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Book Excerpt: The World is Yours: The Story of Scarface by Glenn Kenny

We are incredibly proud to present an excerpt from contributor Glenn Kenny's new book The World is Yours: The Story of Scarface, available this week. The official synopsis from Amazon is below, followed by the excerpt. Get a copy here.

The behind-the-scenes story of the iconic film, featuring new interviews with the cast and crew.

An unflinching confrontation of humanity’s dark side, Brian De Palma’s crime drama film Scarface gave rise to a cultural revolution upon its release in 1983. Its impact was unprecedented, making globe-spanning waves as a defining portrait of the gritty Miami street life. From Al Pacino’s masterful characterization of Tony Montana to the iconic “Say hello to my little friend,” Scarface maintains its reputation as an unwavering game changer in cult classic cinema.

With brand-new interviews and untold stories of the film’s production, longtime film critic Glenn Kenny takes us on an unparalleled journey through the making of American depictions of crime. The World Is Yours highlights the influential characters and themes within Scarface, reflecting on how its storied legacy played such a major role in American culture.

Once the shooting started, there was little reason to celebrate. While Pfeiffer felt a predictable kind of intimidation, she stresses that none of her collaborators actually tried to lord it over her. “Obviously starting with Al, who’s iconic, and then the rest of the cast, who had such amazing bodies of work. I was young. I was twenty-three years old, and I was terrified. I was terrified. I was just terrified every single day that I was going to fail. Because I had failed so miserably before. But Al was very kind and nice and patient with me, very supportive, as was Brian and Marty and everyone around me. It was just my own baggage really getting in my way, and my lack of experience and confidence.”

In the Hawks film, Poppy, played by Karen Morley, is a relatively straightforward woman on the make. Pfeiffer hadn’t seen the original picture until after she’d been cast, and she remembers thinking of Stone’s script, “Well, this is a real departure from the original.” Because there, Poppy is a simple opportunist. In the world of Scarface, the cocaine adds some complications. “Primarily, she’s an addict,” Pfeiffer says of Elvira. “And she likes pretty clothes, and she’s well taken care of and protected. And I think underneath all of her bravado is a very scared, damaged individual. But somebody who has lived a life. She’s smart and she knows how to survive and even leaves when she starts to really go downhill.”

This intuition gave Pfeiffer a base on which to build the character, and to maintain it over the course of a shoot that continued at least a couple of months past what she’d thought it would be. “It was really long. And I was starving myself because I was playing a cocaine addict, and by the end of filming, the crew members were bringing me bagels. Everybody was really concerned about me. Like you said, I hadn’t done a lot of films, so I didn’t really know that this was maybe out of the ordinary. I don’t really know what the original shooting schedule was. I can’t remember, but I know that we went way, way, way over schedule. It’s like building a house. You don’t want to start building if you don’t have really well-drawn-out and thought-through blueprints, plans. Otherwise, you know what’s going to happen? It’s going to go twice as long and cost twice as much money. And making a film is the same way. I’ve since been through other films where we’ve started without a finished script and you figure, ‘You’ll figure it out as you go along. And it’s just going to take longer.’ And you end up re-shooting things and you end up spending a lot of time working things out on the set. And that’s just kind of how it went here. Although in spite of the fact that Brian was very well-prepared.” A significant factor in this was Pacino pulling Tony Montana this way and that. It’s not something he ever gave up. Working with Pacino for a second time in 1991’s Frankie and Johnny, Pfeiffer observed that while the overall atmosphere of the set was more relaxed, Pacino would work more or less the same way. “That’s his creative process. And honestly, if you can get away with it, it’s a lot more creative, to be able to continue to discover. And that is how creative brains work. And as frustrating as it can be for those around you… I think that he’s always very in the moment, and not all actors work that way, but that is how he works. And if you’re going to let him get away with it, he’s going to do it. And by the way, a lot of us would love to be able to get away with that.” Pfeiffer then gave me a couple of off-the-record demonstrations of how “I change my own mind all the time.” She went on, “And I, like him, have really liked to do multiple takes, and even before working with him, I’m always wanting to do one more. But at a certain point when the director says, ‘We really have it.’ I’m like, ‘Okay.’ But I always want to do one more.”

While Pacino was consistently supportive on set, he and Pfeiffer didn’t form much of a bond in their off hours. In a 1991 interview with the New York Times to promote Frankie and Johnny, Pfeiffer said, “I remember Al and I had dinner one night. It was horrible. We were both so shy. We didn’t have one thing to say to each other.” Speaking of that last spring, Pfeiffer said, “It was also to do with the nature of our characters’ relationship, and with his relationship with all of the male actors. It made a lot more sense for him to spend more time with them, not only for work, but there’s more discovery they need to make with each other…and probably a lot more fun for him to be with. When we did Frankie and Johnny, I think we were much more relaxed. I was way more relaxed with him. And that just had to do with my confidence level. And I had a great time. We actually had fun and we laughed.”

At one point I asked Pfeiffer: “What was a scene that you did where you felt you really just defined the character definitively? Do you think you had a through line where you were able to do that? You sound like you were insecure enough that you weren’t necessarily going to give yourself a lot of compliments about the performance, but were there ever points in the shoot where you were thinking, ‘Well, I’m in a good groove here,’ or, ‘This is going okay?’”

