De Palma is often accused of misogynistic filmmaking, beautifully photographing violence against women and creating female characters that have little to do but scream and wear sexy clothes. While one could make convincing arguments both for and against that claim, one De Palma character that bears further analysis is Elvira Hancock from his 1983 Scarface. It is easy to overlook this role, overshadowed by Al Pacino’s bombastic Tony Montana and relatively small screen time, only 20 minutes altogether. If you viewed all of her scenes together, you may not feel the role had any importance and fell into misogynistic traps. Viewed in wider context against the film, there is more to Elvira than meets the eye. Michelle Pfeiffer brings aspects of the character to life that is not readily seen on paper. Her Elvira is wounded and hurt, yet wears a cool sheet of armor via wry humor. She is an ice princess whose cold words could cut glass. Yet a fiery anger burns through her that seems to suggest so much more beneath her surface, a depth that an actress who merely relied on looks would not have been able to reach. Elvira could have easily been cast as a va-va-voom object with no thoughts and feelings. Pfeiffer reveals that her brittle and freeze-dried exterior hides within a scared and lonely girl living in a man’s world.
To the men in that world, Elvira is an object. She is another prize that Tony will win by subjugating his boss- Tony wants to obtain Frank’s power, wealth, and woman. Elvira personifies Tony’s American Dream- a blonde and thin dream doll that is the perfect trophy to have on his arm. “She is a tiger; she belongs to me.” Tony declares, and he eventually cages her just like the tiger he chains to his estate. In a 1994 interview, Pfeiffer reflects on playing Elivra: “Sometimes, though, by playing an object you can actually say more about objectifying women than if you play somebody of strength. She was hood ornament, like another Rolls-Royce or something, for both of the men that she was with. I felt that by playing something that mirrors someone’s life in that way, I could make a kind of feminist statement. It depends on the way in which it’s presented. If you’re glamorizing or glorifying it, then I object to that.”
Not all female characters have to be pillars of strength in order to be a feminist role. Pfieffer’s willingness to show Elvira’s vulnerability compensated by her humor creates a dynamic character and performance, one that doesn’t just rely on the jokes she spouts or the beauty of her looks. Showing women who are objectified so heavily opens us up examine just how and why that happens. I do not feel that De Palma glamorizes the objectification of Elvira. The film does not even glamorize drug use, despite the film’s over-the-top lavishness and audience’s idolization of Tony Montana. At the heart of Scarface, there is a sadness and emptiness that is often overlooked, just as there is in Elvira. Pfeiffer taps into the depths of her character, who like the film itself, is only seen for what is on the outside. In turn, she reveals the film’s inner workings.
Our first look at Elvira epitomizes her objectification, she is seen with her back turned (in a gorgeous low-cut dress) in a glass elevator, like an angelic Barbie doll in her box. Her boyfriend and current top drug lord, Frank, introduces her to Tony and Manny. Frank complains that he is hungry and Elvira retorts, “You’re always hungry, you should try starving.” She continues prodding Frank by dryly adding that he goes to the same restaurant so much that if anyone wanted to assassinate him they would know where to find him. Through this dynamic, we can see that Elvira is not passive in any way. Elvira belittles Tony when he calls her his baby and says she looks like she hasn’t “been fucked good in a year.” She angrily replies that her lovemaking is none of his business and “I’m not your baby. Don’t call me baby.” Elvira is not afraid to make the cocksure men around her feel small, whether it’s her big boss boyfriend or Tony. She reduces Tony to a little boy, which fuels into his need to possess her. Taming the fiery woman will make Tony feel more like a man.
After killing Frank, Tony goes to the bedroom and wakes the sleeping Elvira, tangled in champagne colored satin sheets. “Come on get your stuff. You’re coming with me.” Elvira is an object to Tony, a toy readily passed on to a new Barbie doll dream house. Tony’s pursuit of Elvira has paid off, and they marry. Although he espouses kind words to Elvira about wanting her to be the mother of his children, there is no love there. The most telling aspect of their relationship is that there is no sex scene between them. An interesting choice, since many of De Palma’s leading ladies have a sexual scene to accompany them. A sex scene would change the entire composition of Scarface. I believe it helps cement Elvira’s status as mere symbol or object. Tony’s possession of Elvira is not borne out of carnal desire, but the image of a trophy wife. As shown in the giant painting of the couple that adorns his mansion, Tony needs Elvira with him because it looks so good. Elvira is valued and objectified for her status, appearance, and what she represents. Her true relationship with Tony is cold, their union a mere strategic calculation for Tony’s rise to the top.
