Take Three: Steve Buscemi

Posted by julian On 5:00 PM
Craig here with Take Three. Today, one of cinema's the most recognisable, ubiquitous and hard-working character actors: Steve Buscemi

Steve Buscemi (seen here in Sally Potter's Rage)

Take One: Every dog has his day

Buscemi was the one who gave Quentin Tarantino’s dialogue much of its snap and vigour in Reservoir Dogs (1992). It’s not so much the opening Madonna chatter I recall first, rather Mr Pink’s “I don’t tip” diatribe that springs prominently to mind. His sneering worldview marked him out as the dog with the least reserve when it came to social conduct and the most contempt when it came to straight, work-a-day life. The rest of the colour-coded pack may have appeared harder, and with “manlier” nicknames, but Mr Pink was far craftier, and suspiciously nervy with it.

The dog days are just beginning for Buscemi as Mr Pink

Buscemi - an actor forever accustomed to playing numerous weaselly types - is of course perfect casting as the dryly sly bank robber. He’s the most unusual suspect in Tarantino’s heist line-up, and the one who, ultimately, sneaks off with the greenbacks. Hiding during the film’s bloody central shootout served him well: he's Pink by name, but yellow by nature. It’s in his quiet, underhand moments in Dogs where I best see the comparison people have often made between some of Buscemi’s and Peter Lorre’s characters: both have played people so slippery that the camera has to be quick to catch their cunning. Could Steve bulk up and play him in a biopic, perhaps?

Nothin' but a gundog: Buscemi fires off for Quentin Tarantino

Buscemi digs into his character to show some revealing aspects to the brightly-monikered gangster-lite he plays. From just before he’s made to tip the waitress, and for a long time after, we see the seeds of his shifty surreptitiousness grow. Buscemi’s often on the periphery, but each time Mr Pink re-enters the narrative his callous apprehension notches up a gear. The words, verve and audaciously-skewed slant on the bank heist movie belonged to Tarantino, but the freshest thesping honours went to Buscemi. He was top dog here.

Take Two: Buscemi in the Bay of Plenty... of destruction and carnage

Buscemi as 'that guy' in The Island

We’re going to... The Island (2005).When Buscemi, as James McCord, says, “Just ‘cause people wanna eat the burger doesn't mean they wanna meet the cow,” and other pithy lines in Michael Bay’s slop-fi extravaganza it’s clear that he’s the droll relief the audience will instinctively warm to. The role is far from the best of his career, but it is somewhat typical of it. It’s a genre staple character for high-concept Hollywood fare, too: like fellow character actors Lawrence Fishburne (in Predators) and Peter Stormare (in Minority Report) Buscemi’s McCord is that 'slightly dubious guy who helps the lead(s) escape when they’re on the run’. Nonetheless, Buscemi’s working relationship with Bay meant that another ridiculous role for him gets Steve’s seal of approval (he was also in Armageddon).

Three smile Island: Buscemi stares at Ewan McGregor's clone

Part of his character's strict duty is to spout exposition at just the right point so that we, the audience, can sit pretty knowing that all the daft techno-malarkey will play out accordingly. Another strict duty includes telling Scarlett Johansson apart from her clone. (Hint: the clone gave the better performance.) Characters like McCord are essential for the survival of expensive, bloated-but-fun mishaps like The Island - so I guess [spoilery sentence incoming... although, as if anyone cares about the plot of the movie now] we should be grateful, then, that McCord got killed off. He's clearly a meat-and-potatoes role, a bill-payer, for Buscemi. But it matters not, as he characteristically added some leftfield charm to proceedings, and in the process got to deliver all the film’s best lines. Both of them.

Take Three: The Coen Brothers x 5½

Buscemi adds the snivel and the savoir faire in Miller's Crossing

I could have stuck a pin in Buscemi's filmography and stood a fair chance of hitting a Coen Brothers movie. Buscemi’s comically absurd side flourished with the extended bit parts he banked for his five-and-a-half Coen collaborations. Their 1990 Prohibition-era crime flick Miller’s Crossing was his first time out with the brothers. He was Mink Larouie, a gay bookie involved with John Turturro’s Bernie Bernbaum. Buscemi plays the jittery double-dealer type capably. He has one big scene with Gabriel Byrne, but casts a minor spell over the remainder of the film. Hats off to him. A year later he was Chet, Barton Fink’s (1992) bizarrely chirpy bellhop, on hand to squint at the dubious goings-on at the strange hotel and cease that ever-reverberating desk bell.

Dude, where's my ball? Buscemi goes logjammin' in The Big Lebowski

A cameo as a beatnik barman in The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) followed, then came the nearest thing to a Coen lead with 1996’s Fargo. As talkative and "kinda funny-lookin'" Carl Showalter, one half of a criminal kidnapping duo, Buscemi essayed one of his best roles - a veritable showcase for his best onscreen mannerisms, and a memorable career centrepiece. The much-loved Donny in The Big Lebowski (1998) was next. He was lovably goofy but pitiable this time, and of course exited the film on a breezy note, posthumously providing a few laughs to boot. And in some folks' eyes his part equalled Fargo for Buscemi best. Lastly, he avoided eye contact with an awkward couple across Tuileries station in the 1st arrondissement in Paris, je t'aime's (2006) fourth segment; it topped off (for now?) the above quintet as a quick-paced and frothy footnote. But when are those brothers going to give him a proper lead role? Or is Buscemi best suited to continually add great characterisation to their creations? Either way, it’s a bankable combination.

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