As if starring in The Godfather and The Godfather Part II wasn’t enough, film legend Al Pacino also took the lead role in another of the most acclaimed gangster movies of all time: director Brian De Palma’s Scarface.
A loose remake of the 1932 film of the same name, Scarface casts Pacino as Tony Montana, an impoverished Cuban refugee who flees to Miami, where he works his way up to become the biggest drug lord in the city.
The film shocked many viewers at the time because of its extreme violence, copious swearing and frequent scenes of drug use. However, it’s also been praised for its powerful performances, and over the years Scarface has had a major influence not only on cinema, but on music, video games and more besides.
Here are some fascinating facts about the controversial 1983 film you might not have known.
20. The studio wanted to give the film a hip hop soundtrack for the re-release
In the years since the film was first released, Scarface has become synonymous with hip hop culture.
A lot of gangster rappers closely identify with the film, and have made references to it in their music. These include rapper Scarface (below), who took his name from the movie, and Future, who recorded a song entitled Tony Montana.
- Credit: Jeremy Perez via Flickr
Although it tends to be forgotten now, Scarface was not well received on release in 1983, and leading man Al Pacino credits the film’s re-evaluation to the hip hop community.
Pacino said in 2011, “they really get it and they understand it, and that’s a great thing. They’ve been very supportive all these years. I think they’ve helped us tremendously.”
Because of this, when Scarface was given a 20th anniversary re-release to cinemas in 2003, the studio wanted to replace a lot of the film’s music with contemporary hip-hop and R&B.
However, the film’s director Brian De Palma would not agree to this, so the re-release kept the original soundtrack.
19. Brian De Palma’s research into the drugs trade “got hairy”
- Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Scarface is set in the very real, very scary world of drug trafficking and organised crime.
In approaching this subject matter, director Brian De Palma was keen to make the film as true to life as possible.
To facilitate this, during pre-production De Palma traveled to the locations where the film was set.
This included Miami, Florida and the parts of the Caribbean where the drug trade of the time was prominent.
Keen to get a balanced view, the director sought out and interviewed people on both sides of the law.
This obviously took a lot of guts on De Palma’s part, with the director having been quoted as saying “it got hairy.”
18. The ‘pelicans’ line was one Al Pacino’s accent coach used to teach him the Cuban accent
Al Pacino was already more than a decade into his film career when he was cast as the lead in Scarface.
We might think that the man who played Michael Corleone in The Godfather movies wouldn’t need anyone helping him with his acting.
However, ever the professional, Pacino worked closely with an accent coach in order to convince as a Cuban.
It’s common for accent coaches to use specific phrases for the actor to practice in order to get the accent just right.
In Pacino’s case, his vocal coach used the line “look at dem Pelicangs fly” to help him perfect the Cuban accent.
This line wound up being used in the movie – you can hear it in the scene where Montana is in the bathtub speaking to Manny.
17. To help him stay in character, Pacino asked the film’s cinematographer to only speak to him in Spanish
As an Italian-American actor, Al Pacino was venturing into new territory portraying a Cuban.
While this might be frowned upon today, filmmakers and audiences were less concerned about non-hispanic actors playing latino characters at the time.
In any case, Pacino was keen to make his portrayal of Tony Montana as realistic as possible, and not just a caricature.
The actor found a perhaps unexpected ally in this endeavour, in the form of Scarface’s director of photography John A. Alonzo.
- Credit: Universal Pictures
Pacino asked Alonzo (a Mexican-American) to only speak to him in Spanish to help him to stay in character when the cameras weren’t shooting.
This in spite of the fact that the bulk of Pacino’s dialogue in the movie is English, with only a smattering of Spanish.
16. Steven Spielberg co-directed one scene
- Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
Scarface director Brian De Palma is a long time friend of another well-known filmmaker, Steven Spielberg.
The two legendary directors had made a habit of visiting one another’s sets over the years.
This tradition continued with Spielberg paying a visit to the set of Scarface in early 1983.
When Spielberg visited the Scarface set, De Palma was generous enough to let the Jaws filmmaker co-direct one shot.
- Credit: Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons
Spielberg helped out on the low-angle shot where the attackers enter the house in the scene where the Colombians initially attack.
Reportedly Spielberg insisted on receiving no credit for this contribution, to ensure that Scarface was seen entirely as De Palma’s work.
15. The word ‘Scarface’ is never once spoken
The film’s title, Scarface, is of course a reference to Pacino’s central drug lord Tony Montana.
This being the case, you might expect that people will be often referring to Pacino’s Tony Montana by this nickname.
However, no one ever calls Montana ‘Scarface.’ In fact, we never actually hear the words spoken in the movie.
There is only moment in the entire movie that sees Montana referred to as Scarface.
