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The Life He Left BehindBy Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 25, 1996
NEW YORK -- A 4-year-old kid gets hit by a bus in Brooklyn. It's horrible, right? But you know, sometimes even the worst things can turn out to be good.
The kid survives with a fractured skull, gets a settlement from the city and, when he turns 18, collects $6,000 from a trust fund.
So now he's out of high school, driving an ice cream truck and wondering what to do with his basically normal life. Take the civil service test, says his old man, who's putting in 30 years with the sanitation department; get yourself a secure job, with a pension. But the kid has bigger plans -- he wants to go to Hollywood, be an actor.
In the life-script of Steve Buscemi, this is the turning point. A typical Hollywood production would feature a stormy scene pitting father against son, a classic test of wills: fists, cursing, somebody getting pinned against the wall.
But anyone who knows Buscemi, one of this decade's best character actors, knows that he's not typical Hollywood. He may play low-rent, amoral types -- hit men, weasels, snivelers -- but of course he's more complicated than that. Friends knew that if Buscemi ever got the chance to make his own picture, it would be subtle and multilayered, revealing itself slowly. It would avoid plot, focusing instead on conversation and characters. It would manage to be comic and tragic at the same time.
It would be "Trees Lounge," which opens in Washington today. Set in a crummy Long Island bar, it's mainly about blue-collar boozers and emotional cripples. Buscemi wrote it, directed it and plays the starring role (if a total screw-up can be called a star). He cast several of his indie-film actor friends along with members of his Italian-Irish family. They stage a disturbing little story -- the story of the life Steve Buscemi left behind.
The bellhop in "Barton Fink." The whiny Mr. Pink in "Reservoir Dogs." The taciturn hit man Mr. Shhh in "Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead." The neurotic kidnapper in "Fargo."
Oh, he's that guy -- the one with the bulging blue eyes and snaggled, nicotine-stained teeth. A homicidal Don Knotts, he has developed a video-store cult following that will rent any movie he appears in. And he's been in a shelf-full; seven in the past year alone. Did you catch his bad-guy cameo in "Billy Madison"? Or his farcical lead in "Living in Oblivion"? And you gotta see his Mexican bar scene in "Desperado."
Buscemi, 38, keeps busy not only because he's in demand but because he's a working man at heart, a former gas pumper, furniture mover and firefighter. He's just in from Los Angeles -- where he wrapped up his role as a serial killer in the prison-break movie "Con Air" -- but he lives in Brooklyn. In person, Buscemi (pronounced boo-SEHM-me) is easy-going and gracious -- and so out of screen character that he doesn't even fire up a butt.
"I'm out of cigarettes," he explains, patting his shirt pocket. And that's good, he says; he doesn't want to be a bad influence. He won't smoke in publicity photo shoots anymore, and he's cut out cigarettes at home.
"My son really gets upset about smoking. He's 6. I've explained to him that sometimes I have to smoke because my character smokes."
A good dad -- and loyal husband. He presses a small yellow handbill on his interviewer. It promotes his wife Jo Andres' new short film, "Black Kites," based on journals an artist kept during the siege of Sarajevo. It will be playing for a week in the Village -- the kind of arcane film that few people will ever see.
"Trees Lounge" is similarly noncommercial. Though certain critics love it ("A perfectly observed slice of life," Roger Ebert opined after its screening at Cannes; "the finest role of [Buscemi's] career," says Entertainment Weekly), the movie is opening on only about 40 art-house screens nationwide. It isn't playing on well-multiplexed Long Island, where Buscemi misspent his adolescence.
Though the state drinking age then was 18, Steve was faking his way into bars by 16. There was a real Trees Lounge -- a shot-and-a-beer joint in Valley Stream (a town near Kennedy Airport where his family, including three other brothers, moved after Brooklyn). But you had to "graduate" from other bars before you could claim a stool at the Trees, as Buscemi tells it. Every town has a dive like the Trees, with its brown vinyl booths, broken-down old men and sad-luck dames: a pseudo-family whose common bonds are alcohol and loneliness.
