Scarface: Dream Doll Elvira

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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Top 10: Al Pacino Performances

In honor of the current book I’m reading Al Pacino: In Conversation with Lawrence Grobel (which is a great look into the actor’s mind, life and acting process) here is what I personally consider to be Al Pacino’s best performances. Al Pacino is regarded as one of the greatest actors of all time, his leap from the stage to the screen led him to a blazing start, appearing in some of history’s most famous films.

Although many like to poke fun that Al’s work gets gradually bigger and louder as time goes on. That he has now mastered the art of screaming and yelling on the top of his lungs, until it has become redundant. But nonetheless, Al Pacino’s performances are varied and vibrant.

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1. Michael Corleone – The Godfather

How can there be any other choice for #1? Francis Ford Coppola campaigned for Pacino against the studio’s wishes, refuting that there was no one else more perfect for the role. When he read the book, someone like Al Pacino was who he pictured in his head. Pacino would’ve preferred to play James Caan’s role as the hothead Sonny, (and Al eventually gets his wish and plays yelling hotheads many times throughout his career) but Pacino is masterful as the quiet, calculating Corleone. His still and subdued performance is much more powerful in the unspoken than any shouting could ever emote.

In this scene below, watch how he struggles to hold himself together despite the utter shock and contempt he feels for hearing what Kay has done. (And for a devout traditional Catholic, it is even more horrible) Note the wave of anger as he lashes out and slaps her, but you can see he regrets it as he quickly steps back.

There are far too many clips I could show from the first two films that demonstrate his fine work in this infamous role.

2. Sonny Wortzick – Dog Day Afternoon 

For all the stillness and subtly Pacino conveys in Corleone, he shows the complete opposite in his portrayal of Sonny Wortzick, a zany bounciness fueled by nervousness and hysteria. The role of Sonny was slightly controversial, a high-profile actor taking on the role of a gay man robbing a bank to pay for his lover’s sex change operation. This was one of the first main gay characters to ever appear in a mainstream film.

But Pacino doesn’t play him flamboyantly or override him with stereotypes, instead he is filled with passion and love for his partner. Overall, there is such a beloved earnestness in Sonny. The combination of that earnestness and naiveté is wholly endearing, as the not-so-well planned heist ends up becoming a media circus. (Foreshadowing the days of reality TV and the allure of fifteen-second fame.) His rallying cry of “Attica! Attica!” was completely improvised, earning the status of becoming one of the most famous film lines of all time. You can’t get a better example of Pacino’s energy and passion as an actor with this role.

3. Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade – Scent of a Woman 

This is the film that finally gave Al Pacino an Oscar. After being a seven-time nominee, most feel that this was given to Pacino more of as a consolation prize, making up for all his losses, rather than the part actually being deserving of one. Some feel the film is too long and overly schmaltzy. However, I view it as a heartwarming, moving, and triumphant drama with a lot of merit. Although it’s undeniable that the film would be nothing without Al Pacino’s performance. Al Pacino a Lieutenant Colonel Slade is a tortured soul, underneath all of his sarcasm and bravado, he is a lonely man. Blinded by an act of his own making, he is in the dark, both literally and figuratively.

Others feel that this role is very over-the-top and Oscar bait. But I think Pacino’s theatrical tendencies suit this character. Slade has got a lot of anger, a lot stirring up inside of him. And when it comes out, it over-bubbles.

That famous hoo-ha was Completely improvised by Pacino during his own private character work. If there’s anything I’ve learned by reading his interviews, is that despite a decades long career he still manages to take the time out to do private work for his characters. That’s someone who’s truly dedicated to their craft. Also, the closing speech is inspiring and audience-rousing.

