'Scarface Nation' author urges everyone to get to know his little friend

November 14, 2008|By michael sragow | michael sragow,michael.sragow@baltsun.com

Ken Tucker, Entertainment Weekly's editor-at-large and music critic for NPR's Fresh Air With Terry Gross, wasn't sure he had picked the right subject when he set out to chronicle Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America (St. Martin's Press). "Scarface wasn't my favorite Brian De Palma movie," he says on the phone from his home in suburban Philadelphia. "I liked Blow Out a lot better."

With Al Pacino acquiring a deep tan and adopting a Desi Arnaz accent as the Cuban-American drug lord Tony Montana, who believes that if you have guts in America "the World is Yours," the movie was treated, for my money with good reason, as a bloated, over-hyped event when it premiered in 1983.

Yet after months of immersion in Scarface and its offshoots in culture and merchandising (dartboards, poker chips, flip-flops, shower curtains), Tucker now calls it "a great shallow masterpiece." As a renaissance critic who has covered rock, television and movies, Tucker realized he'd been observing the effects of De Palma's remake of Howard Hawks' Al Capone-inspired classic for a quarter-century, as it wrapped squidlike tentacles around rap, exploitation films and even episodic series (Kingpin) for that length of time.

Put that together with the movie's timing - it paved the way for other groundbreaking pop-culture phenomena that were percolating almost simultaneously, like Michael Mann's Miami Vice - and Tucker saw that De Palma's Scarface was a movie explosion with an unusually long fuse and even longer aftershocks. Could it have been coincidental that gangster rap emerged as a discrete genre only after Scarface was released in 1983?

"It was only a moderate success in theaters," says Tucker. "But once it came out on home video, first on cassette, then on DVD, it grew until it became huge" - like Tucker's passion for his subject.

"Oliver Stone wrote the script to Scarface, and it wasn't taken seriously," he says. "When he wrote the script to Wall Street [and directed it], near the end of the same decade, people raved about Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko proclaiming 'Greed is good.' A lot of people were saying how deep an expression of American culture that was, because it was about rich, white people, and we were in the middle of the Reagan era and white media could readily understand it. Scarface has a dozen lines that were as resonant or more so. But they emerged from a drug subculture in a minority milieu, and reviewers didn't realize how potent they would turn out to be. So the phenomenon of Scarface went underground for a very long time."

Tucker handily provides the wit and wisdom of Scarface in his Appendix, "Scarface as a business plan (or the 8 Habits of Highly Successful but Tragic Gangsters)."

Under the topic "Know Your Goals," they include Tony's Three-Step Plan: "In this country, you gotta make the money first; then when you get the money you get the power; then when you get the power, you get the woman. That's why you gotta make your own moves." Under "Old School Versus New School," there's Tony's mentor Frank's "Lesson Number One: never underestimate the other guy's greed." It's a cruder, also wiser line than "greed is good."

Tucker says he learned from his interviews that it was clear De Palma, Stone, Pacino and producer Martin Bregman, "these middle-aged white guys, had no idea of the impact they would have on black or Latino audiences. They shrug their shoulders and say, 'I don't get it, but it's great.' "

The richness of the movie derives partly from its peculiar gestation. Either Pacino or Bregman catalyzed the remake of the Hawks movie. But Sidney Lumet, when he was slated to direct, suggested changing the anti-hero from a Chicago-based Italian gangster to a Cuban hard-guy and cocaine trader. In the film, he reaches Florida after Castro empties his prison system's lowest depths: He is one of the ex-convicts who join thousands of others fleeing Cuba in what became known as the Mariel boatlift. In Miami, Montana becomes a cocaine baron. Stone, a former coke user who told Tucker he sampled the products of Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador while doing his research, was a natural pick to do the script.

Lumet says he objected to the "comic-strip" quality of Stone's screenplay. (Bregman thought Lumet wanted to make it too anti-Reagan and political.) Then De Palma came on board and put his imprint on the material, cutting out yards of Stone's purple-pungent dialogue to make room for languorous yet tense camera movements and rockin'-rococo violence, including the prolonged chain saw murder of one of Tony's early pals.

Tucker says Stone is a big enough man (and filmmaker) to say, "I have to hand it to Brian; he knew what he was doing. He captured something that was in the air."

So does Tucker. But also credit the critic for going the extra green mile and lavishing equal credit (if not quite equal time) to Hawks' movie and to its little-known source, a pulp novel by Armitage Trail (pseudonym for Maurice Coons).

It's the De Palma movie, though, that has kept them all current. "It came too late for the book, but about a month ago on YouTube I did a search for 'Scarface and McCain' and found that someone had taken the final shootout from Scarface and put John McCain's head on Pacino's body. So you had McCain saying 'Say hello to my little friend' as he mows people down with his giant machine gun. 'Making McCain interesting' was the title."

Tucker acknowledges that he may have chronicled a phenomenon that peaked in the past seven years of reckless power in Washington and greed on Wall Street.

"Yes," he says. "Obama is not a Scarface kind of guy."

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