Buscemi wrote "Trees Lounge" six years ago as an exercise in imagining how he would have turned out if he hadn't left Valley Stream after high school. The result is a character named Tommy Basilio: "31 years old, pale and thin, unemployed, but possesses a fair amount of humor and charm," as the screenplay puts it.
And at his very core, he's a weasel. Not a violent man, but a moral blur.
He's the guy who'll lift $1,500 from the gas station till, blow it in Atlantic City and wonder why he gets fired. He'll cheat on his girlfriend. He'll try to cadge the last beer and snort the last line of cocaine. He'll put the moves on a 17-year-old girl who's gotten stoned for the first time.
The hardened criminals that Buscemi has often played may unnerve audiences, but the character of Tommy Basilio is truly frightening because he's more imaginable. More real. Closer to home.
As a teenager, Buscemi aspired to be a comic performer -- just as Basilio does. In the movie Basilio does bits from "The Wizard of Oz" to amuse his friends -- as did Buscemi, who played the Cowardly Lion in fourth grade. Basilio ends up driving a Good Humor ice-cream route. As did Buscemi.
"Yeah, this character that I'm playing is the closest to myself that I've ever played," Buscemi admits. He pauses and stares intently across his hotel suite. "It's, I guess, my realistic dark side."
For anyone who ever escaped a suffocating small town, the dark side is the past.
Many of Buscemi's friends moved beyond Trees Lounge by getting married or leaving Valley Stream. "But I know a few people" -- he hesitates and sounds a bit pained. "One committed suicide, a couple ended up in jail. Or else I don't even hear of them anymore."
As Tommy says in the movie: "All my friends are either dead, married or in jail."
Large as Life
Again, it's close to life.
Buscemi's childhood encounter with a large vehicle occurred while his mother was making a quick trip to the butcher shop across the street. She'd told little Stevie to stay upstairs, but he got scared. The bus stop was right in front of the apartment. John Buscemi, Steve's father, picks up the story:
"Unbeknownst to my wife, he ran downstairs. She was just crossing the street, and he went following after her. The bus was coming and slowing down, doing about five miles an hour when it hit him."
Thank God, it was winter. The boy was bundled up like a little Michelin tire man, including a well-padded hat. Still, he spent a week in the hospital; his head swelled up so much he "looked like a Martian," says the father.
In a way, the calamity turned out to be Steve Buscemi's salvation. The city automatically made a settlement in such cases. When Buscemi turned 18, he used part of the money to pay for full-time acting classes at the famed Lee Strasburg Institute in Manhattan.
John Buscemi had suggested the acting lessons. It was a compromise: Now the kid wouldn't be running off to Hollywood, and he could also take the civil service test and maybe land a firefighter's job.
The father figured acting school couldn't hurt: "You'll learn how to speak; they'll polish you up. Whatever you do in life, you'll be polished up," he recalls telling his son.
Manhattan was an exotic and intimidating place. When a classmate offered Buscemi a $100-a-month sublet on the grimy Lower East Side, he was afraid to leave home. But one night in his room, panic gripped him.
"I really thought: 'If I don't take this, I'll never get out,' " he says. He took it.
A Hot Career
With Buscemi on vocals, they formed the Pawns of Love (a "psychedelic country" band, according to Boone). They did cabaret acts as well as original plays at experimental clubs such as La Mama.
"We developed this way of working which was mostly based on improvisation and snippets of conversation heard," says Boone, who has a major part in "Trees Lounge." "It was nonlinear humor that was not about jokes at all. No jokes. The humor was totally based on the character."
You can detect this approach in such memorable Buscemi roles as Mr. Pink, who goes on a twisted tear against waitresses in Quentin Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs." ("I don't tip. I don't believe in tipping.") And the vernacular style is crucial to Buscemi's bleak yet humorous script for "Trees Lounge."
"There may be about two sentences of exposition in `Trees Lounge,' " Boone says. "The rest is revealed to you in conversation -- you get history somehow, but by way of passing conversation like anyone would, as opposed to telling the story.
"It's risky," Boone admits. "You can lose your audience."
