Like many people, I first really noticed Steve Buscemi in 1992 when he played Mr. Pink in Reservoir Dogs. Despite that film's wealth of iconic performances (it virtually introduced much of the world to Tim Roth, Michael Madsen and Tarantino himself, and revived the careers of Harvey Keitel and Chris Penn), Buscemi managed to stand out not only because of his choice dialogue ("do you know what this is? It's the world's smallest violin playing just for the waitresses") but because of his survivor-rat personality, which, perhaps not coincidentally, makes him the only character whose fate we don't know at the end of the film.
Like with many of the other folks in that film, I followed his career from then on with great interest, seeing what qualities he carried from one character to the next, admiring his versatility, his sensitivity, his fearlessness. In In the Soup, he's Adolpho Rollo, an ambitious, naïve filmmaker who gets in over his head when a neighbor who agrees to help him get a film made turns out to be a low-level mobster; just a few years later, he plays Nick Reve in Living in Oblivion, another director, except this time a beleaguered and exasperated one ready to ruin even a room tone with a foul-mouthed, vitriolic rant.
Then of course there's his ongoing collaboration with the Coen brothers, from Barton Fink's attentive hotel clerk Chet to Fargo's casually cruel, bumblingly inept kidnapper Carl Showalter to The Big Lebowski's dim-witted bowler, Donny Kerabatsos. Suffice it to say that he's played characters sublime and mundane and everything in between, and best of all remains gloriously un-pigeon-holed as any one type of performer.
But I think my favorite of his performances – or perhaps the quintessential one – is his turn as Seymour in Ghost World.
While the film ostensibly follows the misadventures of Enid (Thora Birch) as she navigates a world of complacency, vacuousness and stupidity, Seymour is the galvanizing force that inspires her to change, if only because his insular, grown-up existence seems like the inevitable end result of her behavior as a young adult. "Maybe I don't want to meet someone who shares my interests," he tells her when she encourages him to get out and start interacting with people. "I hate my interests."
The reason this performance seems not only like an essential one for Buscemi, but perhaps his best, is because it really synthesizes all of the aspects of his personality we've seen in his other roles, and yet shows those qualities without the actor simply lapsing into familiar personas. Seymour carries a melancholy sense of resignation to his fate as a lonely collector of 78s, but he's clearly filled with a certain rage that his passions are not recognized, or maybe just appreciated, by the world at large. In one scene, he loses his patience at a mother and her children glacially making their way across the street: "What are we, in slow motion here?" he shouts as they slowly make their way through the crosswalk. "C'mon, what are you, hypnotized? Have some more kids, why don't you!"
Indeed, unlike few of the other characters Buscemi has ever played, he really gets such a broad range of emotions to convey, jumping from that self-deprecating anger to haplesseness to these vague hints of happiness, albeit filtered through the bad decisions of Enid as she tries to figure herself out. But for a performer whose odd looks and incendiary screen presence could easily have reduced him to a colorful character actor who just played parts like those he gave in Con Air or Armageddon, and presumably to enormous commercial success, Seymour in Ghost World seemed to be both Buscemi's acknowledgement that he wants to do more than that, and a demonstration of what he's truly capable of.