Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tony Montana: Hero? -- Reflections on "Scarface" (1983)

Did you ever know that you're my hero?
I don't know why it took me so long to finally see Scarface. For years, as a teacher, I've been exposed to images of Tony Montana on the binders and T-shirts of every wanna-be bad-ass kid in my classes. When I go to the shopping mall, there's always some art vendor with a charcoal illustration of Montana, slunk back in his tall throne, a mountain of cocaine on the desk in front of him. Or its a picture of him from the film's climax, in which Tony whips out his "little friend" and blasts his mansion all to hell.

Maybe I didn't want to see it because of the hype, although that's unlike me. Maybe it was because I don't think most middle and high school students have very good taste in film -- often declaring films like FridayColors and American Me masterpieces like most critics talk about Citizen Kane, The Godfather and Casablanca.

The answer most likely lies in the fact that Scarface has become such an influential part of our culture that I felt like I had seen it. In a way, doesn't everyone? Some of its dialogue has become among the most quoted in movie history: "Say hello to my little friend!"; "All I have in this world is my balls and my word and I don't break them for no one."; "I always tell the truth. Even when I lie." The clips of Tony gunning down a group of Columbian gangsters are often shown on TV. You don't really need to see the movie to feel like you have

Now that I've seen the film, though, I understand why all the wanna-be bad-asses worship at the altar of Tony Montana. He's tough, dramatic, lives impulsively, and takes what he wants when he wants it. Tony doesn't back down to anyone. In the climax, he must get hit at least 10-15 times by machine gun bullets before he is felled by the gangster that sneaks behind him. Tony's hardcore. He's a man's man.

It says a lot about a culture, though, by how they want a "real" man to be. In the 50s and 60s we wanted our men to be like John Wayne -- rough, gritty, and moral. In the 70s it was Clint Eastwood -- quiet, strong, resilient, and unafraid to do what it took to get the job done. Al Pacino's Tony Montana is the next stage in the evolution of that character. While Eastwood's character could be shady, if necessary, Tony Montana relishes in being the bad guy. At one point during the film, a drunken Tony shouts at a restaurant full of wealthy diners, "You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your fuckin' fingers and say, 'That's the bad guy!'"

Our heroes now are "bad" guys. Tony Soprano, Dexter Morgan, Walter White, Vincent Vega. We root for them and want them to do well. We don't want to see them punished for their crimes. Often we are allowed to see their behavior justified.

I think many of those who identify with Tony Montana don't look past the bravado and machismo of the character. If they did, what they would find instead is not a hero, but a snake. A slimy, narcissistic animal who feeds off others, and then eventually off of himself. His unwillingness to trust anyone but himself, and to question everyone's moral actions but his own make him a monster. He's not a symbol of manhood; he's a symbol of capitalism -- as pure and unadulterated as the cocaine he snorts with the gusto of a dog licking its own vomit.

Granted, I'm certain this analysis has been written a million times by critics much smarter than I. Yet, it's interesting to me that while Oliver Stone's script and Brian DePalma's direction make this analysis obvious and breathtaking in its execution, our culture chooses to embrace Montana as a folk hero. While discussing the film with me, my girlfriend said that people love Tony because he's an immigrant who came from nothing and got everything he wanted. I can see that. So did Vito Corleone, though, but it's Pacino's Michael that is most well remembered when people talk about The Godfather. She's right, though. People love rags-to-riches stories. Scarface is certainly one of the most memorable.

In the end, I have to say that our culture has come to idolize characters like Tony Montana because we have come to distrust authority. Like Robin Hood, Jesse James, and Bonnie and Clyde, Tony's an outlaw, sticking it to the "Man" at every chance, whether it be his own boss, Frank Lopez, his partner Sosa, or the Miami police. Since the movie's release in 1983, our society has become increasingly frustrated with its leaders and authority figures. We trust no one, it seems. Police, politicians, military leaders, teachers, corporate executives -- collectively, it seems most people believe that everyone is in it for his or herself. Our recent history doesn't do much to discredit this notion. With that in mind, Tony Montana becomes a hero for the simple fact that he doesn't lie about his motivation: he wants the world, all of it. He speaks for the rebel in each of us who feels the same but lacks the cojones to go about getting it the way he does. That's what the movies are for, though, to allow us to live the lives none of us could ever attempt to live.

In the end, I'm glad I waited this long to watch Scarface. The younger me would've been less appreciative and more inclined to simply enjoy the style and violence of the film. Now, though, I can reflect upon it with a man's eyes and see Tony Montana for what he really is. Unfortunately, those kids in my classes won't be able to do the same.


  1. The "men" who were John Wayne and Clint Eastwood were just as hypocritical in their depiction as Tony is. They're both symbols of American authority and jingoism.
    Why should Tony trust anyone to be moral?
    The restaurant scene is a perfect example of him calling out others on their morality. He knows what he is and he also has the wisdom to know that given the chance, any and every person would be as violent and snake like as himself, although too arrogant to admit it. Dont give humanity too much credit, it'll bite you in the ass.
    Tony is a hero who's completely honest about himself and what he is. Experience has taught us that the military and police can be extremely corrupt organisations, young men find that society is a cruel place that believes it isnt, so who else, besides themselves, should they answer too? everyone's a hypocrite, young men notice this very early in their lives and so why not take over the world?

  2. Humanities Professor
    (Introduction to Film)

    Similar to the person above, I did not get around
    to seeing Scareface until this past weekend March 6th, 2011. I probably had the same reasoning....gangster movie....I thought...and probably real boring. I happened to be stuck somewhere other than home. AMC was airing the movie, and it seemed better than anything else that was coming on.
    Wow...... That movie was a masterpiece of acting
    , by Al Pacino! Talking about method actors....
    I was floored, and amazed, how he captured the
    part of someone Hispanic without flaw, down to the mannerisms, attitude, reactions, and etc. I have a buddy who not only looks a great deal like the character, is exact on having the same mannerisms, talk, and ethnicity. His life is also as illusive, and his name is Tony! It really made me think.
    I have not seen the facts but after seeing this, I know they took that character from a real life person, not the Tony I know, but a real life Tony,,,, someone, somewhere. Pacino had to do method preparation study for this part.
    I watched it again the next day when they showed it again. I watched for slips in the character he was playing. Pacino was definitely lost in that character.

    Bravo! Bravo!