Steve Buscemi: King of the Bit Part
Steve Buscemi seems intent on cornering the market in rodents. He’s already played a rat, a weasel, a mink, and whatever manner of creature Randall Boggs may have been in Monsters, Inc. Add to that menagerie “Bucky” in this week’s G Force, a shiftless hamster who hordes nuts from his cage-mates, implausibly denies he’s part ferret, and who does the dirty on one of the movie’s more sympathetic characters, not because he’s malicious, but because he’s weak and he can’t help himself. This, very often, is what Steve Buscemi does for a living.
The epitome of an American character actor, Buscemi is a pro who knows exactly how to hit a word or phrase for maximum impact. It doesn’t hurt that he has a strong – if unusual – look. Skinny, not tall, with bulging, baggy eyes, sallow skin and too many teeth, he’s made for playing the other guy in the room – barmen, bellboys, taxi drivers, the sidekick’s sidekick. As often as not, he’s the bad guy. Or he’s lending his whiny monotone to an animated villain.
One way or another he has racked up something in the region of a hundred movies over the past 25 years – an impressive figure when you bear in mind he’s also made time to direct several TV episodes, and four rather good independent feature films, a couple of which he’s also written (Trees Lounge; Interview).
Still, to most fans, he’s Quentin Tarantino’s Mr Pink in Reservoir Dogs (“Why am I Mr Pink? How about I be Mr Purple?”). Or he’s Tony Blundetto (in The Sopranos). Mr Shhh (Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead). Test Tube, (in King Of New York). Chet (“My name is Chet!”) in Barton Fink. Mink, in Miller’s Crossing. Carl, the “funny-lookin’ guy” in Fargo. And of course Donny Kerabatsos in The Big Lebowski: “I am the walrus!” (The Coen brothers love Steve Buscemi – they’ve cast him in five of their films, plus their episode in the portmanteau film Paris, Je t’aime.)
To top it all, in the Robert Rodriguez shoot-em-up Desperado, he played a fearsome character known only as… Buscemi. The ultimate accolade for an actor who has become a hipster talisman, an icon for the “Indie” generation of American filmmakers.
If he had been around in the 1940s you can easily imagine him slotting into character parts somewhere between Elisha Cook Jr and Peter Lorre, playing gunsels, flatfoots, sick puppies and all manner of service staff. (Probably that’s one reason the movie-mad Coens are such fans.)
Today it’s easier for a less conventional-looking man to alternate these kind of marginal roles in mainstream movies with more substantial parts in fringe films for the likes of Tom DiCillo (Living In Oblivion) and Terry Zwigoff (Ghost World). It is in movies like Ghost World and his own Trees Lounge that he shows how much more of him there is; that he can be romantic, and funny, and hurt, and the rest of it. Just like the rest of us.
Even so, someone once worked out that the average length of time Buscemi was on screen across his films was just five minutes. Luckily for us he’s the kind who can take five minutes and transform it into a personality you never forget. If that’s the true worth of an actor, then Buscemi must be a superstar.
When Character Actors Take the Lead
Robert Forster was a leading man for a while in the late 60s, but had long since disappeared into supporting parts in B movies when Quentin Tarantino brought him back to the A list (briefly) to play bail bondsman Max Cherry opposite Pam Grier. QT had thought about Paul Newman and Gene Hackman for the role, but neither would have been as good.
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