Thursday, March 13, 2014

Some Thoughts About "Scarface" (1983)

     Like my post about “Seven,” (see December 26, 2013 post), this one is about a movie that’s anything but obscure.  “Scarface” wasn’t a hit, critically or at the box office when it came out in December of 1983, but it quickly became a cultish success in the following years, especially when it came out on video (and later, DVD).  Even folks who haven’t seen it all the way through, or even liked it, are probably familiar with it, and some of its (in)famous quotes—“Don’t get high on your own supply,” “Never underestimate the greed of the other guy,” and “Say hello to my little friend!”  Some viewers saw it as a cautionary, anti-drug tale, while others thought it glamorized crime, and was almost a how-to manual on how to be a gangster.  But, thirty years later, people still avidly watch it, and discuss its themes, more so than they probably do for other early 1980’s films (that were successful and acclaimed at the time) like say, “Flashdance,” “Octopussy,” and “Ordinary People.”
     (SPOILERS AHEAD) Before I get into more detail, I’ll start with a brief synopsis of the plot for those who haven’t seen it in a while.  Tony Montana and his friend Manny are Cuban immigrants who were part of the controversial 1980 Mariel Boatlift (when 125,000 Cubans were allowed by Castro to leave their country and go to America, including an estimated 25,000 of Cuba’s worst criminals).  Broke and with few legitimate options, they quickly resume their criminal ways and start working with a local crime boss, Frank Lopez.  Tony, in particular, shows real leadership, and rapidly rises through the ranks.  When Frank tries to kill his overly ambitious protégé, Tony turns the table on him.  He has Frank killed, and takes control of Lopez’s empire and his girlfriend Elvira.  Once in charge, Tony grows even more rich and powerful, due largely to his partnership with a Bolivian cocaine producer, Sosa.  However, things spiral out of control.  Problems with the police, a botched political assassination, disputes with his now wife Elvira, tension with Tony’s family (his mother and sister Gina) and friend Manny, along with his own drug addiction lead to Tony’s downfall, as his enemies dramatically gun him down.
     Obviously, the reasons for Tony’s demise are many, since he’s a top level drug lord, who’s a major target for the local police, world governments, the IRS, his gangland competitors, and even his own mother.  But I think the major reason, the first domino that starts the disaster, is Tony’s greed.  Elvira at one point complains that Tony only ever talks about money, and in a lot of ways she’s right.  Tony is incensed that his bank (Tri-American City Bank) takes too much of a percentage of his cash to launder it.  (There’s a funny moment during a montage that depicts Tony’s employees carrying in seemingly endless duffle bags of cash to the bank.  And for those interested in the trivia, the banker, Jerry, quotes a 10% take on the first 12 million for $20 bills, and then 8% on $10 bills, and 6% on $5’s.)  Meanwhile, Manny has a lead on a banking competitor, Seidelbaum, who will only take 4% at most.  As it turns out, Seidelbaum’s deal is too good to be true—he’s a police officer /DEA agent who arrests Tony.  Among the charges are racketeering, conspiracy, and tax evasion, and even Tony’s excellent (and correspondingly expensive) lawyer predicts his client will serve at least 3-5 years in jail.  With his impending trial looming over him, Tony visits Sosa in Bolivia.  Sosa says he can fix Tony’s legal matters, and he won’t serve any jail time, as long as he assists in assassinating a Bolivian politician/journalist who’s about to implicate Sosa, Tony, and their drug cartel associates in a speech to the U.N., a spot on “Sixty Minutes,” and on various other news shows worldwide.  Sosa’s hit man, Alberto, is an expert killer, but his lack of knowledge about New York City, and inability to speak English, means he needs someone like Tony to help him out.
     Alas for Tony, things go awry.  Their assassination target unexpectedly brings his wife and young children in the car that Alberto has rigged with a bomb.  Tony’s morality precludes killing an innocent woman and kids, so he kills Alberto before the hit man can set off the bomb.  Sosa doesn’t take this insubordination well, and he sends the small army of gunmen, who eventually slaughter Tony and his remaining henchmen.
     So, in effect, if Tony had just sucked it up and paid his regular bank’s rates, he might have made it okay.  Or, at least, for a while longer.  This isn’t certain—Sosa may have asked and convinced him to help out Alberto even if Tony wasn’t in legal trouble, so it might have gone sour in the same manner, anyway.  But, without the prison sentence awaiting Tony he might have been able to refuse the assignment, yet not piss off Sosa. (Surely the world traveled, bilingual Sosa could have found another helper for Alberto, after all.  And yes, I realize that this was a plot contrivance, but I’m just trying to stay within the logic of the story.)  It’s also true that the other tragedies of Tony’s life might still have happened, too, even without the prison problem/assassination issues.  Elvira may very well have left anyway, and let’s face it—it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Tony accepts Manny and Gina’s romantic relationship/marriage, and doesn’t kill Manny in a creepily incestuous, jealous rage.  Finally, there were other serious problems on the horizon—Tony would have still had a ridiculous cocaine addiction (his scenes where he make gigantic lines—walls, really, of cocaine to snort are darkly comic, and over the top), and he still would have been a huge drug lord, with many enemies (the DEA, the IRS, the Bolivian government, and his drug competitors like the Diaz Brothers and Gaspar Gomez to name just some).  But, staying with Tri-American City Bank would have ultimately helped Tony out, and at least lessened some of the potent stresses in his life.
