Scarface Nation

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Scarface Nation: The Ultimate Gangster Movie and How It Changed America
Ken Tucker
St. Martin's Griffin; 288 pages

The Gist:
Entertainment Weekly editor-at-large Ken Tucker surveys the lasting cultural influence of Brian De Palma's 1983 cult hit Scarface — a spectacle the author calls the "ultimate gangster film" and a work of pop art that has taken on "an unruly life of its own" in the 25 years since its initial release.

Dismissed by critics and largely ignored at the box office (its $44 million haul didn't even crack the year's 15 top-grossing titles), Scarface arrived on the scene as a decidedly minor event. But Tucker recounts how the movie gradually "got away from its [middle-aged, white] creators" and became a hit among "largely young, black and Hispanic" fans. The book examines how De Palma's work redefined the way films addressed on-screen violence and drug use and how the intensity of its misogyny, money worship and drug euphoria was embraced by hip-hop and gangsta rap. Scarface, Tucker claims, was more than just vulgar escapism. As the story caught on with urban audiences via home video, fans started filling in and expanding the story — going beyond the literal screenplay to construct alternate meanings and messages. Gradually it became a rallying cry for a subculture that was, in the early 1980s, just coming into its own. "A quarter-century after its release," Tucker writes, "it remains elusive yet pervasive, the movie that will not go away, but which pops up where you least expect it." (Read TIME's "Roots of Rap".)

Highlight Reel:
1. On the first Scarface, Howard Hawks' 1932 adaptation of the Armitage Trail novel: The film faced considerable censorship challenges from the Hays Office, which oversaw the industry's Production Code. In fact, two different cuts of the film were eventually created, and individual states could decide which version should play on their screens. "Accused of being too violent, plagued by censorship problems, scripted by a flamboyant writer, and starring an actor who sometimes went over the top on his accent — remind you of a movie we know? The 1932 Scarface both dovetails and diverges from its sequel in striking ways."

2. "Scarface Lives Among Us:" Tucker chronicles more than a dozen major news stories and pop-culture events that have revived the Scarface brand since 2006. One story details how a 24-year-old Indiana man robbed a bank while wearing a Scarface T shirt. A 2007 feature comments on the popularity of Scarface posters among teenagers ("every self-respecting guy needs a Scarface poster in his room"). And then there's the Scarface ringtone: By mid-2007, more than 2 million people had downloaded the "Say hello to my little friend!" audio file for their cell phone.

3. On the film's impact on the music industry: "Snoop Dogg told me that Scarface laid out everything a gangsta needed to know: how to handle himself, how to live by a code of making money that may be gotten in illegal ways, but having a kind of morality. He would not kill that man's wife and kids with that bomb, you've got to remember that. He had limits ... You can watch it for fun, to get off on his big guns and 'Say hello to my little friend' ... But you can also use it the way businessmen use self-help books."

4. On the film's initial reception among Hollywood executives: Many insiders considered De Palma's Scarface a not-so-subtle critique of a drug-addled entertainment industry. "Steven Bauer repeated to me the famous anecdote about one major director's reaction: 'Marty Scorsese turned to me — he was sitting in front of me at the premiere — and he turned around and said, Steven, this is a magnificent film, but be prepared, because Hollywood is going to hate this film, because it's about them.' [Producer Martin Bregman] concurred about the dim view his colleagues took of the film: 'Scorsese was right. Hollywood did hate it, hated it. We were looked at as though we were dragging filth into their living rooms.'"

The Lowdown:
It's a tall order, holding up a film that was generally dismissed by initial audiences and hailing it as one of the most influential works of our time. But to his credit, Tucker avoids preaching to the choir or trying to win over skeptics. His mission is not to defend the worthiness of Scarface but to establish the boundaries of this drug opus' lasting and profound influence. As a historian, Tucker is fair, acknowledging the film's many faults and the gradual emergence of a vast, underground fan base. And he spends a good many chapters detailing the ways in which the movie reached beyond the theater, inspiring everyone from TV producers to music executives to criminals.

Scarface Nation details the 70-year history of the Scarface story, reconstructs the juicy details of the 1983 Brian De Palma / Oliver Stone / Al Pacino production, and then traces the cultural fallout — questioning how this "antidrug movie [became,] in its pop-cultural afterlife, a pro-thug movie." In being fair to both those who hail the crime thriller as a survivalist masterpiece and those who consider it a blunder of grotesque gratuitousness, Tucker bolsters his argument that whatever your opinion on the film, Scarface cannot be dismissed.

The Verdict: Skim

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