The second season of HBO’s Boardwalk Empire ended with a bang on Sunday night. Watching Steve Buscemi in the second season of the hit show has made me appreciate him as so much more than the quirky, some might say, oddball supporting player he’s known for in film, and applaud his ability to act the hell out of a lead role in a formidable cable show. Before delving into the role of Nucky Thomson, Buscemi established a niche for himself as a versatile character actor. His filmography is colourful and diverse and dotted with films of practically every genre.
I always thought of Steve Buscemi as that odd-looking guy who played off-kilter, weaselly guys in films that called for unconventional, screwballs. In his recent SNL hosting gig, he joked in his opening monologue that he was once cast as “The Creepy, Creepy Guy.” His unconventional mug might have something to do with that. In Fargo, when Frances McDormand’s policewoman questions a hooker for a description about Buscemi’s Showalter, all the girl can offer up is, “The little guy was kinda funny-lookin’…” In Sunday’s Boardwalk Empire finale, Buscemi’s character, Nucky Thomson, actually joked about his own looks saying, “If God existed, would he have given me this mug?” It’s a great self-effacing joke that has been alluded to in different Buscemi vehicles. His “mug” – with its pale complexion, bulgy, melancholic eyes and famous smile of crooked, uneven teeth – is Buscemi’s signature and it is what makes Buscemi captivating as an actor. His mug is his stamp of authenticity and it has helped his emergence as a memorable actor. Like he once said to his dentist who recommended fixing his teeth, “You’re going to kill my livelihood if you do that.”
He’s become a Coen brothers’ main staple, and has delivered strong performances in the brothers’ brand of extraordinary films. Consider his superbly executed role as a weasel thug in Fargo. Think, too, about his role in Barton Fink before that and The Big Lebowski that came later. He’s also been a go-to guy for Adam Sandler who has employed Buscemi in several of his comedies. One Buscemi role that stands out for me is his turn as the soulful loner in Ghost World. It was a sympathetic, homely and understated portrayal in which Buscemi shined, and he racked up several awards for it. It was also a departure from the sleazy, bad guy types Buscemi had played so often before. One such role is another stand-out – the lethal bad tipper, Mr. Pink, in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Even when Buscemi plays a villain, he’s got a knack for exuding humanity even amidst the hatred he acts out.
Another Buscemi role that I’ll never forget is not one of his deeper or more dramatic stints, but it’s so well-played for what it is. In Con Air, Buscemi plays Garland Greene, a serial killer with 37 victims who is restrained with a face mask and all (a la Hannibal Lector) during transport. It’s not a big role, but Buscemi is the villain who makes the strongest impression amidst a group of escaped convicts. What’s noteworthy about this role is that Buscemi exudes a spine-tingling creepiness by doing nothing bad-ass or violent at all. Despite all of the horror and weirdness attributed to him throughout the film, he never actually does anything, yet he makes your skin crawl and tickles your funny bone simultaneously simply by playing it straight.
I’m so thrilled to see Buscemi cast in a starring vehicle that’s got legs and hopefully a very long life on cable. He’s absolutely sunk his teeth into the role of Nucky Thomson, a role that has allowed him to play a shrewd politician, a caring step-father and a spurned son. The character has demanded a lot of Buscemi and he’s proven week after week that he’s got what it takes to deliver. In my opinion, he’s doing his best work right now.