You may not fully appreciate Steve Buscemi’s abilities as an actor until you see him in person. It would be easy — if unfair — to assume Buscemi’s pale, rodent-like appearance and manner in some of his roles is an extension of himself. This is a plight common to character actors, who can become a secondary kind of famous for playing similar creeps, weirdoes, and bad guys over a long career.
But in person, Buscemi is pretty normal looking. Conducting a Q&A session as the centerpiece to a film series at Brooklyn’s BAMcinématek, dressed in a jacket and accompanied by his wife, Jo Andres, Buscemi looked dapper, even a low-key sort of suave. Even with the spotlight forming shadows around his deep-set eyes, Buscemi hardly resembled the weaselly Mr. Pink from Reservoir Dogs (1992), Carl from Fargo (1996), or even the more recognizably human outcast Seymour from Ghost World (2001). Together, Buscemi and Andres are the picture of a smart, normal couple.
The “Steve Buscemi & Jo Andres Select” series at BAM, ending 1 August 2004, has been, for a film series, relatively short and sweet. Buscemi and Andres each chose two personal favorites; he picked Faces by John Cassavetes and The Killing by Stanley Kubrick, she choose Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter and David Lynch’s The Straight Story. Some of the couple’s own work rounded off the selections. The Trees Lounge (1996) screening in particular was sort of a mini-festival unto itself; also shown were Buscemi’s 1992 short, What Happened to Pete?, and Andres’s 1996 short, Black Kites.
The films aren’t exactly a perfect match; Buscemi’s short is obtuse and darkly funny; Andres’s is obtuse and sincerely mournful. But both shorts fit reasonably well with Buscemi’s first feature, which is direct and dolefully funny. Though it’s not showy or twisted enough to find life as a true cult item, I’m fond of it, as a movie that fills a peculiar niche. Trees Lounge is the best, most definitively depressing Long Island movie ever.
Buscemi stars as Tommy, a ne’er do well who has lost his job as a mechanic and now scrapes by driving an ice cream truck and flirting with his ex-girlfriend’s underage niece (Chloe Sevigny). Writer/director Buscemi captures the kind of neighborhood where everyone sees to be related. Buscemi the actor suggests a downtrodden Jon Cryer, a lovable loser who may not be especially lovable. Tommy was fired for “borrowing” money from his boss’s register, and spends all of his free time at the dive of the title. So the film is also about alcoholism: low-key, everyday alcoholism from which Tommy may or may not stir. Buscemi bravely admits that Long Island is not inherently depressing; we see barflies choosing this life over virtually anything that could make them happier in the long run. Trees Lounge should be required viewing for anyone who spends a lot of time in a bar.
Following the film’s final, haunting shot, Buscemi and Andres took questions from the audience. One viewer touched upon the rather downbeat nature of all three films. “Yeah, you should come to our house, it’s a lot of fun,” Buscemi replied with a mock-dour expression. He added, “I’ve always felt fortunate as an actor that I can get to play murderers instead of being one.” It’s nice to be the non-stabbing lead, though, too, and Trees Lounge came about from Buscemi’s desire to “write a vehicle for myself and my friends.”
One of those friends is Mark Boone Junior, who appears in the Trees Lounge as Tommy’s friend Mike (who is better-off financially than Tommy, but comes close to equaling him in emotional stuntedness) as well as in the short subject. He’s terrific in both.
The two actors are friends from their theater days, and Buscemi revealed that his writing process for the film was based on improvisation with fellow actors like Boone Junior, and putting the best of it into his script. Returning to the subject of a downbeat trend in his art, Buscemi spoke of sneaking the less than uplifting ending to Trees Lounge into his movie on the sly. Backers wanted something a little more hopeful. Buscemi obliged by writing a final scene with no intention of ever filming it. He put off filming it for as long as possible, long enough so that a test audience saw an edit of the film with the unfinished “happy” ending. Audiences were unsatisfied, and Buscemi kept his unblinking final shot.
That persistence strengthens him as an actor. Buscemi has played several careers’ worth of crooks and killers (as well as his excellent comic turns in movies as diverse as The Big Lebowski and Spy Kids 2). While he always makes the character his own, he never really plays “himself,” a well-adjusted normal guy, hiding in plain view.