Wednesday, August 15, 2012

In Character: Steve Buscemi

Despite his awkward looks, frail appearance, squeaky voice, and so on, Steve Buscemi has asserted himself as one of the finest actors currently working in movies (or, as it were, television). Whether he’s carrying a series or popping up for one scene in a feature film, Buscemi has the unique ability to own every second he’s on screen.

He’s done this in a number of ways: playing the goof, the goon, the dimwit and the arrogant prick all with equal restraint and vulnerability. He’s the kind of actor who makes whatever movie he’s in better, simply by being in it. That’s about as fine a compliment as I can give.

Five Essential Roles
Reservoir Dogs (1992)
Mr. Pink
Mr. Pink – the voice of reason. The man who doesn’t tip waitresses but strives for solidarity and understanding. When you think about it, Buscemi’s Mr. Pink is the only real professional out of the major Dogs in Quentin Tarantino’s masterful debut film. We never learn his name or where he’s from, instead, he plays by the rules he’s given and demands that the rat among them be sniffed out and exterminated.

Mr. Pink was Buscemi’s first major role, and from the onset, he proved himself as a serious player despite. Despite his unique facade, Buscemi, via Mr. Pink, demonstrated a unique command of the camera by using convincing dramatics and subtle humor. It was the beginning of what has become one of the most revered careers of a Hollywood day player.

The Big Lebowski (1998)
Not the showiest of Buscem’s characters, but let me tell you why this is a perfect performance. Donny’s job, as a character, is to exist only as the butt of the joke. He’s a stand-in for the impossibly hilarious verbal abuse issued routinely by his friends. Nothing more. Donny’s job is to stay hidden in the background and be annoying from time to time, all while gaining sympathy from the audience.

So now I ask, who other than Steve Buscemi can pull off a role like this so effectively? The man is the king of refinement. Whether he’s proudly boasting about how he’s “slammin’” strikes, or chirping incessantly about the topic of conversation, Donny is that nice guy who can never seem to catch a break. And it’s impossible not to love him for it.

Ghost World (2001)
Ahh Seymour. Pathetic, lonely, sad faced Seymour. In Terry Zwigoff’s kind of brilliant dark comedy, Seymour represents the only person that lead character Enid (Thora Birch) can tolerate for any extended period of time. They meet by way of a cruel prank, but soon develop an endearing friendship that represents one of the most oddly authentic relationships captured in modern American film.

It has been said by many a professional critic that Seymour is the role of Buscemi’s career. Hard to disagree. As I rewatched the film recently, I was constantly reminded of the notion that this is the role, above all others, that seems perfectly tailored to fit the Buscemi persona. Roger Ebert says Seymour reminds him a lot of Zwigoff. That’s interesting. Either way, from the basis of performance, there’s nothing to not love about Buscemi’s work here.

Interview (2007)
Although Buscemi is far better known for his work in front of the camera than behind, he has made a handful of genuinely good films, best among them is his Interview, a two-person dramedy about a condescending reporter conducting a never ending interview with a diva movie star. Playing the interviewer himself, we’re privy to the best of the mavel that is Buscemi arrogance.  

Pierre has got to be the grandest asshole Buscemi  has ever portrayed. A notable political reporter, Pierre hasn’t the slightest clue why his editor has assigned him to profile a popular actress known only as Katya (Sienna Miller, who, for the record, is perfect in this). Seconds into their first meeting, Pierre refers to the actress as Cuntya, and from then on, boy do the sparks fly.

Interview is a very layered film, mostly because the two leads are ever evolving. You think you see what’s coming, only to find yourself pleasantly deceived.  

Boardwalk Empire (2010-present)
Nucky Thompson
Nucky Thompson is the role of a lifetime. The lead in a smart, epic HBO series in which you are given countless hours to full flex any and every emotion at your disposal. More often than not, these roles falter for a multitude of reasons. Uninspired writing, stale acting, you name it, but in Buscemi’s capable hands, he makes the flawless material he’s given in Boardwalk Empire soar. It’s such a hot performance, it’s practically incendiary.

You’re likely to get a different opinion about Nucky from most everyone you ask. Two-faced thug, criminal with a heart of gold, family man trying to make good on a hustle – no matter how you swing it, there’s simply no denying that the man playing the boss is in complete, fearless control of his craft. It’s as fine a television performance currently on air.

The Best of the Best
Fargo (1996)
Carl Showalter
As far as I’m concerned, Carl Showalter is THE Steve Buscemi performance. Carl is so unintentionally entertaining – his humor (“Total silence, two can play at that game”), his frustration (“Are we square…?”), his menace (“Where. The. Fuck. Is. Jerry?!”), and, most notably, his desperation.

