December 17, 2008 / 11:10 AM / 9 years ago

Book Talk: 25 years later, cult of "Scarface" lives on

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A quarter century after the gangster epic "Scarface" opened to middling reviews and a modest box office, the violent story of a Cuban-born cocaine kingpin's rise and fall has taken on a life of its own.

The 1983 film, written by Oliver Stone, directed by Brian DePalma and starring Al Pacino as Tony Montana, still sells briskly on DVD.

In New York, Scarface portraits sell alongside famous faces like Marilyn Monroe, John Lennon and, lately, Barack Obama. "Scarface" calendars, clocks, video games, comic books, even shower curtains are also available.

The film has inspired a book, "Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America." Its author Ken Tucker, editor-at-large for Entertainment Weekly magazine, spoke to Reuters about the phenomenon.

Q: Why this enduring fascination with 'Scarface'?

A: "People still quote all the famous lines: 'Say hello to my little friend,' 'Never underestimate the greed of the other guy.' Snoop Dogg said to me that unlike 'The Godfather', which is all about family, the important thing to him and a lot of rappers was that this was one guy who did it alone, who started from absolutely nothing. He had this code of loyalty (which drew) a lot of fans in the black and Hispanic communities. To a large extent, 'Scarface' went beyond just being a big-budget B-movie, it became a way to live your life.

"The DVD and various merchandise still sell millions of dollars. Its storyline is the story of (video game) Grand Theft Auto. It's quoted endlessly in TV shows and movies.

Q: Who makes money off of it?

A: "It's still Universal (Pictures). Producer Martin Bregman still makes money off of it. Pacino wouldn't talk to me about this movie. He feels like it's something that hangs around his neck and he's tired of talking about it. This movie was made by four white guys -- Pacino, Stone, Bregman, DePalma -- who are essentially clueless. I would say to Oliver Stone, do you know there's a video game? No. Do you know about the T-shirts? No. They had no idea. It's taken a life of its own."

Q: What's the oddest item you've come across?

A: "The shower curtains are pretty peculiar, they have chainsaws on them. I bought a pair of Scarface pajamas and a pair of shoes. There are dolls where you pull a string and they say the most obscene lines."

Q: Is the movie actually good or is that beside the point?

A: "I think a little of both. I've watched it 26 times ... One reason it's lasted so long is that young people these days never see movies that are complete downers the way 'Scarface' ends up. He's got a beautiful wife, all the drugs and money he could possibly want, but he's completely miserable and he goes out in a hail of bullets.

"Both Pacino and DePalma wanted to make an operatic movie. Pacino had been reading a lot of Bertolt Brecht, he wanted to make the character two-dimensional, not three-dimensional. I found that a little pretentious, but by having this kind of ambition and trying to raise up this pulp material, they did end up making something that's lasted. It's not a profound masterpiece, but it's a great shallow masterpiece."

Q: Where does it rank in the pantheon of gangster movies?

A: "I don't think it's as great a piece of art as 'The Godfather,' but it's definitely in the top five, and I'm including the (original) Howard Hawks 'Scarface.' You have to go back to James Cagney in 'Public Enemy' and 'White Heat' to get to gangster movies that are on a par with 'Scarface.'"

Q: You call the movie a franchise, even though there were no sequels, and predict it will outlast "The Sopranos." What's next for the franchise?

A: "A number of people want to put a hip-hop soundtrack on the movie, which is an idea DePalma has resisted for years."

Q: It's 25 years old. Is a remake possible?

A: "I asked everybody, but nobody talked about (a remake). It might have to take a different form like a female version. Maybe the next stage is a Lady Scarface."

Q: Considering your pajamas, what does your family think?

A: "Basically, they just want me to stay in my little home office and come out and be a normal person again. They find it a little scary."

Reporting by Nick Zieminski; editing by Patricia Reaney

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