Finding Steve Buscemi: The Perfect Understatement

Jillian Steinhauer

It’s only when you internalize Steve Buscemi’s movies [they] become a part of your life in an extremely personal, emotional way.

I’m not good at being a fan. If I like a celebrity, I can’t tell you when his birthday is, or who he’s married to, or what his first movie or album was, or if he has kids (and what their names are). I’m just not tailored to these facts; they don’t stay with me. I tend to think of celebrities and pop-culture figures as acquaintances, rather than friends -- I know them by sight and see them around occasionally, but I don’t keep tabs on them or call to catch up.

And yet, when they die, I get upset. Not sobbing and pulling my hair out upset, but a kind of intense, quiet sadness, often accompanied by tears. As if I had known them, and we were great friends, and now they’re gone. As if their passing will affect my everyday life, which, most likely, it won’t. What is about our culture that makes us feel like we know celebrities, like we’re entitled to them somehow?

* * *

Take Steve Buscemi, for instance. I love Steve Buscemi. I don’t just like him, and I don’t just love his work, I kind of love him. Now of course I don’t know him, and if I really did love him, romantically speaking, I’m sure that would be weird and creepy and too similar to the plot of Ghost World. But suffice it to say that my appreciation for Buscemi somehow goes beyond his work as an actor, though that’s from where it all comes obviously. Of course I don’t actually know him in any capacity beyond as an actor -- I realize this -- I’m not entirely crazy.

I think it must have all started with The Big Lebowski (as it must for so many people). In that movie, Buscemi plays Donny, a naïve, sincere, simple-hearted foil to John Goodman’s loud, obnoxious, near-psychotic Walter. Donny is so memorable for being so normal in a movie filled with crazies. His death, from a heart attack, because Walter has just bit off the ear of a nihilist, is so understandable. He is the perfect understatement.

Now, it wasn’t just Buscemi’s performance that made me love that movie. I remember watching it in my parents’ basement -- I have no idea how old I was (probably in high school sometime in 2000 or 2001), and I have no clue who was watching it with me -- but when the movie was over, I remember not really liking it, partly because I had already been told by my brother and sister about its genius, partly because I didn’t get it either. As the youngest child, I’ve always had an immediate dislike for anything that my siblings laughed at without me, but a few years later, I watched The Big Lebwoski again and quickly realize the genius behind its content, because there’s both everything and nothing to get about this flick.

That said, that movie wasn’t what made me fall in love with Buscemi either, but it was definitely the start of a long relationship, throughout which I’ve always felt like my stars were aligned with Steve’s (can I call him Steve?). I’ve never really sought out movies because he acted in them, but he always just appears in the movies I happen seek out. I like to think we have similar taste.

* * *

Part of that -- a sizable part, no doubt -- is due to the Coen brothers, because every time they make a good movie and cast Buscemi, I swoon a little lower. Take Fargo for instance, a movie which I watched with my first boyfriend in college. Neither of us had a television in our rooms, so we would spend many nights in the basement of the church where he volunteered. (Luckily, he had a set of keys.) Like a little apartment down there, furnished with couches, a television, and a mini-kitchen, he would cook, and we would cuddle afterwards.

One night we watched Fargo, and it just blew me away. I don’t think, at that point, I knew how deliciously dark the Coen brothers (or Buscemi, for that matter) could really be. When I thought of the Coen brothers, I thought of The Big Lebowski and Raising Arizona. When I thought of Buscemi, again Lebowski and another movie I had seen two years earlier, a non-Coen brothers endeavor called Ghost World came to mind. (I had not yet seen the Coen brothers’ Miller’s Crossing and Barton Fink at that point, both of which would further reveal the brothers’ dark side and Buscemi’s place within their vision.)

While Ghost World definitely didn’t show Buscemi as a criminal -- only as a sometimes strange, sometimes pathetic, sometimes totally lovable guy -- it did demonstrate for me how well he could hold down a leading role. In fact, I saw Ghost World when it came out in theaters, two years before I saw Fargo. Its impact on me was less immediate -- the experience when you have a vague appreciation of how awesome something is, but it doesn’t fully sink in right away -- but I was thrilled with the movie nonetheless. I like to think of that film as a kind of foreshadowing of (or perhaps an introduction to) the love of independent comics and graphic novels I would eventually develop a few years later.

That said, I guess that there are two parts to my relationship with Buscemi: the ex-post-facto part, which involves me playing catch-up and traveling back in time to see what I missed. Mystery Train, for example, the classic Jim Jarmusch film about Memphis, in which Buscemi plays Charlie the barber, the average guy (and brother-in-law, sort of) to Joe Strummer’s edgy Johnny.

Mystery Train came out in 1989 (I was only five), but I only saw the movie two years ago. And though I’m horribly ashamed to admit this, I still have yet to catch up and see Reservoir Dogs, which I hear carries a prime role for Buscemi.

But then there’s the part of me that delights in moves where Buscemi pops up in unexpected places, playing unexpected roles: The Wedding Singer, Armageddon, Big Fish, Paris Je T’aime, and 30 Rock. Even when the results are terrible (i.e., Mr. Deeds), I’m still happy we’re both there to enjoy the moment.

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