There’s a scene in Fargo (which is by far my favorite scene from the film) in which Carl buries a shitload of money in a vast, snow-covered field, distinguishing it only with a puny red ice scrapper. It doesn’t take a film historian to appreciate the desperation contained in Buscemi’s acting here. The man plays pathetic and weak as well (if not better) than any actor who can currently get work.

Every line Buscemi utters, every slight expression of discontent or gesture of frustration is executed perfectly. It’s one of my favorite performances of the ‘90s. Simply impossible to forget. But, then again, I suppose that's the case for most all of Buscemi's characters.

Other Notable Roles
In Pulp Fiction
Miller’s Crossing (1990)
Barton Fink (1991)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Billy Madison (1995)
Desperado (1995)
Trees Lounge (1996)
Con Air (1997)
Armageddon (1998)
Animal Factory (2000)
28 Days (2000)
The Grey Zone (2001)
Big Fish (2003)
The Sopranos (2004-2006)
Paris, je t’aime (2007)

Previous installments of In Character include:
John Cazale
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
William H. Macy
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright


  1. Next to Philip Seymour Hoffman, I think Buscemi is basically the character actor. Could be just me, but who knows?

    1. Yeah, I'd go along with that. Buscemi is instantly recognizable, and wholly reliable. Fantastic (character) actor.

  2. Alex, I can't argue with any of the picks. You nailed the top six in my book, including the top performance. I did like his work on The Sopranos, though part of that felt like a wasted opportunity. I've only seen the first season of Boardwalk Empire, but he's awesome in that part.

    1. Nice man, glad you dig the picks. I liked him in The Sopranos too, but yeah, it didn't really feel like he was given a lot to do (except make fun of Tony to his face, which was incredible). I don't know if he was better in the first or second season of Boardwalk. Too great all around to tell.

    I love Seymour. I remember watching Ghost World and wanting to marry him. Also this is like the first time I've seen most of these films in your In Character "thing" (just not Interview).
    I loooove Nucky. I love Mr. Pink. I love Carl. Buscemi is just awesome.

    1. Yesss, glad you like it! That's cool that you've seen most of the flicks for this thing. Interview is really good, and he's really good in it. Definitely scope that one when you get a chance.

      Your desire to marry Seymour made me laugh out loud. Hilarious.

  4. This is one of those guys who, even in bad movies like Armageddon, The Island, and some of those Adam Sandler movies, can always put out a fantastic performance.

    Seymour is my favorite Buscemi performance with Mr. Pink as a close second. I agree with you on Mr. Pink. He's the one guy who keeps his shit together and is the voice of reason.

    I also love Carl Showalter, Donny, Nucky, and Chet. Even his role as a suicidal singer in The Imposters who is so depressed to sing, that he tries to kill himself in front of an equally-depressed Hope Davis. Crazy-ass movie but a whole lot of fun to watch.

    1. Completely agree that even if he's in a crap film, he has the ability to make it better. Armageddon is junk, but he has some hilarious moments in it.

      Dude, I need to see The Imposters, shit sounds nuts.

  5. Great work. I'm surprised no-one's mentioned Buscemi's fantastic work in the indie comedy LIVING IN OBLIVION, which I saw recently and loved.

    1. Gonna watch Living in Oblivion tonight. Thanks for the recco!

  6. Hes seems like a weird guy but is a fantastic actor. Fargo's definitely his best role but everything hes in is great. Also if were counting voice acting I've got to add Randall from Monsters Inc. I now know it was Steve who gave me so many nightmares.

    1. haha nightmares, yikes! He's definitely a great voice actor. With a voice that unique, it could really go one of two ways... it's really cool that he's able to use it to his advantage.

  7. Man how do you pick from the work of Buscemi? The man is always great. I second Tylers rec for Living In Oblivion if you haven't seen it yet. You'll probably love it after your sound nightmare on Earrings too.

    1. Ha, definitely going to check it out later, sounds right up my alley. Narrowing down my favorite Buscemi performances definitely wasn't easy. Dude is always on point.

  8. How can anyone not love this guy?
    Woo hoo! Love for Sienna Miller's performance. :)
    I'll get to Boardwalk Empire at some point.
    I never knew that was Buscemi in Pulp Fiction!

    1. It took me a handful of views of Pulp to realize that was him. Hilarious cameo.

      You like Miller in Interview?! Bitchin' man, bitchin'.

    2. Yeah, Miller's my Best Actress runner-up of 2007, just behind Marion Cotillard.

  9. man whomever told you to do steve must be a god damn genius

  10. Few lines make me smile like "Ooh! I'm throwing rocks tonight!" Definitely my favourite movie of all time.

    Great actor and a good director too - his work on the Sopranos episode 'Pine Barrens' helps make it one of the best they ever did. Oh, and looking at his wiki page, he also directed 'Mr. & Mrs. John Sacrimoni Request...' which, thinking back, might just be my favourite episode. You seen Mystery Train? He rocks in that too, as a sorta foil for Joe Strummer. Super-cool guy.

