When Al Pacino won the role of Michael Corleone in The Godfather, it was, in part, because Francis Ford Coppola insisted on casting a real, live Italian American in the role. The studio wanted Robert Redford.
It’s mildly ironic, then, that a shade over a decade later, Pacino picked up another instantly iconic part in Tony Montana, the fireball at the center of Brian De Palma’s Scarface in which he threw caution to the wind and chewed the scenery as a cutthroat Cuban immigrant. Though Scarface is still an unpredictable, kinetic journey, in the time since its initial release on December 9, 1983, the movie has become something of an oddity.
A Twisted American Tale
Thirty-five years after the fact, Scarface hasn’t lost its sense of fleet-footed anarchy. Even though Tony Montana’s rise and fall takes a daunting 170 minutes to watch, you won’t feel the time. Even on the second or third (or even seventeenth) watch-through, Pacino’s performance is cartoonish but engrossing. The dialogue is snappy. The action is intense. The soundtrack is so gloriously of its era you’ll find yourself drifting into the spirit of the time and place, even if you’ve never blown a single line of coke.
After all those years, however, there’s a glaring problem with the movie. In a story about a Cuban immigrant, surrounded by his Cuban family and his growing army of Latin bodyguards, there are only two Latin people. The biggest parts in the movie are played by white dudes rocking thick accents and wide collars. There is seriously no one in the world less Latin than Robert Loggia.
Al Pacino Spearheaded the Whole Thing
This isn’t a case of some studio suit turning to someone at the urinal next to him and going, “You know who’d make an excellent Cuban? That guy from the gay bank robbery movie.” In 1983, Al Pacino was a juggernaut. He spent the 1970s performing in the good Godfather films, Dog Day Afternoon, and Serpico. If the man wanted to get a movie made, he could do it. So it was probably kismet, then, that the actor caught a viewing of the 1932 Howard Hawks Scarface, starring Paul Muni.
Pacino was inspired to create a new kind of gangster, someone vicious, who broke the mold recently established by his own portrayal of even-tempered sociopath Michael Corleone. He picked up a phone and called a producer friend of his named Martin Bergman and declared, “I want to be Paul Muni.”
Oliver Stone was tapped to write the script; he thought the Scarface update would be a super way to kick his burgeoning coke addiction. Some weeks, one almost director (sorry, Sidney Lumet), and presumably several rails later, the Italian character of Tony “Scarface” Camonte was transformed into a Cuban immigrant named Tony Montana who killed his way into the country exactly the way Donald Trump warned us that people with dark skin would happen.
To prep for the role, Pacino spent time hanging out with the only Cuban in the cast, Steven Bauer, who plays Montana’s bestie, Manny Ribera. Pacino says Bauer, “helped me with everything Cuban.”
Maybe It’s a Throwback?
It’s hard to defend the film several decades later beyond saying that the casting seems like an unintentional throwback to the original movie, in which German Jew Paul Muni played an Italian while surrounded by a whole bunch of very white fellas doing the same thing.
The now-dubious casting decisions that plague 1983’s Scarface 35 years later could have possibly been explained away by calling the move an homage to gangster films of the 1930s, in which the Italians on screen were very rarely Italian. Let’s be honest, when you’re dealing with creative heavyweights like Stone and De Palma, you’d hope for a solid reason for casting Pacino as a Latin guy. At least a reason stronger than, “I want to play a kick-ass gangster like Paul Muni did.”
The Friction of ‘Scarface’
Through a modern lens, it’s hard not to see Scarface as a dangerous moment in cinema. Pacino was striving for “bombast,” but the film also gleefully fans the flames of fears surrounding the actual Cuban immigrants who emigrated in the Mariel Boatlift, the real-world incident Scarface uses as the means to get Tony Montana into the United States.
Rather than offer some kind of two-sided view of the immigrant experience, Scarface paints the wave of Cuban immigrants as a new kind of criminal force. It’s a tantalizing portrayal that’s a far cry from the real thing. Of the real-world Mariel Boatlift refugees, former Miami Mayor Maurice Ferre once told the Miami Herald, “The vast majority of these people were honest, decent, hard-working, industrious people . . . who are now doctors, bankers, entrepreneurs and who really uplifted the community.”
The Worst of Men
It’s not on Scarface to relieve the racial tension faced by those people who fled Cuba in 1980, but the movie is full-throttle nasty from the opening whistle.
Tony Montana is one of cinema’s great unrepentant douchebags. He kills without thought, betrays without remorse, and if there is some humanity underneath his dead-eyed gaze, it’s hiding deep, deep down, underneath a whole shitload of rage and pent-up incestuous lust. He and the rest of the motley crew with whom he’s surrounded himself are all vacuous, selfish, lazy bastards, too.
The only member of the tale who tries to exact some positive influence is Mama Montana, played by Puerto Rican actor Miriam Colon. She gets one meaningful (and brief) scene before she’s shunted off to the sideline so Tony can get back to his misdeeds.
The rest of the film is a joyous exercise in excess.
The Mickey Rooney Conundrum
At this point, Scarface is wandering dangerously close to what we might call the Mickey Rooney Conundrum. That is, Scarface is reaching a point where our changing social values just might forfeit the film’s classic status.
Birth of a Nation is likely the best example of this problem, but let’s try something more modern. Breakfast at Tiffany’s was once largely considered to be the ideal romantic comedy. Now, however, outside of some glamorous shots of Audrey Hepburn swooning, the film is mostly associated by its wildly racist portrayal of a Chinese dude:
Critics who look at Tony Montana and call him a monster are pretty accurate. He’s a cartoonish version of the immigrant who keeps paranoid Americans up at night. He’s fun to watch on screen, but there’s nothing underneath the flash. Maybe that’s the point, but at what point is a film’s technical prowess overrun by the transitioning values of its audience?
In other words, at what point does Al Pacino in Scarface become Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s? Just thirty-five years after the fact, that time is drawing decidedly close for Pacino’s gangster epic.