FEATURE ARTICLE – Scarface and Popular Culture

By Marty Mulrooney

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Scarface, Brian De Palma’s 1983 crime saga, is still a huge part of popular culture within society in the present day. Upon its release, it was simultaneously applauded and condemned by critics and audiences, causing controversy due to its content and nature. However, by its very nature, controversy often helps a film rather than hinders it; the notoriety of the violence, profanity and drug taking that would now seem commonplace in an R rated film, certainly helped seal it within pop culture in many ways.

The pairing of an accomplished director, with a screenplay penned by another famous director, Oliver Stone, should have indicated a runaway success. Again however, the nature of the film both hurt its success, and ensured it would endure to entertain audiences today, over 20 years later.

Al Pacino as the star now seems the only choice for the main role. As an up-and-coming star, fresh off the back of the first two Godfather films, he was still at an important stage in his career, where choices he made could be the difference between being propelled into stardom, or fading into nothing.

Again, the controversy of the film could have made it become forgotten and buried over time.  However, Al Pacino has went from strength to strength over the years, often being referred to as a modern screen legend, along with the likes of Robert De Niro and Sean Penn. This respect and pedigree, with a solidified fan-base, means Scarface is often revisited, and kept alive, by fans both old and new.

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The era it was made in and set, the 1980s, creates atmosphere throughout the film along with the Miami setting, indulging in an excess of the actual reality of the time. It is both retro and dated, but in this instance the film doesn’t suffer for it; it lives in its own time-bubble, suited perfectly to the subject matter and the time it portrays. A similar example would be Michael Mann’s 80’s cop television series, Miami Vice, featuring similar settings and clothing styles.

Many forms of entertainment rooted in the 70’s and 80’s, from bands such as The Beatles to classic cars, never go out of fashion in a nostalgic retro sense, and this film falls into the same category, still being interesting and aesthetically pleasing, rather than laughable due to its age.

David Taylor put it best in his book: The Making of Scarface: “The irony of asking a cocaine addict to write a screenplay that centred on the cocaine trade was not lost on Stone. In truth, Stone had already done considerable research into drug trafficking for an aborted screenplay about the cocaine wars.” David Taylor (2005)

Oliver Stone, being a drug user himself, had personal experience with the subject matter when writing the script. He had done a lot of research, both on the side of gangsters, and also the law, in Miami. He even went as far as visiting the Bahamas to further understand drug trafficking, a major part of the film.

All of this allowed the film to be meticulous in effectively showing the rise of an underdog into a major gangster, before his inevitable downfall due to drugs. This is one of the main reasons the film has stayed rooted in pop culture, giving audiences an insight into organised crime at the time. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) before it had shown a more traditional side of sophisticated crooks: now audiences were getting an insight into a Cuban Refugee gaining power and going crazy with the American dream; the whole film has a feeling of spiralling out of control. This fast pace and excitement means that a viewer is genuinely excited, and morbidly fascinated.

So certainly, the story has prevailed with audiences over the years, but this takes a backseat to the main attraction: Tony Montana. His dialogue is quick, fierce and brutal: “All I have in this world is my balls and my word. And I don’t break them for no one.” This anti-hero at the centre of the picture is the real driving force, creating an iconic character. Much of this must be credited not only to the script, but also to Al Pacino himself. As a real character actor, he thrusts himself into the role with a strong vehemence, comparable to the classic gangster actors of the 1930’s such as James Cagney in White Heat (Raoul Walsh, 1949), and Paul Muni in the original Scarface (Howard Hawks, 1932.)

Upon its release, the original Scarface caused a wide public stir-up, causing controversy for pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time. When the film was finally released, after numerous delays, it was still banned by numerous local censorship boards as a result of its explicit violence. What would be negative back then however, worked in the remakes favour: notoriety sells. Audiences love gangsters.

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Indeed, as an anti-hero, Al Pacino brings the character to life as a ruthless power-hunger killer, at the risk of turning the audience away with his violence. This is balanced with a bizarre moral code of not harming women and children, and only hurting people when necessary, that lets the audience warm to him, and even find him relatable to a lesser degree to their own hopes and desires. Who doesn’t want to be completely in control of their life and realise their dreams? Pacino made it seem acceptable to like a murderous drug baron.

This character has since become an icon both of the 1980s, and films in general, featured upon many forms of memorabilia that are still top sellers today, from computer games (still financially viable today), to wall posters, and also influencing other mediums of entertainment, either via homage or direct reference.

It is precisely the way in which this film opted for a modern gangster, forming new conventions and standards for future films to live up to, that this film prevails in modern pop culture. The new stereotypes created a view into a world that had seldom been visited before, or quite so effectively since.

Many people who haven’t seen the film, still recognise the brand, much in the same way as the superman logo. This also applies to the film’s “look”, full of Miami views and 80’s cars and clothes. Scarface could perhaps be referred to as the film version of a “lava lamp”: out of date but always in fashion.

A surprising element of Scarface’s influence in the pop culture world comes in the form of the rap industry. It has extensive popularity with many hip-hop artists and gangster rappers, who single out the Tony Montana character for his transformation from a life of poverty to one of wealth, as a source of inspiration. Lines from the film are also used in many of these artists’ songs, and the film is a favourite of the Hispanic community.

This was so much so that, when in 2003 preparation was made for a re-release of the film on DVD, Universal announced that they would replace the 80’s new-wave soundtrack with a modern hip-hop score. However, the film was such a major part of pop culture and film history for fans as it was originally intended, that a backlash ensued, and De Palma wouldn’t edit a final cut until the original soundtrack was reinstated.

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Overall, a large amount of cumulating factors have allowed Scarface to be consumed by popular culture, surviving even today as a cult classic and retro indulgence, for audiences both old and new. The style and subject matter has allowed the film to age well and still be watchable, where perhaps other films made at the same time have not stood the test of time. Finally, Al Pacino’s growth as a major film star has ensured this film will be remembered as a defining moment in his long and successful movie career, to be constantly held in high regard, both as a classic film, and a definitive piece of popular culture.

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