Monday, January 26, 2009

You Fuck With Him, You Fuckin' With the Best!

When I started this series of posts about my favorite actors/movie stars, I told you then that I definitely have a type. Tall, dark, and hawk-faced is pretty much a sure winner with me. But, well, when you've got the dark and dago, apparently height isn't a deal-breaker, cause my all-time favorite guy proves that size isn't everything. So, say hello to my little friend!

The smoke-ravaged voice. The owl eyes. The ability to turn a tirade into a mini-opera. Inexplicable charisma. And not one, but two of the most enduring and definitive gangster roles ever. His onscreen personas have become so integral a part of the culture that even his real name has become a synonym (and sometimes satire) for defining bad ass.

Al Pacino's start in the movie business was shaky, to say the least. Everyone wanted the part of Michael Corleone in The Godfather. And the studio most definitely didn't want the short, unknown, and untested guy. But Francis Ford Coppola did want him, and he fought for him. And the rest is cinema history.


Only thirty-two years old at the time, Al's youthful face already showcased his trademark, deep, dark bedroom eyes. I firmly believe it's because of The Godfather that the common phrase -- appropriately useful when an onscreen hottie is engaged in a fistfight -- "not the face!" was coined. But even with a busted cheek, he was still hot. But even though he was hot, his screen persona, Michael Corleone, would come to bring new shades of definition to cool. Calm and calculating, Michael Corleone embodies the challenge of taking nothing personal while rising to take control of his family business, and all the while, the audience watches as he sinks, unwittingly, into damnation.

Though Michael Corleone's spiritual fall from grace is the climax of the film, The Godfather was one of the first major gangster-crime films released after the lifting of the Hollywood Production code. In that previous era, it was mandatory that villains got their due at the end of movies. And that meant jail or justice by the gun. This symbolic, soul destruction shit would not have played in the old days when it was flesh for flesh justice. But in the modern era, Corleone not only got away with it, he got an Oscar nod and a smash-hit sequel. And the first step in Al Pacino's path to stardom was set.

There were other notable steps along the path to building the perfect gangster-psycho -- some of them unexpected, and some with better results than others -- but then, in 1983, Al sealed his fate to become the single most revered icon not only among wannabe screen thugs, but real-life ones alike. He took on a Spanish accent (and an entire army) as the polar opposite of Michael Corleone -- the brash and fiery Tony Montana, better known simply as Scarface.


Not only did Al as Montana set the bar for balls, he was one hell of a fashion statement of excess. Believe me, I am a world-class aficionado of the tacky and gaudy, and holy balls did Brian De Palma's Scarface bring it. Though it's a shameful admission, I will confess that I still harbor an Extreme Home Makeover fantasy about someday having Tony Montana's home. Or even just his office. Or just that "The World Is Yours" awful statue-fountain. It is, undoubtedly, as much because of the tremendous, lascivious excess in Montana's tastes in clothes and home and women as because of his brutal, balls-to-the-walls attitude that makes him a touchstone. This guy, he lived large. But the opulence of his home still manages to be dwarfed by the beauty of De Palma's film and Oliver Stone's script.

Scarface is a tough movie to talk about seriously, because of all the baggage it's acquired and what it's come to inspire. People then, and today, write it off as a piece of trash -- pulp fiction on the screen. Gory and gratifying at a base level. They're right, of course. It was, and still is, vulgar and violent. But that doesn't mean it should be dismissed as nothing more. It doesn't have the classy cache of The Godfather, and for that it pays a dear price. De Palma is, unquestionably, a master of homage, and his Scarface is even dedicated to the creators of the original, director Howard Hawks and screenwriter Ben Hecht. But with Scarface, De Palma didn't just jump into their genre, he refined and elevated it, and, for those who really watch it, created a full-blown modern tragedy. And in the middle of this marvelous madness stood Al Pacino, giving the performance of his life.

Tony Montana was not a simple thug. He'd escaped Cuba to find a better life in America and ended up destroying not just himself and his entire family, but, essentially, the American dream. It would be easy to paint him as a vile little creature, but, like most of us, he wasn't that easily summed up. But it's also difficult to keep the audience on a kind of teeter-totter with an over-the-top character like Montana. But it was exactly Pacino's crazy onscreen chemistry and charm that pulls the character in and out of focus. He is tacky and gruff and way out of line in his pursuit of Michelle Pfeiffer's Elvira. And yet, when he slides next to her in a booth or sits by her poolside, we already know she's his for the taking. And as for that relationship with his sister? Well. Uh. Yeah.

Tony Montana boldly breaks all the rules, even the artistic ones. Michael Corleone remained convinced he was doing the right things for his family. Tony Montana, however, acknowledges his own villain status, even if it is with a glib irony. And though his tragic flaw is most certainly his cocksure confidence-turned-arrogance, the catalyst for his inevitable unraveling was a moment of clear morality. Clouded in defiance and overly enamored with his own power, he still makes a choice to not kill a man's family, which brings the wrath of an entire Bolivian cartel raining on his head. And Al sells it all.


Many of his lines are so often repeated, and much of his demeanor is now routinely caricatured. But if you ever actually watch the movie, it is an outlandish indulgence, but it's not nearly the cartoon that pop-culture has turned it into. It is a true classic whose legacy is tainted by its own cult-popularity. And Al has never been better. He was magnetic in this role, fascinating, even, as he somehow crosses the line back and forth and portrays both a human being and a larger-than-life character. And that's why this is his defining role. Because, as Tony himself said, it's the last time you gonna see a bad guy like that again.

4 comments:

Don Capone said...

I enjoyed reading this series on your favorite actors. Though I really thought Sly Stallone was going to be number 1. Just kidding.

SusanD said...

Thanks, Don! Well, he's not number one, but I do love him! Rocky!

Anonymous said...

Let us not forget Serpico. Dog Day Afternoon. And Justice For All. I was living in NYC when it came out and working at The St. Marks Cinema. Great experience. Every body smoking pot in the lobby, cheering and reacting to the movie. And let us not forget Sea of Love and Donnie Brasco.

SusanD said...

Man, I miss smoking everywhere. Missed out on the smoking pot in lobbies, though. That would've been keen, indeed. Dog Day Afternoon is one of my all-time faves, too.