Reflections on Scarface (Blu-ray DVD)

I had been friends with Al Pacino for three years when he began shooting Scarface in 1982, and we had had some interesting conversations about his interest in doing a remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks’ film starring Paul Muni.  “I had heard about Scarface for a long time,” he told me. “It was the model for all gangster pictures. I knew that Bertolt Brecht was very interested in gangster movies. I remember when I was working in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, we were looking at old Thirties movies and the one we were trying to get hold of was Scarface, but we couldn’t get it. Then I was making a movie in California, and there was this little theater on Sunset Boulevard playing Scarface. I went in and saw this great movie: it had a real feeling to it, a grand feeling, and it had a great performance by Paul Muni. He did something different. I thought it would be interesting to do a remake of this, in another way. So I called [producer] Marty Bregman, and he saw it and got very excited.”

Pacino originally wanted to keep it a period piece, but realized that because of its melodramatic nature it would be hard to pull off, especially since he didn’t want to copy the original, but update it. “I was looking for a style,” he said. “What Muni had done was a base for me to start from; he gave such a solid foundation to the role, it was like a canvas. I knew it was a characterization I wanted to continue. Then [director] Sidney Lumet came up with the idea of what’s happening today in Miami, and it inspired Bregman. He and Oliver Stone got together and produced a script that had a lot of energy and was very well written. Sometimes when you hear good writing, it intoxicates you, it makes you feel good.  When the writer is connected to the writing, it can be magnificent. Oliver Stone was writing about stuff that was touching on things that were going on in the world, he was in touch with that energy and that rage and that underbelly.  And I found that when I hooked into that, there was a kind of expression coming out.  It felt the closest I’ve ever been in a movie to really speaking out.”

Sidney Lumet didn’t quite see the story the same way. “He wanted to make a different film,” Bregman recalled, “a political film that showed government involvement in the importation of cocaine.”  So Lumet bowed out and director Brian De Palma was brought in.  “De Palma had a different vision,” Pacino said, “a way I hadn’t thought about at all. He brought a definite style to it. He knew what he wanted to do with it right from the start. Brian approaches things—situations, sensibilities, relationships—from another angle, another place than me. We both understood that; and so we were able to get along.”

Oliver Stone was still a young screenwriter when he wrote the script and appreciated the collaborative effort. “Everyone—Al, De Palma, Marty Bregman—contributed to it.  It was a very special script; we worked on it very hard.   It was highly original for its time, and still is. I was doing cocaine during the research phase but then went cold turkey during the writing in Paris. I knew I couldn’t break the habit in Florida, L.A. or New York.”

While Stone was wrestling with the script and his drug cravings, Pacino began his elaborate preparation to become Tony Montana, the heavily accented, tough, defiant, reckless, Cuban undesirable refugee from the Mariel boatlift turned Miami drug kingpin.  “I didn’t do it alone; I had a lot of help. When I started, I met with the lady doing the costumes and the makeup person, the hair stylist. We would have long discussions out at my house about what the guy I was going to play would be like. It was the first time I opened the character up to a lot of people, which was helpful for me. I worked with my friend Charlie Laughton and with Bob Easton, the dialect coach, intensively. Steve Bauer, being Cuban, helped me with the language; he taped things for me, and he told me things I wouldn’t have known. I worked with an expert in knife combat, with a phys. ed guy who helped me get the kind of body I wanted for the part. I used the boxer Roberto Duran a little bit. There was an aspect of Duran, a certain lion in him that I responded to in this character. And I was very inspired by Meryl Streep’s work in Sophie’s Choice. I thought that her way of involving herself in playing someone who is from another country and another world was particularly fine and committed and…courageous.”

“Al intimidated me,” Oliver Stone admitted.  “He made me feel very nervous around him.  When I watched him in rehearsals, I saw how he turned Tony Montana into something very feral, something immigrant and hungry and decadent.”

Michelle Pfeiffer was also intimidated playing the trophy moll of the drug lord (Robert Loggia) that Tony Montana would overthrow, making her his. She was 24 and it was her first major role. “I played this appendage, this ice queen, and I was so frightened,” Pfeiffer recalled. “I was terrified every single day. I remember Al and I had dinner one night. It was horrible. We were both so shy. We didn’t have one thing to say to each other.”

When I told this to Pacino, he laughed and retorted, “Maybe because we didn’t have anything to say to each other.”  Then he added, “She was great. She was young, sweet. I liked her a lot. I didn’t want to infringe on whatever it was she was doing in the film. I didn’t want to get into talking about acting or about the characters because that was what Brian De Palma was doing with her and I didn’t want to interfere with that. I didn’t think it would be good for the picture.”

The reaction to the picture was a disappointment to everyone involved when it came out. The majority of reviews were not positive (“More a disaster than an outrage,” said Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice; “All bluster, macho ritual and mayhem” wrote David Denby in the N.Y. Times) and all the buzz about Pacino winning an Oscar for his performance was quickly silenced.  “Scarface wasn’t understood,” Pacino said. “It was more an underground movie. The critics didn’t get the joke, because a lot of them were coming from another place. It was about excess and avarice and everything being out of proportion. The character didn’t try to explain himself. I like the fact that, to me, Tony Montana was two-dimensional. I didn’t want to make him a three-dimensional character.  What you see is what you get.”

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