The healing of ‘Scarface’

Times Staff Writer

WHEN “Scarface” came out 20 years ago, Brian De Palma’s outlaw immigrant saga was greeted with scathing reviews (“one of the largest empty vessels to float on an ocean of celluloid,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Sheila Benson) and lukewarm box office. The picture was considered one of the lesser lights in the director’s canon of works, which included “Carrie,” “Blow Out” and “Dressed to Kill.”

It’s all the more surprising, therefore, that, in the intervening decades, “Scarface” has emerged as an iconic film on the urban landscape, particularly in the hip-hop community. So big is its afterlife that Universal Pictures and its specialty unit Focus Features are re-releasing the film in movie theaters in Los Angeles and nine other cities on Friday. The move is timed to the Sept. 30 release of a new, digitally re-mastered DVD that has drawn advance orders of more than 2 million units -- surpassing every title in the studio’s library, which encompasses “Jaws,” “Jurassic Park,” “Back to the Future” and “E.T.”

Exaggerated, almost operatic in feel, the story follows Tony Montana (Al Pacino), a former prisoner who arrives in Miami in 1980 as part of the Cuban boat lift. Unable to make it legitimately, he and his friend Manny (Steven Bauer) start selling drugs, becoming kingpins in the cocaine trade. The search for respect and power ends tragically, derailed by Scarface’s enemies and growing paranoia.


The film’s anti-establishment rags-to-riches story and unsentimental message struck a chord with a young audience, the filmmakers and social critics say. Many have seen it dozens of times and can recite Oliver Stone’s dialogue (“Say goodnight to the bad guy,” “Say ‘ello to my little friend,” “I always tell the truth, even when I lie”) verbatim.

“Montana is an antihero with whom contemporary kids can identify,” says De Palma, who, nevertheless, shot down a proposal to replace Giorgio Moroder’s period music with an original hip-hop soundtrack. “He’s about greed, power and self-destruction in the land of opportunity, capitalism unfettered by morality, which they see all around them. The movie has become the ‘On the Waterfront’ of this generation -- and Pacino is their [Marlon] Brando.”

References abound. The Los Angeles Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal called his clothing line “The World is Mine,” a play on one of the film’s best-known lines. Host George Lopez impersonated the enunciation-challenged Montana at the 2003 Latin Grammy Awards. Blink 182, a pop-punk band, took its name from the number of times that Pacino’s character uttered a certain curse word. And the Geto Boys’ Brad Jordon, who adopted the handle “Scarface,” is featured on a CD of songs inspired by the movie (e.g. Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments,” NWA’s “Dope Man,” Jay-Z’s “Streets Is Watching” and Ice Cube’s “A Bird in the Hand”) released Tuesday by Def Jam Records.

Jenna Coley, 22, tends bar at a Detroit club where the ripples of the movie are strong. For drug dealers, Montana is a role model, she says, and, for the rest, he’s a source of hope. “Though we were young when it came out, everyone I know has bought the cassette or taped it on video,” she says. “While ‘The Godfather’ is about family, being born to that life, ‘Scarface’ is more of today. Tony created something on his own and is all about loyalty and honor -- Mafia ethics. It’s one of our two or three favorite films, a portrait of the American dream.”

Whether the video hit, which also features memorable performances by a young Michelle Pfeiffer and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, would hold up on the big screen was in question, however. Not until July, when screenings were held in New York and Los Angeles, were the doubts put to rest. The response from a primarily young recruited audience, 50% white, 25% Latino and 25% African American, far exceeded expectations. In particular, fans lapped up scenes of the cartoonish protagonist living the high life -- in every way, such as watching a white-nosed Montana slump into a pile of his powder, which was both tragic and comic relief.

“Scarface” clearly withstood the test of time, observes Craig Kornblau, president of Universal’s home video division. “People [at the screening] were hooting and hollering, clapping and screaming -- and half of them, we learned afterward in the focus group, had never seen it before in a theater.”


Protests in Miami

Though he used the same title as the 1932 Howard Hawks’ gangster film, De Palma actually visualized “Scarface” as John Huston’s “Treasure of Sierra Madre” with cocaine substituted for gold. It got off to an inauspicious start: The violent and expletive-filled epic was greeted with protests and derision by Miami’s Cuban community, which disliked its portrayal, and given an “X” rating (since replaced by the NC-17) by the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s rating board. Bringing in three psychiatrists and a narcotics squad officer to testify in their behalf, the filmmakers eventually landed the more commercial “R.”