     Tony Montana is, undoubtedly, a reprehensible character.  In addition to being a vicious, murderous, drug dealer, he’s also greedy, joyless, tedious, and saddled with a psychotic temper.  And yet, I think one of the reasons the movie endures is that he’s undeniably (to me, anyway, and clearly many others) likable.  Aside from Oliver Stone’s script, much of the credit goes to Tony portrayer, Al Pacino.  As with his Michael Corleone character in the “Godfather” movie series, he projects a sympathetic humanity to Tony, even with the character’s many, serious flaws.  Or like another crime lord, James Gandolfini (RIP)’s Tony Soprano character.  Montana’s an anti-hero who you still find yourself rooting for.  Pacino’s been relentlessly mocked for his Tony Montana performance—critics often call his acting impossibly hammy and overdone, and they also make fun of his attempts at a Cuban accent.  In a sense I agree with their criticism, sort of.  The performance is over the top, and bordering on the cartoony……which is exactly what this character, and what the movie needs.  A restrained, measured, taciturn Tony Montana wouldn’t seem to make much sense for the story, and definitely wouldn’t have been as much fun to watch, and rewatch.
     “Scarface” is overall pretty grim, with all its violence, drama, and tragedy.  But it has a few comic moments scattered throughout it.  Some of these are unintentional—like the dated fashions, cheesy 80’s disco music, and Pacino’s horrendous dancing.  But some are intentional, and in the script.  Manny publically tongue-pantomiming his oral sex technique to a potential date in front of an amused Tony and some kids is a funny moment.  As is Tony’s clowning with Elvira in his car, when he puts on her girly hat (one of the very few moments in the movie when Elvira isn’t wearing a vacant, drug-addled expression, or her usual jaded and angry look).  But I think my favorite lighter scene is right after Tony and Manny have shot Lopez and corrupt cop Mel Bernstein.  Tony turns to leave, and then Manny points out that one of Lopez’s henchman, Ernie, is still just standing there.  There’s a long, awkward pause, and you assume that Ernie will be brutally shot, too.  Instead, Tony breaks the silence by offering Ernie a job.  A sweating, terrified Ernie accepts this offer in relief, and the others congratulate him.  Another humorous moment is the altered lines for the network television airing of “Scarface” (which, seriously, with all the violence, drug use, and profanity must have been cut down to like half an hour long!).  I’ll keep this clean, but anyone who’s over the age of about ten and can rhyme can figure it out.  Tony’s graphic line is slightly changed to, “This town is like a great big chicken just waiting to be plucked.”  It’s kind of reminiscent of “The Big Lebowski” television line change to, “This is what happens when you meet a stranger in the Alps!” over the original’s much more profane wording.
     (END SPOILERS)  Aside from Pacino, many of the actors in “Scarface,” even some of the supporting cast, went on to big careers.  Michelle Pfeiffer, who played Elvira, obviously went on to become a huge, multiple Oscar nominated movie star.  Robert Loggia, who was Frank Lopez, continued with his busy but mostly character actor status, appearing in “The Jagged Edge” (1985), “Big” (1988), “Independence Day” (1996), and “Lost Highway” (1997) among others.  Alas, Stephen Bauer (Manny) although he’s kept very busy, has mostly had small roles in major movies or starring roles in small, obscure ones.  Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Gina) was big for a while, starring in “The Color of Money” (1986), “The Abyss” (1989), and “Robin Hood” (1991), but hasn’t done much since 2000’s “The Perfect Storm.”  Poor F. Murray Abraham (Lopez’s #1 henchman, Omar) seems to be a victim of the so-called Oscar Curse, as after his Best Actor win for 1984’s “Amadeus,” has mostly slipped into small roles, and minor releases.  I was surprised to learn that the actor who played slimy hitman Alberto, Mark Mogolis, has had a long and active career, appearing in “Glory” (1989), “Ace Venture: Pet Detective” (1994), “Requiem For a Dream” (2000), “The Wrestler” (2008), and cable television’s “Breaking Bad,” among others.  Some other notables had tiny, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments in “Scarface.”  Comedian and actor Richard Belzer (“Homicide: Life in the Streets” and several “Law and Orders”), is the comedian doing stand up right before Tony is almost killed by Frank’s hitmen.  And tragically, Hollywood bit player and C Movie actress Lana Clarkson (best known for being the frequently nude star of cheesy sci-fi/fantasy films like 1983’s “Deathstalker” and 1985’s “Barbarian Queen,”) was the unfortunate shooting victim of legendary, but crazypants record producer Phil Spector.  (She’s on screen in “Scarface” for like two seconds, as she’s dancing with Manny at the Babylon Club.)  And on an even more obscure note, Elizabeth (E.G.) Daily sang two songs in Scarface (“Shake It Up” and “I’m Hot Tonight.”)  Some fans may know her as a prolific voice actress for cartoons and non-human characters, as she did roles in “Rugrats,” “The Powerpuff Girls,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” and “Wreck-It Ralph.”  I remember her mainly for playing the singer at the dance in probably my favorite movie ever, “Better Off Dead” (1985).
     Finally, it’s kind of funny and strange that Tony’s personal motto, “The World is Yours,” emblazoned on the globe statue in his foyee, is taken from a (apparently fictitious) Pan American Airline advertisement on the blimp he sees right after killing Lopez and Bernstein, and beginning his life as the gangster crime leader.  Was it all timing—would any slogan have become his life philosophy?  I decided to look up some other airline slogans.  One of Pacific Southwest Airlines’ was “Catch our Smile.”  Would Tony have been a happier, beaming gangster if he’d seen this instead?  Or one of Continental Airlines’ taglines was, “The Proud Bird with the Golden Tail.”  What would Tony have done with this?  Ordered custom suits with feathers and yellowish tints for the pants’ backsides?  Or maybe he would have been more literal, and his poor chained up pet tiger would have had a spray-painted emu neighbor, or something.

P.S.  One more bit of trivia.  Actress Miriam Colon played Tony’s mother, even though she’s really only four years older than Pacino!



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