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De Palma’s Scarface at 35: a TriBeCa Panel

Scarface

By Gary M. Kramer.

Brian DePalma’s 1983 remake of Howard Hawks’ Scarface, with a script by Oliver Stone, had a special 35th anniversary screening at the TriBeCa film festival with DePalma, Pacino, and costars Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer in attendance. The film received raucous applause when it started and throughout its nearly three hour running time. (The film moves briskly).

Some folks did flinch during the early and storied chainsaw scene which is still pretty visceral (and earned an X rating, later downgraded to an R from censors). What is interesting about the film now is seeing how the megalomania – as when Tony insists he wants what is coming to him, and suggests money begets power which begets women – parallels a certain President, as the post-screening Q&A indicated.

Scarface still holds up in part because of its operatic appeal. The film pulses to the synth score by Giorgio Moroder, which captures the ersatz opulence. The scenes with Tony and his sister Gina (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) are shot like a telenovia with intense, stylized close-ups exacting emotion. These scenes, however, are almost as laughable as Tony’s pronunciation of “cock-a-roach” which generated howls and applause from viewers, as did the mountains of cocaine being snorted by the characters.

But DePalma’s excessive epic is still a potent film about a man coming from the gutter and getting ahead. (This may be why the film has been embraced by hip hop culture since its release). The infamous scene of Tony in his bathtub enjoying a cigar and fighting with his wife, Elvira (Pfeiffer) and his best friend/partner, Manny (Bauer), is as melodramatic as a later restaurant sequence that ends with both Elvira and Manny walking out, leaving Tony to pontificate about “the bad guy.” In this scene Pacino chews the scenery; his character becomes more and more unhinged before this lurid spectacle comes to its big finish in the film’s bloody, climactic shootout.

Scarface 02After the film’s screening, the talent arrived. Bauer stuck his tongue out to the audience, in a nod to Manny’s remark in the film about how to pick up women. Pacino received a standing ovation. The actor explained that he had the idea to remake Scarface when he saw the original in LA. “I want to be him,” Pacino thought and contacted producer Martin Bregman, who attended the screening. Pacino also disclosed that Sidney Lumet, who was originally hired to direct the film before DePalma came on board, had the idea to make Tony Cuban. The Cuban-born Bauer revealed that he helped Pacino with the accent, and they developed their on-screen chemistry by meeting for breakfast and talking about their lives.

When asked about the X rating, DePalma said that it was the violence towards the clown in the nightclub scene that upset the censors and insisted after three submissions to the ratings board that he resubmitted the original version to get an R. The chainsaw scene was in the script, and DePalma stated, it was used to show that these characters were a different kind of gangster. He also added that the film depicted a favorite theme of his which was portraying people from humble beginnings who acquire power then isolate themselves from society.

When Michelle Pfeiffer was asked about her weight making the film, the audience booed. The question was supposed to discuss her character’s drug addiction, and Pfeiffer’s last scene being delayed for weeks, forcing her to stay very thin for the role. However, it was in poor taste, and even a question regarding her first meal after shooting fell flat. Likewise, a question about the film’s extensive profanity did not generate much interest from the panel. Better was a question for Bauer about the image of Cubans in the film, which was controversial at the time for portraying them as criminals. (The film even features a disclaimer in its end credits).

Bauer spoke about participating in an American film as being a sign of progress for the actor who was born Esteban Ernesto Echevarria, and took the stage name Steven Bauer.

Pacino also had a chance to provide an anecdote that the audience appreciated, when he spoke about burning his hand on a gun barrel while filming the climactic shootout. His experience in the hospital with a nurse who mistook him for a scumbag (given he had movie blood all over his shirt) got a laugh from the crowd.

And Pfeiffer did get a decent question asked of her when she had to justify playing a character who is mostly seen as subjugated arm candy. Her response, that she learned from Pacino to “fiercely protect her character at all costs, and without apology,” was insightful, as was Pacino’s closing line, that making Scarface gave him a role and a chance to make a film he wanted to, and to play a character who had something to say. Even if his line “Say hello to my little friend” has become a catchphrase.

Gary M. Kramer writes about film for Salon, Cineaste, Gay City News, Philadelphia Gay News, The San Francisco Bay Times, and Film International. He is the author of Independent Queer Cinema: Reviews and Interviews, and the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina, Volumes 1 & 2

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