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Culture Critic Ken Tucker on the Enduring, Inexplicable Influence of ‘Scarface’

The 1983 Latin-gangster epic Scarface has stretched its long tentacles into hip-hop culture, making mantras out of those classic Oliver Stone phrases, including “Don’t get high on your own supply,” and “Say hello to my lil’ friend.” But that's just the beginning: In the polymathic new book, Scarface Nation, Entertainment Weekly culture critic (and former New York film critic) Ken Tucker tracks the making of the film — and the ubiquitous influence of this "great shallow masterpiece" through Scarface shower curtains and video games, porn, comic books, and pajamas — which Tucker sometimes wears, to his wife’s consternation. We talked to Tucker about the reluctant reminiscences of Stone, director Brian De Palma, and star Al Pacino — “three white guys” who to this day still don't understand their flick's enduring relevance

Why was the Scarface cast and crew so reluctant to discuss its influence?
I think their interpretation of its acceptance in pop culture is that it somehow tarnishes the movie and they can’t understand that it’s what keeps it alive. I think they really ought to loosen up and embrace it. They should own their Scarface.

You wrote that De Palma has been repeatedly pitched by rappers looking to re-score Scarface with hip-hop. Sounds like a good idea, given Georgio Moroder’s awful disco-synth soundtrack.
He hates the idea and has refused to allow that to happen. He thinks [the old score] captures the period, and while he’s very glad that hip-hop musicians love this movie, he thinks it would ruin his great creation.

I assume you’re being a bit facetious?
I think it’s a really great shallow masterpiece. It’s got this great sprawling story, this great momentum. I think Stone’s script is really terrific, and Pacino’s performance, as caricaturish as it can be, but it's a fascinating performance because he was so committed to it. [But] it was certainly the beginning of the exaggerated Pacino, the guy who was willing to encourage his own most extreme mannerisms.

What does he make of it now?
Pacino tries to compare it to opera and to Brecht, saying he meant the character to be two-dimensional. But he would talk to me about any of his other movies except this one, because he was so tired of talking about it and he thinks it dogs his career.

This movie was almost made by Sidney Lumet instead of De Palma, and almost co-starred John Travolta. Would you like to have seen either of those scenarios?
It would have been great to see Pacino and Travolta onscreen together. But I think Lumet and Stone’s Scarface would have been very didactic and heavy-handed. Stone was pretty honest with me about how flawed he thought the movie was — he really disagreed with De Palma’s long, operatic scenes. But it needed that kind of trashing up.

So in the end, you don’t think they were setting out to make a masterpiece?
It was actually this combination of very cynical impulses — a big-budget exploitation film. And I don’t think that big-budget exploitation films are what the movie industry is into making now.

You're also a music critic. It seems hip-hop has moved away a bit from the Scarface paradigm, what with 50 Cent selling water and all that.
I think that the business rules of Scarface provided a business model ten years ago for a lot of hip-hop artists, but now those kinds of showy exhibitionist displays of wealth are considered both bad form and bad business, and we’re entering the post-Scarface era of music economics.

But it still seems relevant to Jean-Claude Van Damme, who just canceled publicity appearances to be with his gravely ill dog, Scarface.
You see? It never stops. Scarface is a sick puppy but an indomitable one.

Photo: Courtesy of Universal