Slowly but surely, the film gained a cult following and is today considered not only one of the greatest gangster movies of all time, but also as a sort of time capsule that perfectly captures the look and feel of the 1980s, with its heightened visuals, music and indulgences. The movie is filled to the brim with interesting facts and bits of trivia, not least of which the fact that it was a remake, and that the original was itself an adaptation of a book whose author died prematurely. In the end, and even though it certainly didn’t seem that way at first, Tony Montana really could be said to have gotten what he was looking for: the American Dream, or in his own words, “The world, chico, and everything in it.” Read on to see exactly how he did it.
From Scarface, to Scarface to Scarface
While the Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer-starring film is the quintessential 1980s gangster blockbuster, did you know it was a remake? And that the original movie was a book adaptation? Scarface, about the struggles, triumphs and eventual downfall of Cuban immigrant gangster Tony Montana came out in 1983, just a little more than half a century after the 1932 film Scarface, which charted the rise and fall of Italian immigrant gangster Antonio “Tony” Camonte. Still with us? Good. Now, that movie was an adaptation of a book, also called Scarface, written in 1929 and loosely based on the exploits of real-life Chicago mob boss Al Capone, whose nickname was… you guessed it, Scarface!
The real Scarface
Al Capone, who hated being called Scarface, by the way, famously quipped, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than you can with a kind word alone.” Capone, who operated a bootlegging operation during the Prohibition era, got his scar when he hit on a girl at a bar, and the girl’s brother took offense. Attacking the gangster with a knife, he missed his neck and just cut his cheek. The mobster received 80 stitches, and a new nickname. Despite his tough guy persona, he made it a point to give back to the people of Chicago, operating a soup kitchen during the Great Depression.
Scarface author dead at 28
Maurice Coons, who wrote under the pseudonym Armitage Trail, wrote Scarface and just one other novel – a detective mystery called The Thirteenth Guest. As research for the gangster book, Coons left his native Nebraska to live in Chicago, where he became close to an Italian-American lawyer, who proceeded to introduce him to the city’s Sicilian, criminal underbelly. Sadly, the author never got to see his novel on the big screen, having died of a heart attack almost three years prior to its release, at only 28 years of age.
The makings of a cult classic
Scarface was a modest box office success, but most film critics absolutely hated it. New York Magazine notably called a “dismayingly empty and bullying, sadly overblown B-movie.” it wasn’t more well received in Hollywood either, as Dustin Hoffman was said to have fallen asleep during a screening, while writers Kurt Vonnegut and John Irving walked out of the film in disgust. When the movie was released on home media, though, it was an immediate bestseller, hinting at its cult-classic status to come, which was thanks in no small part to its influence on hip-hop – but more on that in a minute.
Scarface a ‘ghetto classic’
Part of Scarface’s enduring popularity has undoubtedly been hip-hop’s fascination with it. First up is rapper Scarface of the Geto Boys group, who took his moniker from the film. Diddy, formerly Puff Daddy, said he watched it 63 times, and that it “scared him straight.” Rapper Fat Joe described Tony Montana as the “ultimate ghetto superhero,” while music mogul Russell Simmons said hip-hop is about empowerment at all costs, as was Scarface. “When you watch Scarface, it kind of inspires you not to take no for an answer,” he added.
A method to Tony’s madness
Star Al Pacino is a renowned disciple of method acting, an approach that has the actor completely immerse themselves in a role. Pacino completely disappeared into the role of the Cuban gangster, going so far as to not only learn Spanish but also having the movie’s director of photography John Alonzo, who spoke the language, only speak Spanish to him. Despite this fact, Tony only ever actually speaks one line in Spanish throughout the movie’s nearly three and a half hour runtime.
Too far into character
In the movie, Tony gets involved in the Miami drug trade, and it never shies away from its depiction of illicit substances. Urban legends have persisted through the years that stars Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer used the real thing on-camera but officially powdered milk was used as a stand-in. Whatever it was, it definitely took its toll and wreaked havoc on Pacino’s nose. “For years after, I have had things up in there. I don’t know what happened to my nose, but it’s changed,” he said.
Mom or older sister?
Actress Miriam Colon – who is actually Puerto Rican, not Cuban – played Tony’s mother, Georgina. In reality, however, Colon is only four years older than her on-screen son Pacino, making her barely old enough to play his older sister. This may seem unusual, but media is actually rife with similar examples of parents and children being almost the same age. The craziest example? Estelle Getty, who played Bea Arthur’s mother on ’90s sitcom Golden Girls, was actually a year younger than her!
Against all odds casting
Scarface has an almost entirely male cast – all of the main characters are men, except for two – Tony’s sister Gina and his girlfriend Elvira. Two virtually unknown actresses were selected to play the two roles: Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Michelle Pfeiffer, respectively. Pacino was against casting Pfeiffer but was overruled, and it turned into her breakthrough role. Her character suffered from substance abuse, and was extremely thin to the point that she was starving by the end of the movie. Pfeiffer revealed that to make Elvira’s self-inflicted starvation palpable, “I was living on tomato soup and cigarettes.”
She’s got the whole world in her… sunglasses?
