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SAG Awards 2011: Why Steve Buscemi and 'Boardwalk Empire' Beat 'Mad Men'

Steve Buscemi
Jason Merritt/Getty Images

Thanks, said Steve Buscemi collecting his SAG award Sunday for Boardwalk Empire, "just for letting me be me." The show won for best TV drama ensemble. Here's what the wins signify.

Buscemi, the most reflexive self-deprecator this side of Paul Giamatti, also razzed himself for blowing his 1987 audition for Brian De Palma's The Untouchables with a line reading that sounded like his mouth was in a paint shaker crooning "Abba Dabba Honeymoon." That may have been for the best. Young tremuluous Buscemi mightn't have been sturdy and distinctive amid the epic collision of De Niro and Mamet. It was better he snuck into fame by the side door, on the sly, with a lot of help from the ultimate backdoor trapdoor slyboots, the Coens. By now you could say of Buscemi what Delroy Lindo says of heistmeister Gene Hackman in Mamet's Heist: "My mother------ is so cool when he goes to sleep, sheep count him."

In an overexposed genre, you've never seen anything like Buscemi -- not even in his SAG ensemble-nom'd The Sopranos -- and you've never seen this milieu before. "This time in history hasn’t been explored at all. Not really on TV since The Untouchables in 1960," says the show's creator/exec producer Terence Winter. Buscemi's Atlantic City Untouchables trump even De Palma's and Mamet's. The show's win also vindicates HBO's bold bet on Buscemi playing a guy who really looked more like Tony Soprano, a movie-sized budget, gritty Warner Bros. gangland done up in ritzy Paramount style. Also a kind of lingering elusiveness rare in a show's lead. Buscemi's more of a ringmaster, hanging back like Gatsby, a ghost at his own bash. The four Gold Derby pundits who predicted Jon Hamm over Buscemi (picked by 11 of us correctly) weren't idiots, nor were we, the 11-idiot majority who thought Mad Men's ensemble would beat Boardwalk (picked by seven correctly), really idiots.

It's just that we didn't know that SAG would stamp its influential imprimatur on Buscemi's less stage-center style, akin to Hamm's towering internal inferno, but less leading, more deferential to a more loosely sprawling ensemble than Mad Men's. Also, Mad Men is old news that stays news, renewed and improving shark-jump immune, yet the new thing always has an edge. Especially if it's old, these days. Hence a certain oomph behind The King's Speech, too. My autumn reviews of the debuts of both King's Speech and Boardwalk Empire proved prescient of SAG's opinion. Here's my first Indiewire take on Boardwalk when it was getting dissed in September:

In the Martin Scorsese-directed kickoff episode of Boardwalk Empire, the nude flapper floozy Lucy (Paz de la Huerta) flops her boobs at the camera, bouncing atop Atlantic City gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson (Buscemi), and bellowing nasally, “GIDDYAP, COWBOY!” “Stop with the ‘cowboy’ shit!” snaps Nucky.

Tony Soprano was a cowboy. So was everybody in Goodfellas. But even though HBO’s Atlantic City Prohibition epic was created by Sopranos co-auteur Winter and produced by Scorsese, its hero is the least cowboylike gang boss you ever saw. He’s reticent, inward, ironic, wounded. Violence is a distasteful occasional necessity, but it irks him as much as his mistress’s bedroom theatrics. Nucky’s just a Christian businessman who tries to do good, make everybody rich, and make cases of illegal Canadian Club multiply like Jesus did the loaves and fishes.

David Thomson called his pre-Boardwalk persona a “babyfaced thug, sleazeball, scumbag,” but now he’s the big thug, his baby face gone gaunt, and he makes the top-dog role his own. Buscemi won his first big part in the AIDS movie Parting Glances because he looked ill, yet vital. Now that he’s craggily aging, it’s a big risk to make him the lead gangster, when practically every predecessor has emanated animal vigor. But that’s what makes Nucky distinctive. Instead of a bullying, over-the-top performance, he’s under the radar, a sneak attack on your heart. It’s jujitsu acting, and it scores.

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