With the release of a recent YouTube video purporting to show pre-teens acting out Scarface for an elementary school play, I thought: 1) Western civilisation has come to an end, and 2) I need to re-watch the original movie. Beloved by rappers; reviled by interior decorators, Scarface has transcended its 80s-era Miami-eyesore roots to become a cultural phenomenon. This, despite the fact its hero is an incestuous psychopath with a fondness for gold medallions. Why do people love Scarface so? Is it the miasma of bad taste? Pacino’s sneer? The fact almost every major Latino character is played by an Italian? Loving Scarface is like revering polyester.
Al Pacino is alternately charmless and meat-headed as Tony “Scarface” Montana, a Cuban exile making his way in coke-soaked Miami, Florida. He starts in a U.S. detention centre, proudly declaring his hatred of homosexuals, communists and police officers. The year is 1980 and Tony has just been deported from Cuba. The U.S. authorities don’t want him, but Tony wangles a Green Card in exchange for stabbing a man in glasses. He wants it all: a drug-addled wife, a leopard-print yellow Caddy, an M16 assault rifle…his own pet tiger! And in America, he can have it. He’s the Cuban answer to Jay Gatsby (he even dies in a swimming pool, like Gatsby, too).
Is it intended to be The Great Gatsby on coke? There are some intriguing plot similarities: Gatsby and Tony both love other men’s wives, Gatsby and Tony are both poor men who rise (by dubious means) to great heights, Gatsby likes cocaine and killing people and flamingos…or at least, Tony does. Ok. So it probably isn’t The Great Gatsby on coke. But as a vision of America where money is poison and no-one wants the antidote, Scarface does parallel Gatsby’s enthralled disenchantment. It’s a relentlessly gaudy movie – and it’s about someone who loves gaudy things –but can anyone honestly love America if they don’t love ostentatious display?
Al Pacino seems to understand that Tony is red-blooded American, not by birth but by lack of embarrassment. His decision to make the character charmless is far more bold than anything he did playing Michael Corleone. True, it does make Tony seem repellent. But he’s repellent the way drunks look ugly to sober people; he’s the dark – and unattractive – aspect of success. That’s where Scarface is superior to The Godfather. Because The Godfather is the drunk’s view: power looks seductive. Scarface is about how power looks to those power is inflicted on: like vice. Tony’s love for America is an indictment. It has what he wants. He is hard-working, ambitious, and patriotic. Yes, and he’s also a drug-addicted, money-laundering psychopath. So the real question is: to what does he pledge allegiance?
Brian De Palma directs in that grandiose, supercilious way that he directs everything; his camera seemingly (and often literally) above everyone in the cast. His jaundiced view of America (see: everything Brian De Palma has ever made) is perfect for a movie where the hero’s highest aspiration is to have a hot-tub in his bedroom. As men are foreshortened with chainsaws, hung from airborne helicopters and polka-dotted with bullets, De Palma regards their deaths as if he’s watching the death of head lice. There’s no sympathy for anyone, no moment where Tony looks like anything but a thug (he even looks sleazy while cradling his dying sister).
If Scarface is iconic enough that six-year-olds are acting it out in school (hoax or not), it must say something about America, the land where “first you get the money, then you get the power, then you get the women.” The order is important in that list, as that was Gatsby’s order of priorities too. And Kennedy’s. And Tiger Woods’. Love is a bit fey to be truly American. Hitting on women (scoring) is American. And Tony Montana is definitely the type to hit on women. It’s the same look in his eye whether he’s scoring coke or girls. He might claim he does it all to win Michelle Pfeiffer, but his real motive – the ultimate motive for chasing power – is bragging rights.