Scarface may be a masterpiece of the crime genre, but even the best movies have a chink in their armor. This one is no different. In the scene where Tony and Elvira are exiting the Porsche showroom, just as they’re leisurely pacing towards the exit and having a chat, what seems to be the entire crew of the film as well as their extended families can clearly be seen in a reflection on Elvira’s huge, eighties-style sunglasses.
No adlibbing on set, please
Despite the off-the-cuff, spontaneous nature of the dialogue, almost everything you see on screen was scripted, up to and including Pacino’s famous “Say hello to my little friend.” That doesn’t mean that he didn’t get any freedom to express himself, however. The term “yayo” for example, as slang for illegal substances was improvised. Another scene, in which he snatches Elvira’s hat, who then reacts with amusement, was adlibbed and kept in the film because director Brian De Palma felt it showed how she was slowly warming up to Tony.
Miami or bust
The film was to be shot where the plot actually takes place – Miami, Florida – but the city’s significant Cuban population protested, due to the negative nature in which they were portrayed in the film. The Miami Tourist Board then decided to not allow filming, fearing it might tarnish the city’s image. The production thus relocated to Los Angeles, and Scarface’s art directors were forced to redress streets and buildings that were to be used as backdrop in the movie to give them the “feel” of Miami.
No Cubans in sight
Part of the reason the film caused so much outrage in Miami may have been the fact it featured next to no Cuban actors. In fact, the principal cast had only a single Cuban actor – Havana-born Steven Bauer – who played Tony’s friend Manny. Of the other supposedly Cuban characters, Pacino, Mastrantonio, and Robert Loggia are Italian-American, while Colon is Puerto Rican. A single supporting actor, Angel Salazar – who plays Chi-Chi – is Cuban-American. Both Salazar and Bauer advised the other actors on Cuban attitudes and culture.
A hot-handed actor
In the movie’s iconic climax, Pacino fires his “little friend” – a Colt AR-15-assault rifle. The weapon obviously fired blanks, but in all the excitement, he grabbed the gun by the wrong end, and since it was still piping hot from firing, he had to go to the hospital! “I shot off 30 rounds… I go to grab the gun and guess what? I grabbed the barrel…on the gun that just shot off 30 rounds. My hand stuck to that sucker. I couldn’t get my hand off of it. I couldn’t work for two weeks,” he recounted.
Tricks of the trade
Getting the Motion Picture Association of America to approve the film could make for a movie of its own. The MPAA initially gave Scarface an X rating, meaning no one under 17 could be admitted. De Palma cut it twice, to no avail. Furious, he had experts attest to the movie’s anti-drug message, which finally got it a more lenient R rating for its third cut. He then released the original without telling anyone – he figured no one would be able to tell the difference, and he was right.
Scarface was also notable for its incessant use of the F-word. We didn’t count, but media watchdog Family Media Guide did – the movie featured 207 uses of the word. With the movie’s 170 minute runtime, that comes to roughly 1.21 F-words per minute. At the time of its release, it was the most of any movie in history. After actor F. Murray Abraham’s mother watched the movie, she was horrified at the profanity, and asked her son to tell Pacino to “not use that language.” We agree!
42, the answer to everything?
Scarface was also notable in the number of on-screen deaths it depicted. The movie is bookended by two deaths, beginning with the assassination of a Cuban government official and ending with one of Hollywood’s most famous death scenes, for a total count of 42 deaths. That may seem like a lot, but it actually isn’t. The current reigning champion of on-screen movie deaths is the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie… with 83,871! That’s more than 78,000 deaths than the next movie in line!
‘Where’d you get the beauty scar, tough guy?’
The movie is named for a moniker Tony Montana apparently has, but as mentioned previously, both Scarface movies are actually named for Al Capone’s nickname. While we know how Al (Capone) got his very real scar, it’s never revealed how Al (Pacino) got his. The mystery may be due, in part, to the fact that the word is never uttered anywhere in the film- in English. The Spanish word “Caracicatriz” – meaning Scarface – is mentioned once. The movie’s actual name in Spanish, incidentally, translates to “The price of power.”
A true crime mystery
A young, up-and-coming actress/model named Tammy Lynn Leppert played a woman hit on by Tony’s friend Manny. On the fourth day of filming, she became terrified after having witnessed a scene involving gunfire and was sent home by the production. Shortly thereafter, she disappeared not far from her Florida home, at only 18 years of age. She has not been seen since July 6, 1983. Police have since followed up on several leads, but the case was never solved.
A special guest director
Scarface was directed by filmmaker Brian De Palma, who by the way bowed out of directing the world’s most eighties-est movie – Flashdance – to work on Scarface. De Palma was a longtime friend of E.T. director Steven Spielberg, and the two had a habit of visiting each other’s sets. Visiting Scarface’s set, Spielberg actually directed part of the movie’s climax, with the Colombians attacking Tony’s mansion. A low-angle shot showing the attackers first entering his house was helmed by Spielberg, whose contribution went uncredited at his request.
‘The world is yours’
An early scene in the movie shows Tony outlining his worldview to Manny, saying he wants what’s coming to him. When Manny asks what that is, he replies, “The world, chico, and everything in it.” This serves as foreshadowing for two major scenes later. In one, Tony survives an assassination attempt and then sees a blimp for Pan American Airways that reads, “The world is yours.” Later, the movie’s climax features a globe saying the exact same thing – in a testament to his all-consuming drive to succeed, above all other aspirations.