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DAVE DAVIES, host:
In 1980, Fidel Castro allowed 125,000 disaffected Cubans to take boats to the United States. Known as the Mariel Boatlift, the exit is included up to 25,000 criminals. In his 1983 movie "Scarface," director Brian de Palma tells the fictional story of one of them, Tony Montana, played by Al Pacino. In the years since its release this gangster films popularity has grown and grown. Now Universal has brought out a new Blu-ray edition.
Our critic-at-large John Powers says the occasion hasn't thinking about why the movie has a bigger reputation today than it did when it first came out.
JOHN POWERS: Back in school, I was always amused to hear about classics that were dismissed when they first came out - you know, how "Moby Dick" wrecked Herman Melville's literary career, or how "The Wizard of Oz" was considered a disappointment when it was first released. I naturally assumed that, had I been around back then, I wouldn't have missed the boat like that.
But that was before I became a critic and discovered that, over the years, you wind up with a pocketful of unused tickets from all the boats you've missed.
Take, for instance, "Scarface," the 1983 gangster picture directed by Brian De Palma, written by Oliver Stone, and starring Al Pacino, who gives a performance the size of a Caribbean cruise ship. When it first came out, I panned it for taking Howard Hawks' great 1932 movie and remaking it as something trashy, shallow and excessive to the point of camp. I wasn't alone. The movie received lots of bad reviews, and even the public wasn't wild about it. It was only the 16th biggest box-office draw of 1983, behind such cinematic triumphs as "Mr. Mom" and "Jaws 3-D."
But "Scarface" didn't vanish like they did. Instead, over the next quarter-century, it became a phenomenon. The movie is now so iconic that it doesn't even seem silly that Universal should bring out a fancy, metal-encased Blu-ray version, the "Scarface Limited Edition Steelbook," which captures the story in all its lurid glory.
By now, most everyone knows the plot. Pacino stars as Tony Montana, a small-time Cuban exile. Tony arrives in Miami along with his friend, Manny Ribera -that's Steven Bauer - and sets about trying to grab the American Dream the only way he knows how - through crime. Over the course of nearly three hours, Tony rises from being a dishwasher to a drug lord complete with a gold-bedecked mansion, a gorgeous moll - played with sly bitterness by Michelle Pfeiffer -and personal stashes of cocaine the size of the Matterhorn.
Here, Tony, coked to the gills in a fancy restaurant, begins a widely braying at the low-heeled patrons he thinks are looking down on him.
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Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (as Tony Montana) You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fingers, and say that's the bad guy. So, what that make you? Good? You're not good; you just know how to hide. How to lie. Me, I don't have that problem. Me, I always tell the truth - even when I lie. So say goodnight to the bad guy. Come on; the last time you going to see a bad guy like this, let me tell ya.
POWERS: I tell the truth, too, and here's an abiding one: If there's any quality that makes a piece of pop culture last, it's energy. And like the chainsaw that dismembers Tony's friend early on, "Scarface" just roars. It's as indelible as a cartoon, from Pacino's dementedly hammy acting to the bevy of quotable lines, almost none of which are clean enough to be quoted here.
Yet the historical reason "Scarface" became a touchstone is that De Palma and Stone - especially Stone, the most plugged-in Hollywood filmmaker of the '80s -were actually ahead of their time. In Tony Montana's gaudy rise and fall, they predicted much of what we've seen in the past quarter-century - the delirious consumerism, the reality-TV egomania, the sense of getting ahead as a life-or-death struggle. Most strikingly, "Scarface" anticipates the rise of hip-hop culture, with its celebration of the gangsta life in all its aspiration and tragic sense of doom.
Where a comfortable middle-class white guy like me found Tony's story a preposterous fantasy, rappers like Snoop Dog and Flavor Flav saw it as a mythic version of something real. It captured their sense of what it was like to be an outsider trying to fight your way to the top, grabbing all the women and bling you could because you know it could all quickly come to a violent end. They identified with Tony's braggadocio, his desire to live large, and his willingness to fight to the end. And as with so much of hip-hop, this taste for "Scarface" entered the mainstream. These days, teens of all races quote Tony's lines and play the "Scarface" video game. For them, it's a classic.
As for me, watching "Scarface" again the other night, I still found it comically over the top. But with the benefit of hindsight, I also saw that such an aesthetic judgment is only part of the story. You see, when it comes to pop culture, what finally matters is not whether something is good, but whether it has the power to burn its way into the national psyche. And "Scarface" undeniably has that power. I never would've believed it, but in 2011, millions of Americans find Tony Montana a figure who's truer - and more resonant - than Captain Ahab or even the "Wizard of Oz."
DAVIES: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and vogue.com.
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For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, bring your appetite for food and conversation. We begin a week of interviews about food and cooking with Chef Grant Achatz. He cofounded a Chicago restaurant famous for its avant-garde food.
Achatz lost his sense of taste for a while after being diagnosed with tongue cancer. He's now in remission and has opened a new restaurant.
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