When the Tribeca Film Festival announced it would host a screening of the 1983 cult classic Scarface, followed by a panel discussion including the entire cast, I could not have called Ticketmaster any faster.
“One for Scarface,” I said.
“I have one left in Row J,” the ticketing agent replied. “That will be $320.”
“Does that come with any cocaine?” I asked.
Despite the price, last week I traveled to the Beacon, a former movie theater famous for hosting greats such as the Rolling Stones, the Allman Brothers, and Bob Dylan. I traveled by subway using my Metro Senior discount card at a total cost of $3.50. The last time I had seen Scarface was in 1983 in Coral Gables, where I had arrived at the theater in a bulletproof customized Mercedes-Benz with a gold-plated steering wheel. I must have snorted a kilo of cocaine that night. Now my drug of choice is Bayer baby aspirin for a mild heart condition.
When I arrived at the theater, I witnessed a large crowd of New York sophisticates and cinephiles bundled in winter clothing while waiting patiently for the doors to open. But gone from this affair were the Maseratis and Ferraris that lined the street the day of the Miami film opening. Gone were the young Latinos sporting beepers and Rolexes. And gone was the air of anticipation that we were about to witness something special and forbidden — a peek into a world that many of us were living.
“Screw the movie,” said Gary Cohen, an attorney living on the Upper West Side. “I’m here to see Pacino and Pfeiffer.”
The bronze doors opened and the crowd moved past the circular lobby into the ornate neo-Grecian auditorium featuring two 30-foot tall golden goddesses. I quickly found my seat. When the movie began, there was no shouting or cursing at the screen. The audience was polite and applauded generously when Pacino appeared. This group of mainly middle-aged movie viewers did not react to the extreme violence, even when one of Tony Montana’s men was dismembered by a chainsaw.
“The violence seemed dated, almost cartoonish,” said Tyler Emmons, a sales rep from Brooklyn.
I don’t know if the audience was jaded watching a 35-year-old film or if what happened on the screen was unrelatable to their personal experiences. All I could think about was the premiere I had attended in Miami those many years ago, a time when my life had taken an unexpected turn. I remember it as yesterday.
December 9, 1983: The sun was setting over George Merrick’s iconic building, Coral Gables City Hall, at the west end of Miracle Mile, as we inched toward the Miracle Theatre in a metallic black Mercedes 500 AMG with the windows tinted. Clapton’s “Cocaine” and Phil Collins' “In the Air Tonight” played
on a mixtape while we passed around a tiny mirror covered in pink Bolivian cocaine. Ahead, the signage on
the marquee read "Scarface" in bold crimson letters.
“Coño,” said Carlito "Junior" Hernandez, looking out the window. “There are more Marielitos here than were with me on the Boatlift.”
“You’d know,” I said. “Just find a frigging parking space. Try Coral Way.”
A line of people snaked down Miracle Mile and onto Andalusia Avenue. There must have been more than 200 people waiting for the doors to open for the first showing of Scarface — the film that Miami commissioners had chased out of town. In the back seat of the Mercedes sat my compadre Emilio and Al Israel, a New York actor and musician who happened to have a small yet crucial role in Scarface as the Colombian chainsaw-wielding hit man Hector “the Toad.” Al had gotten us passes to the movie. He and I had met months earlier at the Mutiny nightclub, which, as we would come to learn later, was the model for the Babylon Club in the movie.
“Pull in here," Emilio said.
“¿Tu quiere un pase?” Junior asked Al.
“No. I get high on life.”
After we parked, Junior pulled out a MAC-11 submachine gun from under the seat.
“What the hell is that for?” I said.
“In case someone cuts in line,” Junior smiled.
By the time we got to the Miracle Theatre, the doors were about to open. We must have passed some 30 people we knew from either the Mutiny or some other club in Coconut Grove. There were throngs of young Cubans wearing Members Only jackets or $2,000 Brioni sport coats. We figured at least half the people in line had some connection to the dope trade or at least knew someone who did. Junior had a field day strutting to the head of the line.