“We started out to make an anti-drug film about the rise and fall of an American businessman,” producer Martin Bregman recalls. “Hollywood, where so many executives had a dish of white stuff at the entrance to their homes, either didn’t understand it or hated that we did it.”

That theme, however, struck a chord with rappers such as Eminem and Jay-Z, whose lyrics are laced with drug allusions. Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (“I’ll Be Missing You”) professes to have seen the movie 63 times. With its graphic portrayal of street life and the pitfalls of success, he says, it’s a cautionary tale for those on the margins who suddenly strike it rich. Though P. Diddy’s roots are middle-class, he relates to the notion of excess. Montana violated the maxim “Don’t get high on your own supply” and was brought down by his arrogance.

“Statistically, young blacks coming up in the ‘80s wound up dead or in jail,” he said in a DVD documentary chronicling the rise of the film in the hip-hop arena. “I was one of those cats that was scared straight.”

For the last five years, USC professor Todd Boyd has devoted a lecture to the film in his course on hip-hop culture. Gangsta rap, which comprises the bulk of all hip-hop sales, took off commercially in the 1990s, he says. Artists such as the late Notorious B.I.G., Dr. Dre and the late Tupac Shakur culled crime imagery from films such as “The Godfather,” “King of New York” and “Scarface,” making it specific to their reality.

“ ‘Scarface’ did everything so big,” Boyd says. “I know people who modeled their weddings after his. And anyone on the bottom of the totem pole wanted to emulate Montana smoking that cigar in his sunken tub -- a sign of success and an in-your-face [attitude] embodied in hip-hop.


“If you are a young black or Latino male who came of age at that time, ‘Scarface’ was a central component in developing your identity,” he asserts.

Ferdinando Scarfiotti’s hard-edged, pastel-colored veneer, moreover, paved the way for TV shows such as Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice,” the popular video game “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” and a host of MTV fare. In her “After the Storm” video, R&B; singer Monica pays homage to a scene in which Pfeiffer, a mobster’s girlfriend, descends dramatically in an elevator.

“I was obsessed with the visual metaphor, taking acrylic vibrance to the level of Ludwig, the mad king of Bulgaria,” De Palma says. “Megalomania caused Tony to remake the environment a little better than God did. He created a deranged Playboy mansion -- and cocaine made things even more delusional. Visiting Miami two years ago, I found that [Scarfiotti’s] design re-created in South Beach. Those art deco buildings, once Jewish old-age homes, had become Scarfaceville.”

Eager to contribute to the phenomenon, Island Def Jam chairman Lyor Cohen met with De Palma, suggesting that his artists compose a soundtrack, with or without Moroder.

Though Bregman and even Pacino made the case for the proposal, the director was aghast.

“They said it would help promotion, presenting the film in a different way,” the director says. “But Giorgio’s music was true to the period, I argued -- and no one changes the scores on movies by Marty Scorsese, John Ford, David Lean. If this is the ‘masterpiece’ you say, leave it alone. I fought them tooth and nail and was the odd man out, not an unusual place for me. I have final cut, so that stopped them dead.”

Universal’s Kornblau hasn’t given up on the thought of creating a “reinvigorated and more relevant soundtrack,” however. Nor has Kevin Liles, president of Def Jam/Def Soul Records. “Hip-hop, as Chuck D says, is the ‘CNN of the ghetto,’ ” Liles points out. “Incorporating it into a classic like this would convey the current reality. The message, unfortunately, is as relevant today as when the movie emerged. I’ll be the first up to bat to rescore the film, which touched such a nerve in the ‘hood. Though Montana is Latino, all those kids identify with his job in the burger shop, idolizing guys with the big Benz and flashy women. Music is the soul of any movie, and a new soundtrack would increase its power.”


Some critics have revised their original view of the film. “ ‘Scarface’ is something else -- an authentic black comedy with red for blood, white for cocaine and that overall smeared look so true to Miami,” David Thomson wrote in his new Biographical Dictionary of Film.

“Scarface” has resonated the most of his 32 films, which include “Serpico” and “Dog Day Afternoon,” Bregman maintains. Contemplating the 180-degree turnaround, he concedes, brings a smile to his face. “I speak at schools,” the producer says. “Though we never planned on it, the movie has become the bible of the hip-hop world.”