Brian De Palma’s Scarface, playing Saturday and Sunday at The Belcourt as part of the Universal 100th Anniversary series, holds a special place in my heart for several reasons. For starters, when I was growing up in Houston, I used to listen to local rap group The Geto Boys, which included member Brad Jordan — who, as many hip-hop heads know, referred to himself as “Mr. Scarface.” He would be just one of many rappers who would emulate and idolize Al Pacino’s Cuban refugee-turned-drug kingpin Tony Montana.
Another reason why I have a fondness for the film is because it was one of my late grandmother’s favorite films. I am so serious about this. I can remember watching the movie with the old lady when I was a kid, as she tossed back one Schaefer beer after another, admiring Pacino’s foulmouthed gangster for his fearlessness — especially in the immortal climax, where Montana literally goes down in a blaze of glory that makes James Cagney’s “Top of the world!” exit from White Heat look like a bitch move.
Heat wasn’t the only gangster flick De Palma was trying to outshine. He also was looking to one-up the original Scarface, directed in 1932 by Howard Hawks and Richard Rossen, which starred Paul Muni as the facially marked hoodlum who schemed and plotted his way to the top. Looking back on De Palma’s version now, especially with Pacino’s over-the-top performance signaling the trademark hamminess that would become a staple in later performances, it seems the director lifted the story in order to make a satire on Reagan-era greed and excess.
With Oliver Stone (who would later helm his own greed-is-good epic with Wall Street) penning the script, De Palma remade Scarface as a crass-yet-stylish cautionary tale for the times, chronicling the rise and fall of the ultimate ’80s corporate raider. It’s no wonder critics and audiences didn’t take a shine to De Palma’s dizzy 1990 adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities — considering he successfully mined the same territory years earlier with this flick, people probably thought it was overkill.
However, if you talk to any rapper or diehard fan of the movie, they’ll most likely tell you that the movie is about a self-made man who had everything — money, drugs, a mansion, even a fine-ass white woman played by revered fine-ass white woman Michelle Pfeiffer — and did his damnedest to keep the haters off him, right up until the very end. I remember talking years ago to former Entertainment Weekly critic Ken Tucker, who literally wrote the definitive book on the movie, Scarface Nation, in 2008. He told me how he spoke to rappers for the book like Snoop Dogg, who told Tucker he uses the movie as “a blueprint to define your life.”
But Tucker also said these guys realize the movie serves as “a kind of warning as to both how to behave and how not to behave to become a success, like how success can really blow up in your face if you handle that responsibility that you achieve the wrong way.” It's good to know that even 30 years later, as profane, gluttonous, violent and just plain wrong Scarface can get, it can still motivate people to get their shit together.