Even then, the words are spoken in Spanish: Montana is addressed as “cara cicatriz.”
This happens in one of the film’s most controversial moments of violence, when Montana is threatened with a chainsaw.
14. Filming was delayed after Pacino burned his hand on a gun during the final battle scene
Scarface’s most notorious sequence is undoubtedly its gun-crazy finale, in which Tony Montana famously cries, “say hello to my little friend!”
Quite a few people get killed in the scene – but of course, that’s all just movie make-believe.
That’s not to say, however, that no one got hurt shooting the scene, as Al Pacino himself suffered a nasty injury.
At one point during filming, Pacino made the mistake of picking up a gun by its barrel.
As the gun had recently been fired, the barrel was very hot. (It was of course loaded with blanks, but this makes no difference to the heat generated.)
Because of this, the actor wound up badly burning his hand, and this delayed filming for several weeks.
13. The actress who plays Tony Montana’s mother was only four years older than Pacino
Míriam Colón co-stars in Scarface as Mama Montana, the mother of Pacino’s Tony Montana.
Colón’s character serves as a reflection of Tony Montana’s conscience, as she strongly disapproves of her son’s chosen way of life.
Naturally, we would expect the actress portraying Pacino’s mother to be significantly older than he.
In reality, though, Colón was born in August 1936, which makes her less than four years older than her on-screen son.
A seasoned actress and graduate of the New York Actors Studio, Míriam Colón worked extensively in theatre, film and TV, amassing over 100 screen credits in her time.
Colón was awarded the National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama in 2014, before she sadly passed away in 2017 aged 80.
12. The filmmakers agreed to make cuts to avoid an X certificate – then they released the film uncut anyway
Two months before Scarface was scheduled to open in cinemas, the filmmakers and studio Universal were hit with a big problem.
The Motion Picture Association of America had given the film an X rating for its high levels of violence, swearing and other adult content.
A precursor to the NC-17 rating, the X was at that time the most prohibitive certificate in the US, allowing access to adults only.
As would later be the case for films rated NC-17, X-rated films faced serious restrictions on marketing and distribution, with some cinemas refusing to show them and some media outlets refusing to advertise them.
The filmmakers appealed against the decision – and, fortunately for them, the appeals board finally agreed to release Scarface as an R with minor cuts.
However, director Brian De Palma admitted years later that they actually released the fully uncut version of the film to cinemas, without anyone realising.
11. It used to hold the record for sweariest film ever made
Scarface shocked audiences and critics alike on release for the sheer amount of profanity used in the film.
The F-word is uttered more than 200 times in Scarface’s 170-minute running time.
At the time, this made Scarface the single most potty-mouthed movie ever made.
The level of swearing was so unprecedented, it was cited as part of the MPAA’s initial decision to give the film an X-rating.
In the years since, however, many more films have gone much further: Scarface is currently ranked 58th among films with the most use of the F-word.
2013’s The Wolf of Wall Street features well over 500 uses of the F-word, but the sweariest film of them all is 2014 indie comedy Swearnet: The Movie, with over 900.
10. The film only shot for two weeks in Miami because protests from the local community forced the production to relocate
Along with TV’s Miami Vice, Scarface played a large role in Miami developing a glamorous but dangerous image in the 80s.
As the Florida city is the main setting of the film, we might imagine that most of Scarface was shot there.
In fact, the production was only based in Miami for two weeks of its six-month shoot.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many people in Miami’s Cuban-American community took umbrage with Scarface’s subject matter.
Fierce protest from local groups during the Miami-based shoot forced the filmmakers to rethink their plans.
Because of this, the bulk of Scarface was instead shot in New York, Los Angeles and Santa Barbara.
9. Michelle Pfeiffer beat Glenn Close, Sigourney Weaver, Carrie Fisher and Geena Davis to the part of Elvira
For the role of Tony Montana’s wife Elvira, director Brian De Palma cast Michelle Pfeiffer.
Aged 25 at the time, Pfeiffer was still a comparative unknown in Hollywood, with no big hits to her name.
The actress’ most high profile role was in notorious flop Grease 2, which didn’t do her career many favours.
Because of this, Pfeiffer wasn’t high on the list of candidates to play Elvira. At first, the top candidate for the role was Glenn Close.
Pfeiffer was so unknown that Pacino and De Palma were both wary of casting her, but they relented at the insistence of producer Martin Bregman, who was convinced of her star quality.
8. Pacino originally wanted the film to be a period piece set in the 1930s
A lot of the time, actors board projects once they’ve already been developed by writers, directors and producers.
In the case of Scarface, however, the leading man was the one spearheading the project from the beginning.