Cut to the scenes of the unhappy Montana family. Elvira has broken one of Frank’s rules- she continually gets high off of her own supply- or the supply that Tony provides for her. Elvira is a junkie, destroyed by the use of drugs just as much as Tony is destroyed by purveying them. Tony’s rise to power has made him obsessive and paranoid, with an insatiable and endless desire for more. She is bored and tired of Tony talking about money, telling him that if someone had given him money he would be a nicer person. Tony accuses her of having nothing to do with her life, that she should get a job. “Anything beats lying around waiting for me to fuck you all the time.” Elvira, ever present with ice-cold witticisms, replies that he shouldn’t toot is own horn because his lovemaking isn’t that great.
In the famous dinner scene, Tony complains to Manny that Elvira cannot get pregnant because her womb is “polluted”, presumably from her drug use. Pfeiffer magnificently shows Elvira’s fury and hurt. Although Scarface never explores this, we get a sense of what pains Elvira the most, the lack of children and direction in life are sore spots for her. Although Elvira’s backstory is never explored- one could imagine that she had left home (which she mentions is Baltimore) with little schooling and a need to rely on the only thing she had- her good looks. Wielding her looks trapped her within the objectified lifestyle- coupled by her addiction and dependence on the drugs- and nowhere else to go. Perhaps this is why Elvira allows herself to be so easily passed from man to man, she has nothing else, no skills or means, to rely on.
The stoned Tony Montana belittling her so cruelly is the final straw. “How dare you talk to me like that! You call yourself a man! What makes you so much better than me, what do you do? Deal drugs? Kill people? Oh that’s just wonderful Tony –a real contribution to human history.” This dialogue is almost speaking with the audience. Many young men- particularly rappers or of Italian descent (although Tony is Cuban, Pacino is Italian) idolize Tony. Although Tony climbs the ladder of success, achieving the American Dream and earning more wealth than he knows to do with, his extravagant life is a cold and lonely one.
This is epitomized in the shot after Tony’s argument with Elvira, the camera craning up to show Tony in his massive bathtub, unhappily alone and drowning in his abundant opulence, his greed swallowing him. Tony and Elvira share no human relationship or connection, they are alone and miserable despite being surrounded by everything and anything they could want. As she has done time and time again, Elvira makes the men around her feel small, exposing their male chauvinism as the mere playacting of little boys. Their “business”, where they wield guns freely like toys and take others lives’ without so much as a breath, brings nothing to the world and themselves but misery. Elvira sees this now, and gains the courage to leave. She has earned the foresight of what this lifestyle has gained for them, they may be rich in gold but their life is empty of anything else. “Can’t you see what we’re becoming, Tony? We’re losers. We’re not winners, we’re losers.” While we are entertained by Tony’s climb to success (how could you not be, with De Palma’s exciting and operatic filmmaking?) we should not envy or idolize it. Tony Montana is not a winner in any sense. The depths that Tony plunged allowed her to see the light and escape the miserable cage of her existence. We can only hope that Elvira does not leave only to find herself as someone’s object yet again.
Pfeiffer’s performance allows Elvira to transcend as more than just object, more than a witty ice queen or vapid trophy wife, as a lesser skilled actress could have easily made her. The credit goes more to Pfeiffer than De Palma, but his choice to portray a sexless relationship between Tony and Elvira echoes the impotence of Tony Montana as a whole. For all the power that he does gain, it ultimately leaves him with nothing. De Palma ultimately- though it’s hard to see- deglamorizes the lavish lifestyle that Tony covets. Elvira is the beating heart of Scarface, working to expose the true meanings that is hidden beneath her and the film’s shiny Rolls Royce exterior.