“Every day’s an adventure when I step out of my door. That’s why I usually wear a hat and
keep my head low.” – Steve Buscemi
American actor, writer and director Steve Buscemi has garnered a cult following over the years with stellar performances in iconic films like Reservoir Dogs and The Big Lebowski. A former firefighter, Buscemi has established himself as a top talent and has several accolades to his name including two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Golden Globe and two Emmy Award nominations.
In an interview, Buscemi once said: “It wasn’t until my senior year in high school that I started acting. After that, I went to Nassau Community College to do liberal arts but dropped out after a semester. I was going to buy a van and move to L.A. so I could secretly pursue acting without any of my friends knowing.”
He added, “My father talked me out of it. He persuaded me to take acting classes in Manhattan instead and encouraged me to take the civil-service test for the fire department. I eventually moved to the Lower East Side and worked for a furniture-moving company while doing stand-up comedy in uptown clubs. After two years, I got called up for the New York City Fire Department—Engine Company 55 on Broome Street. It was a year before the other guys found out I did stand-up. This other fireman actor, Dean Tulipane, outed me. The guys were shocked that I did comedy.”
On his 63rd birthday, we revisit Steve Buscemi’s ten best film performances as a tribute to the undeniable talent of one of the best actors of his generation.
Steve Buscemi’s 10 best films ranked:
10. Big Fish (Tim Burton – 2003)
Based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Daniel Wallace, Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy drama is about a frustrated son who tries to examine the integrity of his dying father’s stories. Buscemi features as Norther Winslow, a local poet who ends up playing a vital role in the narrative.
Burton confessed, “My father had died before I got the film, and I was thinking a lot about those issues and how abstract that relationship is and how hard it is to communicate those feelings in that parent-child relationship. So when I got the script, I felt that this speaks to that directly. It was an amazing way to explore and have that catharsis, and it was a semi-cheap form of therapy for me as well to be able to go through it!”
9. Paris, je t’aime (Multiple directors – 2006)
Buscemi appears in a segment called Tuileries in this anthology film, a part which was directed by the Coen Brothers. The veteran actor shines in this comedic scene where plays an American tourist who makes the mistake of acknowledging the presence of a quarrelling couple in a Paris Metro station.
One of the directors, Wes Craven recalled, “It came out of the blue. I can’t even remember, I think it was an e-mail, ‘We’re interested in you participating in this and here’s what we’re up to. You’ll be shooting in Paris…’ It was like by the time that word came by, I said, ‘Okay, I’m there. What plane do I need to be on?’ And they sent the list of the directors they had so far and it was such a great list. It was kind of a no brainer to do it if I could possibly do it.”
8. Parting Glances (Bill Sherwood – 1986)
One of the first American films to broach the complicated subject of AIDS, Parting Glances stars Buscemi as a gay man who knows he is dying. Although Sherwood never had the chance to make another film because he died due to AIDS in 1990, his 1986 masterpiece has been remembered by many as one of the most important films in gay history as well as one of the most politically courageous.
“I wanted to make a story which was all set in 24 hours in New York because it seemed [like] a New York experience,” Sherwood said. “You could just be walking around in the afternoon and then, through a series of accidental events, [you] wind up staying out for the next 24 hours.”
7. Monster’s Inc (Pete Docter – 2001)
Buscemi put in a stellar voice-acting performance in this beloved animated film from 2001 which followed two adorable monsters who work towards deconstructing the performative role of being scary.
The film features Buscemi as a rival monster Randall who only cares about the numbers, hustling towards being the scariest monster in the factory.
While talking about Buscemi’s character, the director said, “We were thinking that he would be kind of a kiss-up to the president of the company, Waternoose. That he is always dressing nicely and much more put-together than the slobby Sullivan. He sees himself as the next in line.
“In fact, there was a whole early draft where he was in cahoots with Waternoose. A whole separate thing of him being layers down below working under Waternoose. That’s in the movie, but anyway, we were trying to find ways to push him away from your sort of typical bad guy and bring layers to him.”