The other firefighters thought Buscemi was crazy when he gave up the security of the firehouse in 1985. But after landing his first major movie role -- in the pioneering AIDS picture "Parting Glances" -- he found regular employment in films by highly regarded directors, including Jim Jarmusch ("Mystery Train") and Martin Scorsese ("New York Stories"). Buscemi also became a favorite of the quirky Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, who have cast him in five movies.
He's played in such commercial fare as "Airheads" and "Rising Sun," and with 50-plus films on his resume, he's becoming this era's Strother Martin ("Cool Hand Luke," "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"), a great character actor in westerns. Generally he's offered parts that fit his talent for portraying criminals and his physical type, a wiry ex-wrestler who never went for orthodontia.
Consider his upcoming film with Nicolas Cage and John Malkovich, in which federal convicts are being transported to another prison on a plane dubbed Con Air. "They take over the plane, they jump the guards," Buscemi explains. "I'm really kind of a passive passenger on this plane -- I'm a serial killer who's being transported. I'm not part of the plan. I come on the plane in full restraints, and I'm caged.
"But Malkovich's character, who's the mastermind . . . " Here Buscemi can't help chortling. "He lets me go because he loves my work."
Like many other actors, Buscemi developed a case of director's disease. His itch to sit behind the camera certainly must have been exacerbated by two of his major roles -- in which he played frustrated directors.
In the little-seen "In the Soup" (by Alexandre Rockwell, 1992), Buscemi's character ends up a patsy in a crime spree while trying to finance a terribly boring 500-page script. In the exquisitely funny "Living in Oblivion" (Tom DiCillo, 1995), he's an explosive director bedeviled by an incompetent staff and an arrogant leading man.
"I love both those films," Buscemi says. And of course he hopes to direct more movies.
But does he ever see himself breaking out of the weasel typecast?
"To me, my character in `Living in Oblivion' was a romantic lead. In `Trees Lounge,' I kiss, like, three girls. It's true!" he protests.
Unlike in "Oblivion," which spoofs low-budget movies, the "Trees Lounge" shoot went smoothly. But with a mere $1.3 million budget and 24-day shooting schedule, there was bound to be tension and frustration.
"I had a really good crew and cast," he says, smiling. "So there wasn't anybody being incompetent that I wanted to explode at."
Besides, everyone was either like family -- actors whom Buscemi had worked with before (Seymour Cassel, Elizabeth Bracco, Carol Kane, Samuel L. Jackson) -- or was family. He cast his younger brother, Michael, to play his brother in the movie. His father has a walk-on part. So does Buscemi's son, Lucian.
The extended Buscemi family is close, but the movie hints at powerful and dark undercurrents, the kind that run through many families. Dysfunction is a major subtext.
"Everybody's [screwed] up," Tommy Basilio says in a scene that includes his screen brother, Raymond. "I'm [screwed] up but I pretend like I'm not."
Asked about this theme, Michael Buscemi says simply, "I think in our family it's very hard for certain people to show their emotions." Mark Boone says the movie captures an "emotional coldness -- there's a lot of stuff that isn't talked about, by fathers, mothers, children."
Unlike the many blood-soaked movies Steve Buscemi's seen in, "Trees Lounge" is about interior violence. Drinking, drugging, cheating, running away -- basic human frailties that cause so many wounds.
In this way, "Trees Lounge" is a horror movie. Boone says: "The real horror takes place inside families. The real horror is the mundane."
On this rainy New York night Buscemi is truly a hero, especially to the friends, neighbors and relatives who come to dance, snap pictures and celebrate at the premiere party. Who would've believed it -- the kid made it big.
"There's only good things to say about him," says a firefighting pal, Lt. Dennis Gordon. "He worked his way up from the bottom, with no breaks. He's Mr. Honest, Mr. Integrity. It's so nice to see someone so successful who's like that."
When Buscemi heard that the actual Trees Lounge was being converted to a modern sports bar, he purchased the old sign for a couple hundred bucks. He stored it in his father's back yard in Valley Stream. Recently the woman who ran Trees for 40 years asked if she could have the sign back, for the memories.
Of course, Buscemi said, and gave it to her. He was through with the Trees Lounge.
© Copyright 1996 The Washington Post Company