No. 16: Scarface

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

According to Steven Bauer, who plays Manny in Scarface, Martin Scorsese turned to him in the middle of the film’s premiere to say “Be prepared, because they’re going to hate it in Hollywood. Because it’s about them.”

Scorsese was mostly right; Hollywood and the rest of the American film community was revolted by Brian De Palma’s Scarface and its pervasive and graphic violence, its over-the-top style and its heavy use of profanity. In my opinion, the average viewer today wouldn’t find Scarface all that shocking but in 1983, this was new territory. It’s that groundbreaking and daring bravado that both attracted its fans and repelled its detractors and it’s what makes Scarface arguably the most important and influential film that we’ve encountered so far here on Back to the Movies.

When Scarface was released to the public in December of 1983, it was reviled by most critics but championed by the two critics who happen to be the official 1983 film critics for Back to the Movies, Vincent Canby of the New York Times and Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times. Both critics opened their reviews with a comparison/contrast of The Godfather, another film about organized crime that starred Al Pacino. While neither critic was ready to call this film the next Godfather, mentioning it favorably in the same sentence with arguably the most revered film of the 1970s says a lot. But why did these two critics love Scarface so much while the rest of the country hated it, except of course for the huge audiences that shelled out their hard-earned cash to see what all the fuss was about.

The film was famously given an X rating on its first three passes with the MPAA, not only because of the extreme violence but also because of the copious use of the f word and pervasive drug content. De Palma only got it past the board after bringing in a panel of experts to testify that the film was an accurate portrayal of the drug underworld and that the depiction could help bring awareness to the dangers of cocaine. As stunning as it is to imagine that Scarface got its R rating on the basis of being a socially conscious film, that’s the approach that worked. Scarface finished with $44.6 million, nearly $100 million in today’s money, an astonishing amount for a “hard R” film like this. After its hugely successful theatrical run, Scarface became one of the first major home video success stories, doing enormous sales on VHS and Beta when it was released as a two-tape set in 1984.

It’s clear that aside from Ebert and Canby, the critics of the day simply didn’t get it. They didn’t understand that the excess they were criticizing the film for was obviously intentional. They didn’t understand that the film was in no way intending to be an accurate, cinema verité portrayal of the Miami coke trade. Despite the fact that De Palma plasters a dedication to Howard Hawks over the final shot of the film, the critical community just didn’t seem to understand that what De Palma was doing was pure genre filmmaking. This is a very post-modern movie made in an era where post-modern simply wasn’t something the general public or even the critical community could grasp yet. If we’ve learned anything so far from Back to the Movies it’s that films in 1983 were extremely irony deficient, which is often what made them so great. Films should take themselves seriously sometimes. But in 1983, the common viewer expected that he needed to take every film he saw seriously, especially films that aren’t clearly labeled as comedies. A viewer like that will have one of two reactions to Scarface: they’ll either love it for exactly what it is and enjoy its visceral, outrageous characters and storylines, or they’ll find it utterly absurd and feel insulted that the filmmakers expect them to believe that any of what they are watching could possibly happen in real life.

The soundtrack is certainly one of the most uniquely bizarre elements of the film and one of the things that gives the film such a strong identity. It would have been really easy to sample the hits of the day to give the film its cool, evocative atmosphere but I think this odd mix of dance/pop music created specifically for the movie by Giorgio Moroder helps further that feeling that you are looking into an alternate reality, a world that’s somewhat like real life but not quite. These are songs that feel like they could be hits in the real world of 1983 but in fact that with the exception of “Rush Rush” from Blondie’s Debbie Harry, none of the tracks come from famous or established artists and none were actual radio hits. (Embarrassing admission: before now, I knew all these songs but thought they were made specifically for the video game Grand Theft Auto III. Their inclusion in the game now makes perfect sense to me given the context.)

The film’s performances are a bit of a mixed bag, and while I could rave all day about Pacino’s bombastic performance that earns as many cheers as boos even today, there’s enough written about the performance out there on the web to fill several volumes (personally, I find the performance to be hugely entertaining and one of Pacino’s very best). The performances that don’t get as much attention are those of the supporting performers, namely Miriam Colon, who plays Tony’s mother, and Robert Loggia as mob boss Frank Lopez. Colon does an amazing job in just a couple of scenes as Tony’s disgusted mother and despite being only a couple of years older than Pacino, we completely buy Colon as a staunch Cuban mother who has given up on her criminal son. Loggia, who we saw earlier in this countdown in a nice role in Psycho II, plays a really key role as a mob boss who is more intelligent and careful than Tony but ultimately loses his grip because of his unwillingness to be as ruthless as Tony is.

Michelle Pfeiffer is perhaps the film’s biggest negative, coming off as vacant and passive in the role of Elvira, Tony’s coke-addicted wife. To be fair, Pfeiffer was nowhere close to the producers’ first choice for the role. The role was supposedly offered to a laundry list of actresses who all turned it down before Pfeiffer took the role, including Jennifer Jason Leigh, Melanie Griffith, Kim Basinger and Brooke Shields. I’ve never been a big Michelle Pfeiffer fan and certainly this performance did nothing to change that for me. As beautiful as she was, and still is, Pfeiffer has always seemed to lack that passion in her performances that is necessary to really flesh out a character and make it three-dimensional.

It’s hard to overstate the legacy of Scarface. The film has become a unique brand of cult classic, one that oddly has been adopted by both the hip-hop community and, according to many reports, by the organized crime community. Even Saddam Hussein was apparently a fan and named his money laundering trust fund Montana Management, a reference to the film. As Roger Ebert said in his Great Movies piece on the film, “The movie has been borrowed from so often that it’s difficult to understand how original it seemed in 1983, when Latino heroes were rare, when cocaine was not a cliche, when sequences at the pitch of the final gun battle were not commonplace.”

Scarface holds up as one of 1983’s most relevant films and while it didn’t finish in the top 15 at the box office, I might be willing to argue that it’s one of the five most culturally relevant films of 1983 when viewed with 28 years of hindsight.

Next Up: Bess Armstrong and Lea Thompson return to Back to the Movies for Jaws 3-D. I am really hoping one of them gets eaten by the shark. Can you guess which one…?