6. Lean on Pete (Andrew Haigh – 2018)
Based on Willy Vlautin’s novel, Lean on Pete is a touching story about a 15-year old who forms a strong bond with an ailing racehorse while working at a stable. Buscemi plays the role of Del, an apathetic trainer whose reputation of being merciless with his horses precedes him.
“Steve’s very open, generous and kind on set,” Haigh said. “There’s such a world weary nature to his performance, which is something Steve and I discussed. Del could be this clichéd angry man, but that’s not interesting to me – so instead of doing what was obvious with that, we downplayed it. He’s just exhausted, life has beaten him down – and that was where we took the character.”
5. Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff – 2001)
A cult-classic which was nominated for an Academy Award for its screenplay, Ghost World follows the lives of two teenagers navigating the perils of life. When they respond to an ad placed by a lonely man (Buscemi) who is looking for a girlfriend, one of the girls becomes invested in his romantic life. For his wonderful performance, Buscemi earned his first Golden Globe nomination for the film.
Zwigoff recalled, “I had to give to the actors was ‘Stop trying to be funny.’ You have to play the reality of the situation or it won’t be funny. The dramatic part is a lot easier, I found. There are not many actors who can do both. Steve Buscemi is absolutely amazing at pulling off the drama without losing the comedy. I found myself just trying to step back, watch the performance and figure out what didn’t seem real about it.”
4. The Big Lebowski (Coen Brothers – 1998)
The Coen Brothers’ magnum opus presents a comedic revision of the stereotype of the detective noir genre through the character of Jeff’ The Dude’ Lebowski (played by Bridges). The philosophy it preaches is a doctrine of laziness. As cases keep piling up, the urgency of detective stories is beautifully challenged by a detective who does not want to get up from his couch. Buscemi is delightful as Donny, the bowling partners of The Dude and his best friend Walter (John Goodman).
“When I was reading the part of Donnie, I kind of didn’t get it,” said Buscemi. “I felt bad for the guy. I thought, ‘Why does Walter bully him all the time?’ And as I’m reading it, I thought, ‘How am I gonna tell Joel and Ethan that I don’t want to do this? And then when I got to Donnie’s last scene…I saw the relationship. I saw how much Walter really loves Donnie and how they’re like brothers, and I found it very moving.”
3. The Death of Stalin (Armando Iannucci – 2017)
A delicious satire which depicts the aftermath of the death of the communist dictator Joseph Stalin, Buscemi stars as Nikita Khrushchev who facilitates the unravelling of the political climate in a hilarious manner. Even though the controversially enthralling film was banned in Russia and Kyrgyzstan for mocking their historical leaders, it won several awards and entertained audiences worldwide.
Buscemi said, “I got the script that Armando Iannucci co-wrote and knew who the other cast members were going to be or could possibly be, and then read it and went, ‘Oh, my god, where do I fit in?! How do I do this?’ And then, I had a lovely talk with Armando on the phone and he very calmly, as he does, reassured me that I’d fit in and it would all work out, and it did. I’m glad I did it. I’m glad I got out of my own way because it was pretty intimidating.”
2. Fargo (Coen Brothers – 1996)
Though it has been made into a popular Netflix series and many viewers know Fargo only by the show, the series is derived from the 1996 film by the Coen brothers who are among the most eminent filmmakers of America. This project was their attempt to completely eliminate the familiarity of the true-crime genre and to make it something truly extraordinary.
With explicit murders and merry detectives, the film takes us to snow-covered Minnesota where spilt blood readily stands out in comparison to the all-encompassing white. Buscemi plays a con-artist called Carl, who is a part of one of the most iconic scenes in the film where he ends up in a wood chipper.
1. Reservoir Dogs (Quentin Tarantino – 1992)
Starring Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Lawrence Tierney, Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Tarantino, and criminal-turned-author Edward Bunker as diamond thieves, Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 film Reservoir Dogs facilitated his overnight transformation from an obscure, unproduced scriptwriter and part-time actor to one of the most influential filmmakers of the ’90s.
The film does away with the normative, sequential depiction of crime and jumps back and forth between pre and post-robbery events while occasionally putting the narrative on pause to let the characters discuss seemingly irrelevant topics such as the importance of tipping.