Back when I was studying film theory at the Sorbonne, I watched both the 1932 original and the 1983 remake of “Scarface.” The original was a taut, if completely overracted, film noir gangster thriller starring Paul Muni as an Italian tough making it big in the city. The remake is the clownish, oversized minstrel show of campy violence starring Al Pacino in what will long be remembered as the first in a long line of movies in which he completely lost track of what he was supposed to be doing and hammed it up like a deranged soap opera actor.
It is also, for some goddamn reason, the favorite movie of every athlete, singer, rapper, or producer on earth.
In this article, Salon writer Louis Bayard reviews “Scarface Nation,” a new book by Ken Tucker that tries to unravel the mysterious allure of the film and explain its place in the firmament of popular culture. The answer, Tucker suggests, has less to do with what the film was than what it was interpreted to mean, rightly and wrongly:
We can see, then, that the phrases “Tony Montana” and “cinematic treasure” are never going to be yoked in the same sentence. “Scarface” owes its immortality, anyway, not to traditional tastemakers but to a devoted cult of young black and Hispanic men (a few women, too) who seized it for their own. Its arrival coincided with the gangsta phase of rap and hip-hop, and the film’s various tropes — “the ostentatious jewelry, the glorification of drug-taking as well as drug-selling, and the images of women as near-naked arm-candy” — have been staples of music videos ever since. As one observer put it, “All these rappers are out there rapping about how much money they got, and all the drugs they sell — that’s who they’re emulating: They’re living their little Tony Montana dream.”
Tony’s second-class status, coupled with his ruthless pursuit of the American dream, spoke with ferocious directness to a whole generation of street kids, not to mention celebrities. Snoop Dogg watches the movie at least once a month; Sean “Diddy” Combs has seen it at least 63 times; Shaquille O’Neal celebrated his 34th birthday with a Scarface party. No episode of the MTV series “Cribs” is complete without some musician pointing pridefully to a Scarface photo collection or a set of Scarface window blinds or an exact replica of Tony Montana’s white sofa.
I think celebrities and athletes would be a lot more interesting if they obsessed about “The Dark Crystal” instead of “Scarface.” Think about it. That movie was scary as hell and just as realistic as “Scarface” ever was. Imagine if they had an MTV Cribs episode where Willis McGahee showed off his replica of Thra and called his live-in homies “Gelflings.” And had a Rottweiler named “Emperor SkekSo.” How awesome would that be?
Why “Scarface” is f-ing great [Salon]