“Let’s get some seats up front,” he said.
When the movie started, we saw the Mariel Boat Lift. Then Fidel Castro appeared. The audience began booing and throwing popcorn at the screen.
“Screw Fidelm" someone yelled. “Screw the Bearded One!”
By the time Al Pacino as Tony Montana appeared on the screen, the audience was going berserk — until he spoke.
“What is he, a Mexican?” some guy blurted out. “He sounds foreign.”
“He’s no Cuban,” Junior said.
“But he does have ink on the back of his hand, like you,” I retorted.
Score one point for me. It continued like this until 20 minutes in, when Tony is tied up and about to be dismembered by a chainsaw. And who is about to do the deed? None other than our friend, Al Israel. Soon their positions are reversed and Tony goes after Hector, chasing him down Ocean Drive. It seemed all at once the audience rose to its feet.
“Kill him!” the audience shouted. “Kill the Colombian!”
Al slouched a little farther down in his seat.
I looked over at him. “Don’t worry,” I said. “You’re Puerto Rican.”
“Think they know that?” Al said softly.
We watched the rest of the movie — the gore, the violence, the gunplay. I could tell Junior was becoming increasingly disappointed. On one level, he liked what Tony had accomplished, rising from the refugee camp beneath an I-95 overpass, but I expected he thought he would somehow recognize himself instead of this comedic narrative. As for me, I was hoping Tony Montana would triumph in the end. His life of reckless abandon, of drug dealing, of defying the law had somehow become mine. I too was a wannabe cocaine-fueled gangster with a lousy Spanish accent.
As I left the Miracle Theatre that night, I thought, indeed, if there was any consensus in that theater, Miami was vindicated in forcing the caricature-like movie to move most of its filming to Southern California. For most of 1982 and 1983, prominent Cuban exiles were in a war of words with the producers and studio. But then this? What a flop. What a joke. As Pauline Kael, the film reviewer for the New Yorker put it: “The film was garish and intense... the whole movie was limp.”
But look at the 35 years since Scarface debuted at the box office. How many times has it been rereleased? Quoted how many times on ESPN and in various memes on the internet, in how many rap songs and on Breaking Bad? How many dorm room walls are covered in Tony Montana posters? Didn’t Tony Soprano quote Scarface in various episodes of The Sopranos? I look back on the movie with mixed emotions. Tony Montana had colored my world. Unfortunately, that color was black.
The 35th-anniversary screening of Scarface held in New York last week was similarly disappointing. Sure, the film was well received and there was much applause anytime Pacino lost control or speechified, but what happened afterward was a disaster.
Following the screening, a panel to discuss the movie included Al Pacino (Tony), Michelle Pfeiffer (Elvira), Steven Bauer (Manny), and director Brian De Palma. Many in the audience paid big bucks to witness this part of the evening's entertainment. And many went away wanting after hearing a bunch of regurgitated tales of the filming.
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De Palma reported the word "fuck" was used 226 times in the movie. This comment led to a ten-minute discussion, especially between Pacino and Bauer, about how “unique” the usage was in a film from 1983. I think I use the word more times before I have my morning coffee, but maybe that's just me.
Meanwhile, the commentator was hung up on Pfeiffer's weight. When he asked her how much she weighed during filming, the audience went ballistic. It’s surprising that in the age of #MeToo, especially in cosmopolitan New York City, someone would ask such a sexist question. Finally, Pfeiffer answered, “I don’t know. I was playing a cocaine addict, so that was part of the physicality of the part.” She was cool about it, to her credit.
And Bauer looked loaded. Maybe it was the rocks glass in his hand or the way he was slurring his words or the way he rambled for 20 minutes, long enough to put Pacino to sleep.
But the panel did get one thing right. Twice during the Q&A, Pacino and Bauer referenced the superb Miami documentary Cocaine Cowboys, produced by local filmmakers Billy Corben and Alfred Spellman. I’m sure they’re grateful for the shout-out.