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New book examines the mystery of the 'Scarface' phenomenon

Steven Rea
The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

Al Pacino, Oliver Stone, Brian De Palma, they just don't get it.

A quarter century since its December 1983 release, "Scarface" remains a towering pop-cult phenom, a hyperactive gangster pic embraced by hip-hop artists, gangsta rappers, frat boys, gamers, poster merchants, blingmeisters and movie mavens who delight in dropping signature Tony Montana lines into their everyday yammer: Say hello to my little friend, indeed.

"I'm convinced that as the years have gone by, that they honestly have no idea, really, why it has remained as popular as it has," says Ken Tucker, author of "Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America," a trade paperback just out from St. Martin's Press. For Pacino (who starred as the Cuban refugee-turned-Miami crime lord Tony Montana), Stone (the screenwriter) and De Palma (the director), the success of the over-the-top crime saga remains something of a mystery.

"When I talked to Martin Bregman, Scarface's producer, he, too, was like: 'I don't know why these college kids watch it over and over again - but I'm glad they do!'" says Tucker, editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a TV and pop music critic who regularly contributes to NPR's "Fresh Air with Terry Gross."

"They have no idea of how it resonates in hip-hop culture and why it pops up in TV shows."

Stone was likewise oblivious, says Tucker, who conducted countless interviews with "Scarface" cast and crew (though not Pacino, and not Michelle Pfeiffer) while researching his surprising, insightful and often keenly funny photo-laden book. "I would tell him that 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' and 'The Simpsons' and 'The Family Guy' were all referencing 'Scarface,' and that was news to him," Tucker recalls. "So, they're kind of clueless to their own phenomenon."

Part of the movie's lasting appeal, says Tucker, is that in some ways it's a classic tale of capitalism, the pursuit of the "American Dream." Never mind that it ends in a bloody hail of gunfire.

Writer Stone, of course, went on to direct "Wall Street," but "in retrospect, 'Scarface' was like a prelude. ... All that stuff about money and power and greed. ... Stone didn't realize that he had it all in 'Scarface,' in this genre movie."

Tucker, a former Philadelphia Inquirer pop music and TV critic, worked on "Scarface Nation" over a two-year period, going back to the original 1930 Armitage Trail pulp novel (a pen name for Maurice Coons), revisiting and researching the original Howard Hawks-directed 1932 "Scarface," with Paul Muni in the title role, and watching De Palma's Scarface, transplanted from Chicago to Miami (but filmed, in large part, in L.A.) - well, watching it a lot.

"I've watched it at least 25 times," he says, seated recently in a local coffee shop. "As many times as the years it's existed. ...

"And it's certainly a troubling movie in that it's very amoral. A lot of rappers - not just rappers, a lot of young actors and film directors - point to it as representing this code of loyalty, but what I would say is, 'You know, the first thing Tony Montana does to start climbing out of the position that he is in is an act of betrayal. ... He's a completely amoral character.

"And I guess the argument to that is, 'Yeah, but you got to do that. That's what capitalism is. ...'"

Pegged to the film's 25th anniversary - a film that is a perennial DVD bestseller and Netflix rental - "Scarface Nation" is chock-full of behind-the-scenes revelations and analysis of the movie's far-ranging influence on music, movies, TV, books, comics, and even home decorating (a "Scarface" shower curtain, anyone?).

And Tucker has coined a new word, too, one that describes a certain epic, over-the-top, coked-up and profane sense of invincibility: Scarfacian. Or maybe it just refers to anything to do with the film.

"I'm very proud of that," Tucker says, smiling. "I'm sure it will be used all over the place."

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