Without even pausing a beat, she responded: “Never. Not one day.” She elaborated: “I was tortured every day. Every single day. Not, again, because of anyone on the set.”

De Palma’s direction had but one thing upon which to pivot, but it was a very definite thing. He could not allow Pfeiffer to drop Elvira’s hard mask. “Brian was very funny. I was very relaxed filming with Brian. But I remember after almost every take, he would just come up to me and his only direction would be, ‘You didn’t smile, did you? You didn’t smile on that take, did you?’ And I think once, I did do one little tiny smile, but it’s not even really a smile. It’s when Tony and I are getting in a car. And what did he do? Did he take my hat off? He did something.”

He did. It’s a little after fifty minutes into the movie, and it actually comes after a pretty tense moment. Elvira is kitted out in an exquisite all-white outfit, complete with slightly floppy straw hat. They get into Tony’s Cadillac—which Elvira has insisted that she is only riding in under protest—and do a few bumps together. After which Tony practically lunges at Elvira, attempting a kiss. She pushes him away with force and says, “Don’t get confused, Tony. I don’t fuck around with the help.” Tony thinks it’s hysterical, and delivers his next line. “Okay, if you want to play that way with me, I’ll play that way with you.” And he goofily puts on her hat. It’s actually a very nice save for Tony. “He was being very playful and it was improvised and I wasn’t expecting it. And actually it was a moment, a half a moment, and they did end up leaving that in the movie.” She doesn’t just smile as she brushes her hair. She laughs as she looks at Tony in the hat, beaming at her. “But I think that when I smiled, I just looked probably too sweet, maybe? I’m guessing in hindsight because I was so young, and still cherubic, even. And the way for him to keep the character contained is to just give me that simple parameter, don’t smile.

“And I think I understood it. Not completely, but I do think I understood it. I wasn’t really upset by it ever. I did feel very contained, but I just made that the character. And of course I hoped that it was good and I hoped that I was convincing. I didn’t love myself in the film because I never do. I just seem to lack any sort of perspective on my work.”

I continued to search for another instance in which Pfeiffer felt less than tortured while shooting. “I don’t know I’d go so far as to say fun, but I enjoyed the scene where Tony is in the tub, yelling at the TV. And I was walking around: ‘Can’t you just stop saying fuck all the time?’ And I remember maybe that was more toward the end of shooting, and I felt like I had a stronger foundation at that point. But I remember enjoying shooting that scene. I was moving around a lot in that scene. But I like that. I sort of thrive on movement and props, and it actually anchors me, more so than if I were just sitting in one place. Because that’s kind of how life is. You’re sort of doing something and thinking about something else and saying something else. And so I think it just gives you an opportunity to really create a behavior which makes things look and feel more real. And in the scene, the level of bickering makes Tony and Elvira come off as an old married couple.”

Her first viewing of the movie was in New York, with a paying audience. “It was the only time really I saw the film, and there was a couple who had brought this baby, their child to the film, and I was so distracted by that. I wanted to turn around and say, ‘Get your kid out of here. This is too violent for your child.’ It was violent. And I personally kind of looked away during those parts.” Nevertheless, one thing she appreciates most about the movie is the humor in Pacino’s performance. “He’s really funny, in the way he makes Tony so unaware and so full of himself.”

Like almost everyone involved in the film, she’s a little awestruck by its contemporary reputation. “It’s become such a cult classic. God, I was in Georgia doing something, and I had this driver, and on the way back from where I had to be, he said, ‘Oh, I just have to tell you, Scarface is one of my favorite films. I can quote every line in the movie.’ And then he proceeded to quote every line in the movie to me. The whole way home. This is just recently. So that’s always kind of fun. And that happens periodically.”

Her next collaboration with Bregman came before her Frankie and Johnny reunion with Pacino. It was with writer/director/star Alan Alda for the film Sweet Liberty, in which she plays Faith, a film star with whom Alda’s character becomes besotted. Asked about the movie, she took the cue to speak mostly of Bregman, and in the present tense at first, despite his having passed a few years back. “I’m so fond of Marty. He was kind of like a father to me. I think maybe he was to Al too, their relationship. But he does that. He’s very parental, and he was very, very kind and a really, really good friend to me for a long, long time. When I was considering adopting my daughter as a single parent, I just wanted to check myself and make sure I was doing it for all the right reasons. And there were two people that I consulted with before I did, and one of them was Marty, and it was so secret. And it just really speaks to the level of trust that I had there. But he was a really, really kind man.”

Pfeiffer now sees Scarface as a harrowing experience that produced a memorable film, and also steeled her for the subsequent ups and downs of her career. “Some time ago I had done a film which will go unnamed, working with a director who will also go unnamed. And it was really bad. It was a really bad experience. And I was talking to a friend of mine and he said, ‘Well, the good news is it will never be that bad again.’ And I would say having had the experience I had on Scarface, I’m not going to say that it was so bad, but it was hard. It was certainly hard. And I was young and I survived it, and I developed skills, survival skills, that I do think probably have carried me through. And I’ve had good experiences, I’ve had bad experiences, but I’ve never been that scared again. So that’s a good thing.”

Excerpted from The World Is Yours: The Story of Scarface by Glenn Kenny © 2024, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.

Cr: Zach Barocas


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