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Long Story Short

A new book chronicles the rise of the original gangsta: Scarface.

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1. In 1932, director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht make Scarface, starring Paul Muni as a thinly scarred, thinly fictionalized Al Capone. Muni’s Scarface has a best pal–henchman (George Raft), a gorgeous blonde girlfriend (Karen Morley), and a kinda weird affection for his sister (Ann Dvorak). The movie is a huge hit.


2. In the early eighties, producer Martin Bregman gets the idea to remake Scarface for Al Pacino, with whom Bregman worked on Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. No, wait: Pacino says remaking Scarface was his idea—he caught a revival screening of it and became obsessed. Whatever.


3. Oliver Stone (only notable credit at that point: directing 1981’s The Hand), is hired to adapt Scarface. Stone visits the Caribbean, mixing with drug traffickers and police, and does “research” tooting coke, before buckling down to bang out the script in Paris.


4. Brian De Palma comes onboard as director and oversees the infamous chainsaw scene, whose graphic explicitness gets it branded an X rating from the MPAA. Scarface goes through four revisions before achieving the desired R rating. The movie’s unlikely champion: legendary Tinseltown MPAA censor Jack Valenti, who praises it as “very anti-drug.”


5. Scarface is released on December 9, 1983. Pacino’s anti-hero has a best pal–henchman (Steven Bauer; John Travolta was briefly considered), a gorgeous blonde girlfriend (Michelle Pfeiffer), and a very weird thing for his sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). The film attracts lukewarm business and reviews. (Pauline Kael: “The only action picture that turns into an allegory for impotence.”)


6. From 1983 to the present, Scarface develops a massive cult following among black, Latino, and white youth audiences. Catchphrases like “Never underestimate the greed of the other guy” become code-of-honor in countless rap songs. Scarface merch—T-shirts, bobbleheads, shower curtains—continues to sell. YouTube mash-ups have Scarface philosophy spouting from the mouths of everyone from Family Guy’s Stewie to John McCain. Two weeks ago, Jean-Claude Van Damme canceled publicity to care for his sick dog … Scarface.

It’s a Scarface Nation
St. Martin’s Griffin, $16.95.


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