Director: Brian De Palma
Starring: Al Pacino, Steven Bauer, Michelle Pfeiffer, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, Robert Loggia
Scarface is one of the more notable titles on my “List of Shame.” It’s achieved a definite presence in pop culture that persists to this day, finding new fans amongst the young all the time. I ask my students questions about their likes throughout the year (“Favorite comedy,” “Favorite dessert,” “Favorite author”) and nearly every year, Scarface will get a few mentions in various categories. While it feels good to be able to check this film off, I’ll say right here, right now, it was a film that was precisely what I thought it would be, and I didn’t think it would be for me.
Tony Montana (Pacino) arrives in Miami from Cuba in the late seventies after essentially being told to leave his homeland by Castro, who purged his land of political dissidents and a fair share of criminals. Montana falls in the latter category. He and his friend Manny (Bauer) work their way into Miami’s drug syndicate by catching the attention of boss Frank Lopez (Loggia). Montana, for his part, pays attention to Frank’s girl, Elvira (Pfeiffer), a woman who doesn’t exactly follow the rule of “Don’t get high on your own stash.” Tony is cruel, hard, and ruthlessly ambitious, so it is inevitable that his climb to the top of the drug power ring comes at a cost. When his beloved sister Gina (Mastrantonio) becomes drawn into this world, however, Tony’s problems push him over the edge.
While not the start of Pacino’s acting career, I will make the case that Scarface was the start of Pacino’s overacting career. Pacino’s work in the seventies was phenomenal. I think of The Godfather and its first sequel, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon, and Pacino delivers intense yet fairly subdued performances that rise when they need to, but also fall when they need to. But in Scarface, we have the start of the Pacino that has now become a caricature, a performance that is nothing but highs and yelling and shouting and craziness. To be fair, from what I’ve seen of his filmography, this was the first time he turned in a character whose volume is set at eleven throughout the entire performance, and people were obviously impressed. If I hadn’t known Pacino for such a type of character, I’d have been far more impressed with his turn as Tony Montana. But the problem with seeing iconic films after you’ve already seen a metric ton of other films, though, is that you lack this historical perspective. To me, this is just another example of Pacino being over the top, crazy Pacino. It felt like a Pacino caricature. It felt like I had seen it all before during skits on Saturday Night Live. And personally, I’d rather have the seventies Pacino.
Scarface is so eighties, it hurts. It physically hurts me. Which, of course, is fitting, because Scarface is all about excesses, and so were the eighties. As this film came out early on in the eighties, it is also easy for me to see how Scarface’s success could have shaped and defined this sort of celebration of immoderation throughout the rest of the decade. The sets are utterly ridiculous, reeking of gilded age glitz and spending money like it’s going out of fashion. Tony’s estate in the second half is painfully eighties. Then there’s the montage sequence halfway through that separates Tony’s rise from his fall. Shown with the requisite synthesizer music in the background, it was so stereotypically eighties, it actually made me laugh. I threw my hands up in the air and bent over, I was laughing so hard. I suppose there’s little else for me to do than embrace all the ridiculous eighties trademarks in Scarface, though.
I was irrationally bothered by the – hm, do I actually call it racist? Yes, I’ll call it racist – racist casting in Scarface. Almost the entire cast of characters, with only a few exceptions (the most notable being the fact that Manny, a significant character, is actually played by a Cuban), are meant to be Hispanic – Cuban, Colombian, Bolivian – but only the minor characters and extras were actually played by Hispanic actors. What was most galling was the decision that Italians = Cubans. Pacino, Loggia, Mastrantonio. This really, REALLY bothered me, and although this sounds odd, I’m not entirely sure why. It’s certainly nothing new in film; look at the movies from the twenties, thirties, forties, etc, and just how much blatant racism they contain. White actors playing black characters, white actors playing Hispanics, white actors playing Asians. I tend to forgive this when I come across it as a “sign of the times.” Unfortunate and ugly, yes, most definitely, but, well, it was how Hollywood used to operate. I find myself willing to overlook it. Why, then, am I so bothered by the exact same idea in Scarface? The only possible answer I can come up with is that I had hoped that by 1983, we would have known better. By 1983, I think I was hoping I wouldn’t have to sit through the painful experience of watching Robert Loggia, an actor who celebrates his Italian roots, ridiculously try to pull off a Cuban accent. I didn’t buy it, not for one damn second. I didn’t buy Mastrantonio, I didn’t buy the actor who played Sosa. I marginally bought into Pacino as Tony, but that was the only one. Am I being irrational here? I might be, and I completely own up to that, and on reflection, I don't expect ALL of the actors to be of Cuban descent. And yet, there's something that gets under my skin about seeing actors who are not only not Cuban, but AGGRESSIVELY Italian (for the most part) playing Cubans. It reeks of blackface to me. As I said, I know that I am willing to forgive similar faults in older movies. Why can’t I forgive it here? I'm not entirely sure, but it was a major block to my involvement in the film.
|She's all, "Bitch please, you ain't even CLOSE to Cuban."|
One thing I will definitely say Scarface got right is knowing precisely how to pull off a remake. As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, this Scarface is a remake of Scarface, sometimes subtitled “The Shame of the Nation,” from 1932 starring Paul Muni. Both films follow the same general plot structure – aspiring mobster rises then falls from power – but feel worlds apart. And that right there is precisely what a smart remake ought to be. Scarface, the remake, doesn’t try to pull off a thirties gangster picture, but instead introduces the drug syndicate angle, something that would have resonated far more with modern audiences. It feels current and slick and stylish, and not at all like it’s trying to simply copy a film that came before. What’s more, there are several reverent touches in Scarface, the remake, alluding to the original, to show that De Palma and producers really do respect their predecessor. The message “The World Is Yours” is significant in both films, and De Palma actually dedicates his Scarface to the writer and director of the original Scarface.
Scarface is a fairly straightforward story of someone’s rise and fall from grace. Nearly every plot device it employs was telegraphed to me miles in advance, so absolutely nothing came as a surprise. Then again, I am most definitely not the film’s intended audience. Ultimately, though, it is nice to have seen this film, even if I have zero compunction to see it again; it is a film that survives, it is still seen and loved and quoted by today’s youth, and if nothing else, I can now laugh at Kendra’s obsession with it when I guiltily watch reruns of Girls Next Door.
Arbitrary Rating: 5/10.