years ago, Martin says. When he couldn't find the right writer to do it, he hired himself, and spent nearly three years writing 25 drafts of the script. He'd been fond of the story since, as a kid, he saw the film version with Jose Ferrer. "I remember just thinking it was the greatest thing I ever saw. I think it's because the character is so strong. He's like a very smart version of what, coincidentally, is popular in movies today. He's smarter than everybody else, quicker than everybody else, wittier than everybody else, and tops everybody. That's what the original Cyrano is like. And this just sort of takes that vicious edge off it.

"I was talking about it with this writer friend of mine. I told him I thought it was a great idea to update 'Cyrano de Bergerac' but I needed something different about it, to sort of make it worthwhile doing, intellectually. He looked at me and he said, 'He gets the girl.' I said, 'Oh yeah, he gets the girl!' Because actually in the original play, he gets the girl, but he's dying."

The movie seems a departure for Martin in its romanticism but he says, "I've always had that bent. I felt 'Pennies From Heaven' was very romantic. And back further than that, except that it's hard to do romance in a concert for 20,000 people." A romantic in real life as well, Martin married the beautiful British actress Victoria Tennant last year in a ceremony at Rome's city hall.

Lorne Michaels, the producer of "Saturday Night Live" and Martin's friend for 15 years, says that turning 40 hit Martin pretty hard, but he seems to be rebounding nicely. He does not look one day older than he did a decade ago. "There's something very innocent about Steve," Michaels says. "He's got a very pure heart. He's always been a joy to work with. He just lights up."

Most celebrities claim to be "private" people, but Martin really is. He doesn't feel a compulsion to crack jokes or get quippy off the screen, either. After all, it's his job. He says he has no multipicture deals with anybody and doesn't know what film he'll do next, though he's partial to a new script by David ("Blue Velvet") Lynch. At the moment he is finishing up "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," a buddy film directed by John Hughes and costarring round John Candy, whom Martin hails without reservation. "He's brilliant. Oh, he's just brilliant." They play a couple of lost souls who are stranded in Wichita, but manage to escape.

Since the cast and crew of that film are now in the 16th week of a scheduled 14-week production schedule, excessive jolliness is not precisely the problem on Stage 16 of the Culver Studios, where work on "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" continues. But Martin, who darts to his trailer between scenes, is very positive about the film and the part he plays.

"It seemed like before 'All of Me' I was always offered scripts where the central character was A Guy, just A Guy, and somebody said, 'Well, we'll get Steve Martin in there and he'll walk around and do that.' But now I'm getting scripts where there's characters. In this picture, it's a very strong character. So at least there's something to start from other than just be Steve Martin as I used to be. This is actually the first time I ever did a character completely real all the way through, where there's no fantasy."

How warmly the public embraces "Roxanne" will tell Martin a lot about how far he can go with movies and how far he can stray from the old arrow-through-the-head image. He has faith. "I believe we're always the same people," he says. "I don't care what happens in the society, the people are always the same. I don't care how hip we are, how smart we are, what our new technology is. Everybody is just as prejudiced and just as good and just as evil as they've always been. And just as much suckers for romance."

Martin has been so roundly praised for "Roxanne" that the possibility emerges of even, dare we say it, an Oscar nomination. This brings forth the rubbery smile again. "Well," Martin says, "then I'll have something to do in March."