Steve Buscemi – The Eyes of a Supporting Actor

Published on July 1st, 2011

James writes about how HBO is like Steve Buscemi, and vice versa.

So Steve Buscemi’s a leading man. Thanks to HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, a guy who was “that guy” for so long is now “the guy.” Now he’s also “a guy with an Emmy for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series.” I’m certainly happy for him and I think a lot of people are. Some wondered if it could ever happen. They worried that maybe Buscemi was a bit too weird, too unsettling, too unnerving, too out there to ever be the star, and that’s coming from people who like him.  And the way his career has progressed, this is a reasonable suspicion. He is a very high profile actor, usually appearing in many movies each year since his career really took off almost 2 decades ago. For a while perhaps he was that supporting actor who you recognized but couldn’t name but that was years ago. That’s behind him now and he is a well-known name, even recently having a pretty fun and creepy Internet meme surround him due to his unique eyes, which is the link I want share with you today. Sadly the site is slowing down so here is a tool for you to carry it over into your own life.

But while I have you here, I want to point out that being a leading man on HBO is sort of like being a supporting character in the grand scheme of television. This is not to say HBO isn’t good or unimportant. I actively watch more HBO shows than any other channel and judging by their critical reception and disproportionate amount of Emmy wins, it is clear they are very good and very important. But in a bigger way, in 2 major facets, HBO is still the supporting actor of the television world.

First, and most basically, numbers. HBO only reaches about a quarter of homes in The United States, putting it as a disadvantage off the bat as far as getting ratings. HBO’s market share is on the rise but the channel simply can’t match the number of TV sets their shows reach relative the main broadcasters right now. In this way, it is easy to see how the broadcasters are the leading man. More famous, more accessible etc. While HBO is the supporting actor. Less screentime, less well-known.

Second, and more abstractly, is the general role of HBO in the media, and, tied to this, the tone of its programming. The networks want to be more populist, less inflammatory, and ultimately accessible to everyone in the country. Since everyone with a TV gets NBC, it’s in the Peacock’s interest to pitch down the middle. In this way, the channel is like your typical leading man; someone that people can look up to, relate to and hope to be more like. HBO doesn’t suffer from this because almost everyone who gets HBO wants it and the channel is happy to be itself.

The traditional leading man is that all-American, unifying role. The actor and the character are people who everyone can relate to and at the same time try to be more like. He is clean-cut, handsome, and likeable. He doesn’t say things that alienate the mainstream and he works for a goal that social norms see as admirable. The worst thing the leading-man can be is bland, which isn’t seen as that bad. The supporting role, the other guy, the Buscemi, is the eccentric one. Physically, relative to the leading man, he is either shorter and fatter, weirdly tall and lanky or animal looking (usually rodent.) He is prone to awkward outbursts, weird habits and can be more international than the good ol’ hometown leading man. This character can provide many laughs and interesting development to the stories but the audience is not supposed to relate to him. Even when he is improving the film, we are not to see ourselves in him, and while he may be our friend and on the “right” side of the conflict, we are to distance ourselves from his otherness.

The reason I provided you with these links today is that it highlights how Buscemi is constantly, and probably always will be, the “other guy”, and it might simply be just his eyes. He is eccentric but he might just one physical trait away from being a properleading man, but I don’t know if he’d want to be. The supporting character is the one who can do more, have more of a range, say more interesting things and have more depth to his character.

Again, we see the difference between the major networks and channels like HBO. The networks want to be more populist, less inflammatory, and ultimately accessible to everyone in the country. As stated earlier, NBC reaches everyone so it must try to alienate nobody. But on HBO, anything goes. I know a lot of people (even another Macguffin Man) who hate Bill Maher but I doubt they’d argue that his HBO show Real Time shies away from topics, opinions language that may alienate some viewers.

Of course HBO is the place where Steve Buscemi finally becomes a real star. To be an HBO leading man is to reach the highest echelon of “thatguy”ism. Reaching the top tier of supporting actors sees you become the protagonist on the channel that isn’t the protagonist of modern television. As contradictory as it sounds, being a leading man on HBO is the pinnacle of being a supporting actor. And it seems that Buscemi is pretty pleased with it. You can see it in his eyes, if you can stand to look.

Comments

  1. Posted by BARBARA ROSENWALD on September 24th, 2012, 04:27 [Reply]

    I heartily disagree. You cannot compare HBO AND NETWORKS, APPLEA AND ORANGES. He is a terrific actor and HE IS THE LEADING MAN,IN,THIS SHOW,. YEA, HE’S,A GREAT CHARACTER ACTOR BUT IN THIS SHOW HE IS MIAR DEFINITELY THE LEADING MAN. MAYBE NOT ON LOOKS BUT,WHEN HE’S ONSCREEN YOU CANNOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF HIM. AND HE DESERVES THE RECOGNITION HE GOT TONIGHT. HE PAID HIS DUES AND CHARACTER ACTORS ARE MORE TALENTED IN A LEAD ESPECIALLY WHEN IT’S MR. BUSCEMI. HE HAS DEFINITELY BROKEN THE MOLD HE WAS PLACED IN EARLIER IN HIS CAREER. WELL DONE TO THE ACADEMY !

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