On December 1, 1983, director Brian de Palma (The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way) released his modernized version of Ben Hecht and Howard Hawks’ 1930s gangster drama, Scarface. While the original followed a charismatic Chicago mobster in the Prohibition era, de Palma’s version took the character to violent world of the 1980s drug trade in Miami, Florida. Fueled by Al Pacino‘s riveting performance and backed by an outstanding supporting cast that included Michelle Pfeiffer (What Lies Beneath, Batman Returns), Steven Bauer (Raising Cain, Primal Fear), Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (The Abyss, The Perfect Storm) and Robert Loggia (Big, Independence Day), Scarface ushered in a new era of gangster movies far darker than Francis Coppola’s The Godfather series just a decade before. One of the primary reasons is because of de Palma’s direction.
Once completed, Brian de Palma famously submitted his original cut of the film to the MPAA, who gave it an X rating. He then cut the film an additional two times and, twice again, was given an X rating. At that point, de Palma and producer Martin Bregman called a hearing with the MPAA board members, during which they brought in real narcotics officers to authenticate de Palma’s portrayal of the violent drug underworld. Upon hearing the testimony of the officers, the board members decided to give de Palma’s third cut an R rating. Feeling the first cut should have been given a chance for the same rating, however, de Palma requested his original version be R rated as well, but was turned down. It wasn’t until the film was released in theaters and then on video cassette for several months that he confessed to having released his very original cut to the theaters anyway.
Despite de Palma’s work with cinematographer John A. Alonzo (Chinatown, Star Trek: Generations), and the intensely-written screenplay by filmmaker Oliver Stone (Platoon, Any Given Sunday), who was reportedly fighting a cocaine addiction while penning the script, Scarface went almost completely unnoticed upon its release. Although it was a fair success at the box office, and has since developed an enormous cult following, critics virtually ignored Pacino’s acting and de Palma’s directing. Scarface received no Academy Award nominations in 1984, and failed to win any of the three Golden Globe Awards it received nominations for. In spite of all that, Scarface has gone down in history as a modern cinematic masterpiece, unforgivingly realistic and thrillingly entertaining. An even newer version is currently underway from director Antione Fuqua (Training Day, The Equalizer) and screenwriter Terence Winter (The Sopranos, The Wolf of Wall Street), but it may still be a few years before we see that film hit theaters.