“Scar” Wars

by Glenn Lovell

On its first go-round 28 years ago, “Scarface” was blasted in what seemed gleeful slow-mo by outraged reviewers, many of whom consigned it to their 10-worst lists. The box-office take was just as discouraging: Budgeted at $25 million, the film barely broke even.

Over the years this ultra-violent crime fantasy became the object of bitter attacks by Spike Lee, Luis Valdez and others who damned it as racist and pornographic.” It extols violence and trades in the worst kind of Latino stereotypes,” Valdez still asserts today from his office in San Juan Bautista. “It’s not fit for human consumption.”

Why then is Brian De Palma’s anarchic, cartoon-like “Scarface” back in our sights? The Miami-set gangster saga, starring a manic, spittle-spraying Al Pacino as Cuban crime boss Tony Montana, has returned to the big screen in “special event” bookings. Universal’s Limited Edition Blu-ray DVD, due out Sept. 6, bundles deleted scenes, background docs and the 20-minute short “Origins of a Hip-Hop Classic” — which holds the key to the film’s rebirth/vindication, according to producer Martin Bregman.

“Why is it back? I’ll tell you why: Our culture has finally caught up with it, ” says Bregman, almost crowing. “Three, four years ago my mail told me that the film’s audience was growing. And now it’s exploded. That doesn’t happen in this business, at least not in my experience.”

According to Bregman, the “Scarface” that has been damned by the establishment media has been embraced by such hip-hop artists as Snoop Dog, Eve, P Diddy and Ice Cube, who has said, “Everybody’s got a little bit of Tony Montana in ’em.”

In the ’80s, its influence could be seen in the sizzling pastel color scheme of a little something called “Miami Vice.” Now there are “Scarface” clubs on college campuses, “Scarface” T-shirts, buttons and other memorabilia, “Scarface”-inspired rock bands (Blink 182 is named for the number of times the f-word is used in the film). And many of Montana’s quip-y comebacks — “Say hello to my li’l friend, ” “Say goodnight to the bad guy” — have become movie in-jokes (see “Bad Boys 2”).

For Bregman, De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone, who found themselves on the receiving end of some of the most blistering reviews ever penned, such adulation is long overdue. “I’ve been approached by rappers who tell me how much they love ‘Scarface, ‘ and in rapper-esque movies you see ‘Scarface’ playing on television sets, ” notes De Palma, who also directed “Carrie” and “The Untouchables.” “It seems to be the inspiration for a lot of what they do. I think it’s because it’s tough in their community and they identify with Tony.”

Bregman goes further. He says Tony Montana has taken on mythical status: He’s become the champion of the oppressed, the little guy who claws his way to the top and then, nose-deep in his ill-gotten gains, goes out in a hail of gunfire.

Fans don’t stop Pacino on the street for his Michael Corleone role in the “Godfather” movies, Bregman says. But “they yell, ‘Tony! Tony Montana!, ‘ identifying with Tony as a guy who started with nothing, absolutely nothing, but got to the top because of his ambition and his desire and his street ethics.

“Puff Daddy says that what he learned from ‘Scarface’ saved his life.”

Like other movies whose popularity has confounded the experts, “Scarface”over the years has accumulated its share of myths, including:

• The film was financed by Castro to embarrass Miami’s Cuban community.

• The film was threatened with an X rating by the MPAA because of its chain-saw-torture sequence.

• The Cuban community hated Pacino’s performance, described by many as a Ricky Ricardo caricature.

According to Bregman, the film was never picketed by the Cuban community and the MPAA had more trouble with its profanity than with its violence.

“We took 10 frames out of the chain-saw sequence, the close-up of blood spraying on a face. But then, when it was obvious it was the language that upset the MPAA, we put it back. It’s not what you see that makes it horrific; it’s the sound of the chain saw.”

But one rumor — that Martin Scorsese called it “a great, great movie” but said “a lot of people in Hollywood are going to hate it because it’s about them” — is gospel, Bregman says.

“Marty was talking about the excess in Hollywood then. There wasn’t a house or dinner party you walked into that didn’t have a dish of cocaine in the lobby. Life in L.A. was about excess, indulgence, and that’s what ‘Scarface’ was about. And when the Tony character went downhill, a lot of people resented that.”

“Scarface” co-star Steven Bauer tackles the controversy surrounding Pacino’s performance. Tony’s accent isn’t laughable, he says. “It came from a lot of work: It’s the accent of a guy born in Cuba with an American father and a Cuban mother.” And Bauer should know: He’s Cuban himself. He moved to Miami at age 3. He and other Cuban immigrants were hired to work with Pacino to ensure the film’s authenticity.

“I was the real thing, the guy they needed, ” he recalls. “If there was any picketing of the film by the Cuban community, I never saw it. There was proposed picketing, yes, but when it came down to it the response in the community was overwhelmingly positive and thrilling. Pacino’s energy was infectious. Still is. You either hate the guy or love him.”

Beyond that, Bauer points out, De Palma and Stone were tackling something completely new. “They were showing characters who had never been seen on any screen — the Cuban common criminal. That’s what rap artists like about the film: This is the story of an Everyman — an Everyman who’s flawed. He’s a tragic hero who’s trying to create a better life for himself.”

Playwright-filmmaker Valdez (“Zoot Suit, ” “La Bamba”) isn’t buying any of it. “I don’t see why this film would appeal to the hip-hop generation,” he shoots back. “The Montana character is simplistic, an outrageous stereotype who’s not only demeaning to Cubans but Latinos in general.

“Pop culture provides a lot of parallels to the immigrant experience, but ‘Scarface’ isn’t one of them. It’s racist. It’s nihilistic. It glorifies violence.”

Bregman predicts that “Scarface” will finally go into the black on DVD, earning as much as $50 million. “Any possibility of making money they’ll take, ” Valdez says. “I know I’m not going to rush out to buy it.”

This is a reprint of a story that originally appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News.

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