"He looks funny," the young Scandinavian says in a bar in Joel Coen's "Fargo"
(in competition), referring to one of two men on the run.
Funny in what way?, the (seven-month pregnant) police officer asks.
"Funny... in a general sort of way. Yeah."
Best description one can come up with of actor Steve Buscemi, and probably
one that will stick. At the "Fargo" press conference in Cannes, the actor
addressed the matter head-on:
"When Joel approached me to play the role, I asked him whether he wanted me
to, you know, have a funny hairdo, or a crooked nose, or something. It soon
became obvious he wanted me just as I was. What can you do? I just did a
photo session with Helmut Newton; he said he loved my vampire teeth. What can
you do? You *embrace* it!"
Buscemi is an antidote to super-charged machismo as well as to overly
deliberate cool. He's muscular, in a slender sort of way. His control is
such, however, that he can turn downright anemic in front of your eyes; you'd
never think the man was a high-school jock then a professional fireman in
Little Italy, New York. (From boots to helmet, he still has his uniform. Just
in case?). His slightly protruding eyes can make him out-nerd anyone in the
business, they will always twinkle with mischief and/or menace. His nasal
twang can charm you out of your seat, it will always be tinged with danger.
For his timing is impeccable, implacable. Watch him -- and listen to him --
as in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs", he protests against the "Mr.
Pink" nickname he's just been given, and you'll realize the man is stretched
like a piano wire or a guitar string. Up to each director to make it give out
a new sound.
Many, of all kinds, have tried, from Abel Ferrara ("King of New York") to Tom
DiCillo ("Living in Oblivion") through Jim Jarmusch ("Mystery Train") and the
Coen brothers ("Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink"). Made immediately aware,
one and all, of the delicate imbalance his presence brings. He might be on
the edge of the frame (and/or the story), he immediately become the center of
the viewer's attention. He's been given to play every super-cool dude and
every greasy-haired hooligan in the book; yet each time, one is fully aware
only a small part of the palette was put to use.
His screen acting debut should have warned us. In Bill Sherwood's "Parting
Glances" (1986), he played and AIDS-stricken rocker. Tragic, of course, but
he was also funny, moving, cynical and sweet with a devil-may-care attitude.
(Not to mention that on the poster, clad in a black leather jacket, his eyes
peering right above the rim of his Ray Bans, he was a dead-on parody of Tom
Cruise in "Risky Business"...)
He's so good at portraying outsiders on screen one is not surprised to learn
he was one in real life. Born 38 years ago in Valley Stream, Long Island --
"where the 'Honeymoon Killers' came from," as he is fond of saying -- he came
to Manhattan determined to become a stand-up comic. He went to the Actors'
Studio, tried his mettle at the Improv' and the Comedy Strip, stopped because
he hates the customers' attitude and, particularly, the hours.
While still going to the Actors' Studio, he applied to the Fire Department
and became a professional fireman, which he remained a full four years.
Meanwhile, the East Village was blossoming. Introduced to the performance
artists scene by two friends, Mark Boone Jr. and Rockets Redglare, he began
to make his mark. As the Village Voice once wrote, "Cynical, detached, and,
yes, cool, Boone-and-Buscemi became the Laurel and Hardy of the 1980s." He
also dabbled in experimental theatre, with Richard Foreman, with Elizabeth
LeCompte's (and Willem Dafoe's) Wooster Group. Cinema and television took a
while to catch up: he was so diverse they didn't quite know what to make of
In 1989, he began to write a script on "what could have happened to me had I
stayed on Long Island." Five years later, gathering a bunch of actors and
friends at the Lower East Side's Nuyorican Cafe, he gave the first reading of
what was to become "Trees Lounge", named after an old bar in Valley Stream.
Today, he defines his film as a "portrait of working-class men sort of left
behind, or aside, a kind of dark comedy about people who haven't found their
place in the world, but perfectly know their place at a bar."
"Trees Lounge" is a family affair. Buscemi's father, brother and son are in
the film, as well as friends come "to check Steve out". Foremost among them
is Seymour Cassel, of "Faces", "Love Streams", "Minnie and Moskowitz" and
"Killing of a Chinese Bookie" fame. It should come as no surprise that Steve
Buscemi is one of John Cassavetes' hugest fans.
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