Al Pacino himself hit upon the idea of remaking the 1932 film Scarface, with a view to playing the lead himself.
Pacino had also originally envisaged the film as a more direct remake set in the 1930s.
Pacino pitched this to his manager Martin Bregman, who signed on to produce the film.
At first, it was intended that Sidney Lumet (who had directed Pacino in Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon) would call the shots on the film, before Brian De Palma came on board and the setting and time period both changed.
7. There are two official Scarface video games
In recent years, Scarface has proved to be an unexpectedly big influence on video games.
The notorious Grand Theft Auto series draws heavily on the film, particularly in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
On top of this, there have also been two officially licenced Scarface tie-in video games.
The first of these was 2006’s Scarface: The World is Yours, for Playstation 2, Xbox and Microsoft Windows.
Also released in 2006 was Scarface: Money Power Respect, for Playstation Portable and Windows Mobile.
The World is Yours was largely well received, but Money Power Respect was met with a more lukewarm reception.
6. A remake has been in development hell for over a decade
It was first announced in 2011 that studio Universal had plans to produce another Scarface movie.
The plan, it seemed, was not to directly remake either the 1932 or 1983 movie, but present a fresh take on the premise.
In the years since, a number of different writers and directors have been attached including David Yates (Harry Potter) and Antoine Fuqua (Training Day).
In 2016, it was announced that Diego Luna would play the lead role with Fuqua directing – but the project stalled.
Since then, the esteemed filmmaking duo Joel and Ethan Coen have boarded the Scarface remake, but only as screenwriters.
In 2020, Luca Guadagnino (Call Me by Your Name, Suspiria) signed on to direct the film.
5. It’s been voted one of the ten best gangster films of all time
Despite the initial negative response, Scarface is now widely regarded as an all-time classic.
It has even been recognised by the American Film Institute as one of the definitive examples of its genre.
In June 2008, the AFI voted Scarface as the tenth greatest gangster film of all time.
The 1932 version of Scarface starring Paul Muni came higher on the list, in sixth place.
It shouldn’t come as much surprise that the number one spot on the list is taken by Pacino’s breakthrough movie The Godfather.
4. Pacino considers it one of his best films
Scarface was not a huge critical or commercial success on release, but over time it has been re-assessed as a classic.
Leading man Al Pacino is very proud of that fact, and has called the film one of his favourites from his own body of work.
The actor once said Scarface is “one of my favourites because of its whole evolution. It [was] sort of eviscerated after it opened by the press. Nobody was fond of it, except it had good audience participation.”
Pacino also felt that the film’s re-evaluation had a lot to do with the way it reflected the money-obsessed culture of the 80s.
“At that time, there was this whole thing about greed, which was Wall Street and everything, and I think that’s part of it.”
Pacino also called Tony Montana “a great character… a person who dares to do anything, who flies like a Phoenix, like Icarus, close to the sun.”
3. Brian De Palma almost directed Flashdance instead
Scarface was the 15th feature film of director Brian De Palma, one of the most acclaimed filmmakers of his time.
De Palma had risen to prominence with such films as Carrie, Dressed to Kill and Blow Out.
- Credit: Universal Pictures
However, before he signed on to Scarface, De Palma was offered the director’s chair on a very different 1983 movie.
Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer approached De Palma to direct their upbeat dance drama, Flashdance.
De Palma decided to make Scarface instead, and Flashdance proved to be a huge box office hit with director Adrian Lyne calling the shots.
While most of De Palma’s films enjoyed modest box office success, he would go on to direct one bona fide blockbuster in 1996’s Mission: Impossible.
2. Tony Montana takes his surname from a famous football player
The original 1932 film Scarface was loosely based on the crimes of the notorious Al Capone.
In the earlier film, the main character (played by Paul Muni) was named Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte.
However, when it was decided that the character would be Cuban in the remake, this called for a rethink.
Screenwriter Oliver Stone opted to keep the first name Tony, but changed the surname.
- Credit: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
The writer renamed the pivotal anti-hero Tony Montana in a nod to his favourite American football player, Joe Montana.
Stone would go on to great success as a director, with such acclaimed hits as Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July.
1. It was the debut film role of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio
Michelle Pfeiffer wasn’t the only actress who got her big break in Hollywood thanks to Scarface.
The film also gives Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio her very first screen credit as Tony Montana’s sister Gina.
Mastrantonio was 25 at the time, and was an experienced theatre actress, having not long since appeared on Broadway in a revival of West Side Story.
After appearing in Scarface, the actress went on to take many more high profile film roles in the 80s and 90s.
Mastrantonio’s subsequent films include The Color of Money, The Abyss and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. More recently, she has appeared in such TV shows as Grimm, Limitless, The Punisher and Blindspot.