It’s been 35 years since Scarface rocked U.S. cinemas, courting controversy with its grand, flamboyant, R-rated vision of the American Dream run amok. Directed by Brian De Palma and starring Al Pacino in his most grandiose role, the 1983 remake of the 1932 Howard Hawks original remains one of the crime genre’s most beloved entries, as well as one of its most influential (especially in the world of hip-hop, where it’s revered as an outright classic). The story of a Cuban immigrant named Tony Montana (Pacino) who rises to the top of Miami’s burgeoning cocaine trade in the early 1980s, it’s an over-the-top film in every way, from its portrait of greed and ambition to its violence and profanity. That excess has been emulated in more subsequent gangster films than one can count — although few have ever matched its bravado, style, and potency. Thus, to help kick off this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, De Palma, Pacino, and co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Steven Bauer reunited to discuss the movie’s enduring legacy after a screening at New York City’s Beacon Theatre. And as it turned out, the evening’s chat was as notable for its own controversial elements as for its revelations about the production.
Note: The below Scarface clips are definitely NSFW.
The Michelle Pfeiffer Weight Issue
In Scarface, Pfeiffer’s Elvira — girlfriend to Pacino’s Tony Montana — becomes addicted to the drugs her paramour peddles, and the part required the actress to just about starve herself. During the post-screening Q&A, moderator Jesse Kornbluth asked Pfeiffer, “How much did you weigh?” — a query that (as you can see from the tweet below) attracted boos and denunciations from the crowd. Pfeiffer herself was initially somewhat taken aback by the question, although she quickly recovered, saying, “That was a big part of the physicality of the part. The movie was only supposed to be a three- or four-month shoot, of course I tried to time it. … I was starving by the end of this movie.” By the time she got to her final scene, which was repeatedly pushed back in the schedule, she admitted, “I literally had members of the crew giving me bagels because they were all worried about me and how thin I was getting.”
The Chainsaw Scene Was Based in Fact
Thanks to its profanity and gruesomeness, the MPAA originally gave Scarface an X rating three times, which De Palma said was largely because of a clown being shot in one scene. However, he argued that the violence itself was necessary — “I thought that we had to show that these were different kinds of gangsters. I thought, ‘Right at the beginning, let’s show the kind of violence we’re going to be dealing with.’” When it came to the unforgettable chainsaw sequence, screenwriter Oliver Stone (who didn’t attend) apparently modeled it after stories he had heard about Miami criminals. “That was in [Stone’s] script,” De Palma said. “He did all this reporting in Florida, and he based it on these gangsters who were chopping up bodies with chainsaws and dumping them in the garbage.”
The Film Was Born From Pacino’s Love of the Original
De Palma’s Scarface originally came about thanks to Pacino, who happened to catch a screening of Hawks’s original film at the (now-closed) Tiffany Theater on L.A.’s Sunset Boulevard. Watching that seminal gangster film, Pacino admitted, “I was completely taken with Paul Muni’s performance. After I saw that, I thought: ‘I want to be Paul Muni. I want to act like that.'” Moreover, the idea to make the new film’s protagonist a Cuban — inspired by the 1980 Mariel boatlift, which brought 125,000 Cuban refugees into Miami — came from Pacino’s Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon director Sidney Lumet, who was briefly attached to the project.
Pacino Was Badly Injured While Filming the Final Shootout
Scarface’s bloody finale is one of its most memorable sequences, and for Pacino, shooting it was a distinctly painful experience. As he told the Beacon Theatre crowd, a mishap with a gun ended up shutting down production for two weeks. “I grabbed the barrel of the gun I just fired. My hand stuck to it. It just stuck to it.” Pacino said that at the hospital “this nurse comes up to me later and she says, ‘You’re Al Pacino.’ I said ‘Yeah.’ And she said, ‘I thought you were some scumbag.’”
Pacino’s Signature Line Still Gets Cheers
As one might expect, the conversation inevitably turned to Tony Montana’s most famous line, which he uses to greet a trio of would-be assassins invading his luxurious Miami mansion during Scarface’s climax. When asked about its enduring popularity, Pacino couldn’t help but get a rousing rise out of the crowd by simply saying those famous words: “What do you mean, ‘Say hello to my little friend?'”
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