4. Arthur Kirkland – …And Justice for All 

The film is a bit unbalanced, shifting between emotional drama and sitcom-like humor. (There’s really cheesy 70s sitcom music and close-ups) But Pacino’s performance certainly holds it together. Kirkland is an honest lawyer, he cares about the people and wants to obey the law and help as many as he can. This scene, below, I feel demonstrates some of his finest acting work, Especially when Kirkland admits that his client ended up hanging himself. The emotion in his voice and eventual breakdown is very well-crafted. You can really sense the other actor trying to keep up with Pacino’s skills.

…And Justice for All also features another famous ‘Pacino yelling speech’, one of the most famous. In his earlier days, before Pacino yelling became more of a joke and token staple in his films, you can see that when he nailed it he really did nail it. Similar to Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon, Pacino portrays Arthur Kirkland’s earnestness and passion as endearing and commendable.

5. Frank Serpico – Serpico

Al Pacino as Serpico is a famous and big role for him, between this and the recent release of The Godfather, he catapulted into becoming one of Hollywood’s biggest stars. It is also a transformative role We see him go from a clean-cut fresh faced rookie cop to a grizzled hippie police outcast, the only one standing alone for what he knows is right. Watching it, it is undeniable that Pacino carries the film. Both gracefully and explosively portraying the struggles and convictions of the real-life cop.

6. Lt. Vincent Hanna – Heat

Pacino sizzles in Heat, he has a lot of fun playing Vincent Hanna and you can see it. Pacino is able to run wild with his character, a wild-eyed hothead workaholic who struggles to keep together his crumbling marriage. But in the end, work is more important as he engages in a cat-and-mouse chase for the criminal Neil, played by Robert De Niro. Heat is famously the first film to bring the acting greats De Niro and Pacino together. Pacino brings his well-known bravado and theatrics to create a fun and truly memorable character.

7. Tony Montana – Scarface

Al Pacino’s role in this is iconic, so permeated in pop culture (“Say hello to my little friend” is perhaps one of the most infamous and widely quoted movie lines) that it’s hard to believe the film was poorly received when it first came out. Many felt that the film and performance was overly flamboyant, far too over-the-top. But Pacino, aligned with what he felt was Brian De Palma’s vision, wanted to make his performance operatic. And indeed, it is. Operatic as well as wildly entertaining. For all the extravagance that Cuban immigrant-turned-cocaine drug kingpin Tony luxuriates in, how can he be anything but over-the-top? There is no gray area or reeling in with this character, and Pacino goes all for it.

8. Lowell Bergman – The Insider

A lot of Pacino’s characters seem to be passionate, dedicated individuals who fight for a cause against the odds. In line with that narrative, Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, a reporter trying to take on the corrupt tobacco industry. However, for all of his passion this is much more of a quiet intensity. Rather than relying on his past theatrics, which work for other performances, this character brings a different kind of earnestness that we don’t usually see in Pacino’s other work.

9. Carlito – Carlito’s Way 

Also directed by Scarface‘s Brian De Palma, Pacino plays a character completely opposite Tony Montana. Carlito Puerto-Rican ex-convict who tries his hardest to stay on the straight and narrow path. It is a very quiet and understated performance, he tells a lot more through the eyes. Another thing that sticks out about the performance is that you want Carlito to succeed so much, you want him to be able to stay on the right path as much as he can, despite all the temptations along the way.

His character also brings a lot of humor, like in this scene.

10. Johnny – Frankie and Johnny

Frankie and Johnny is a rather underrated romantic comedy, featuring Pacino in a performance that we rarely see from him. Instead of his tough guy characters, we get to see his lighter side, an emotional and vulnerable man with a lot of humor and a heart of gold. It’s a sweet movie with Al Pacino yet again playing another earnest character. There is nothing deceitful about him for he lays all of his emotions out on the table. Michelle Pfeiffer is also exceptional opposite him.

Honorable mention to Two Bits, where Pacino gives a heartwarming and moving performance as a sickly and dying grandfather, a sweet and touching side we rarely see in his roles.

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In celebration of Al Pacino’s great work on film, I leave you with this fun remix.