    1. Ahh Mystery Train is one of the few Jarmusch flicks I still haven't caught. Gotta get on that.

      The Sopranos episodes he directed were fantastic, I love the work he did on that show, both as an actor and a director.

      Donny... shit, don't you just love him?

  11. Argh, I loved him in Fargo! XD
    That's all I can really say about this post, I haven't seen nearly enough of his roles sadly. Awesome as always though Alex!

    1. Thanks Ruth! Hey, if you've seen Fargo, then that's definitely a good start.

  12. Ghost World is my favorite Buscemi performance. I enjoyed all the others on your list, too, but Ghost World is probably the one where I appreciated him the most.

    1. Ah, he's so damn good in that movie. Just a perfect role for him.

  13. For me Ghost World is Buscemi's best work, I mean he is always fantastic but he was so painfully heartbreaking in this movie. I can't wait for season3 of Boardwalk Empire, he is so dangerous in this one, it's amazing he can be like that and as lovable as Donny in The Big Lebowski.

    1. I'm still stunned that he didn't get an Oscar nomination for Ghost World, that is just a perfect performance through and through.

      He's gonna kill it in Boardwalk this season.

    2. I can't wait to see the inevitable scene where he screams some sense into Margaret, that woman has gone crazy last season.

      BTW I'm watching 30 rock now and he has pretty funny guest gig as a private detective. Him and Alec Baldwin are really funny together.

    3. Oh yeah, he plays that bumbling private dick to perfection. (sigh), that's when 30 Rock was good. No more...

  14. Steve Buscemi is such a weird, peculiar, but brilliant actor, I love almost everything he does,I'm glad you are highlighting me in this series. My favorite parts are definitely Fargo and Mr Pink. Oh, and I forgot he was in Pulp Fiction!

    1. Nice, glad you dig Buscemi and Fargo/Mr. Pink so much. I too love most everything he does, even if he pops up in a silly Adam Sandler comedy for a scene or two, he's always fun to watch.

      "...highlighting me in this series..." are you secretly an actress?! haha

  15. Oh man, how did I miss this post? Love these "In Character" features, and Buscemi is an awesome choice. Thanks for the reminder to check out Boardwalk Empire. Been meaning to start that for a while now but keep forgetting about it. Sounds so good.

    1. Nice man, glad you dig the column! Buscemi is the man, isn't he? So good in Boardwalk Empire.

  16. One of my favorite character actors. Fargo is definitely his best role so far. He owned that movie. I loved William H. Macy in Fargo as well, but the supporting actor nod that year should have gone to Buscemi. I also thought he was fantastic a few years ago in The Messenger. He only had two scenes in the movie, but he gave them both everything he had. I bet that if he had a little more screen time in that movie he would have been a lock for best supporting actor that year.

    1. The Messenger - that's a great call. What a thankless yet commanding performance. Not a lot of screentime, but he absolutely nailed it. I agree that he should've been nominated for Fargo. He really does own that flick.

  17. Of course, Steve Buscemi is always a lot of fun in anything he's in. He's one of those actors you can easily identify but who can capture the essence of so many different characters, something you can tell just by comparing the roles he did with the Coen Brothers (specifically Donny and Carl). Then of course there's Mr. Pink, an excellent performance on his part. I didn't realize that was his first big acting role.

    I'm in the small minority of people who actually enjoyed Escape From L.A. and one of the best parts of that film was Steve Buscemi, who plays a crazy crook who keeps changing sides and manages to double-cross most of the cast one way or another by the end.

    The other great performance you didn't mention was Living in Obilivion where he plays a movie director. I watched that one for one of my film studies classes and having (sort of) been through similar experiences to what he goes through in that film I can say he does a pretty effective job of capturing the stress and sheer frustration of directing an independent movie. The mounting tension as the pressure builds and one thing or another goes wrong, eventually getting to the point where the quality of the scene ends up becoming secondary to getting it done. It's a very good performance I'd recommend checking out.

    1. Dude, I love Escape from L.A. and I love Buscemi in it. Movie is such a blast, because it embraces how absurd it really is. You know, I never got around to watching Living in Oblivion. Need to get on that one ASAP.

  18. Love this post/article/insight. I'm a big Buscemi fan. The appreciation came out of nowhere but there it is. I would agree that Carl Showalter is THE character for him in film but oh Nucky. Nucky was made for him.

    I also loved the Coen's segment in Paris je t'aime. My obsession with it went one step further when I made my own interpretation of it for my A level (college) practical.

    On a side note, have you heard the audio book version of Ethan Coen's Gates of Eden? Buscemi reads a short story from it and its amazing.

    1. Ohhh no I haven't heard that - I need to track that down! If you're a Buscemi fan, I urge you to watch Louis CK's new show Horace and Pete. Buscemi is so damn good in it. It's a great, great show.