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« Brief Takes: Unsane and Pacific Rim Uprising | Main | Drag Race: PharmaRusical »
Saturday
Mar312018

Pfandom: Scarface

P F A N D O M  
Michelle Pfeiffer Retrospective. Episode 9
by Nathaniel R 

Michelle Pfeiffer was not an overnight success, nor was Elvira Hancock in Scarface (1983), a true star-making role. That's hard to fathom now that the movie is so embedded in pop culture but the early fame attached to the movie was Pacino Ham and de Palma Excess specific. Pfeiffer's Movie Star Ascendance was four or five years away but with Scarface, The Actress inside her arrived...

So the natural place to focus is Elvira Hancock's own entrance. We first spot that gangster's moll when Tony (Al Pacino) does, turned away from us in a backless gown in the home of local crime boss Frank (Robert Loggia). She descends into the scene by elevator, like a trophy encased in glass. Her body language is all impatience though not in the practical sense or she might have glided down the stairs with more speed. The sleek teal gown is cut down to there in front, saving all its fabric for Pfeiffer's lower half.  It flows with her every shift in movement, dancing around her legs as if it's already at the club Elvira's so eager to get to...

Tellingly, Elvira's temperament doesn't change when the group have reached the dance club. Wherever Elvira goes, she no longer wants to be. To stave off Elvira's perpetual boredom, she hits the dance floor, not even waiting for Tony to join her despite inviting him. The soulless synth-track accompanying her moves emphatically shouts "She's on fire!" but it's less than convincing. Elvira Hancock is ice cold.

Tony and Elvira's first dance doesn't go well. Elvira has zero interest in making nice and when Tony tries too hard to have a conversation with her she lashes out, belittling him with racist digs and class warfare bombs. Pfeiffer half conceals a smile when Elvira realizes her cutting remarks have drawn blood. As ugly as that thrill may be, it's the first sign Elvira is actually alive. She's not on fire but she's glad to have raised her partner's temperature. But this joy, if we can call it that, evaporates as instantly as her desire to be anywhere does. Tony lashes out himself and casually drops a 'baby' into his own insults. Her eyes flash bloodshot hostility. 

Don't call me 'baby'. I'm not your baby."

This one-two punch of scenes places Elvira on the top of Tony's greed list. She's one more status symbol he must have. Elvira eventually begins to accept Tony's proposals but not with anything like true warmth. In one of many brilliant costuming moves the late great costume designer Patricia Norris conceals Pfeiffer's eyes with giant sunglasses in some of these key scenes, placing Elvira's inner life at even more of a remove from us. But there are numerous clues to the woman's bottomless misery in Pfeiffer's body language, either perpetually fidgety awaiting her next fix (be it the dance club or actual drugs) or frozen with indecision as in a scene where Tony asks for her hand in marriage. When Elvira settles in as Tony's trophy instead of Frank's it's with pliable indifference, even resignation, rather than feeling; she's just trading one shelf for another. 

She is also, and this is no minor point, an addict. Eventually with addictions, life becomes unmanageable. Elvira's initial zombie listlessness curdles into something more recognizably despairing in later scenes as Elvira stares in mirrors bleakly or has noisy self-loathing breakdowns in public places with Tony. Despite the movie's infamous excess, Pfeiffer's interpretation is controlled and only as impassioned as Elvira's frigidity will allow. 

Scarface, the most enduring film from Pfeiffer's early years, fully belongs to fans now. But Elvira, apart from her coveted fashions, still resists capture. She's not your baby. She's Pfeiffer's. And hers alone. Like many of the greatest stars, Pfeiffer's surface is dazzling. But with Elvira Hancock she finally burrowed deep under it arriving at the soul of her character. That's the place only great actors ever find.

Previously: Grease 2 (1982)
Next
: Into the Night (1985)

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Reader Comments (13)

I think Michelle Pfeiffer's performance in the film is often the most overlooked performance of the film. As great as Pacino, Bauer, Loggia, Abraham, and the guy who played Sosa were along with the smaller parts in the film. I think the film wouldn't be as revered if it wasn't for Pfeiffer as she does more as this object of affection for Montana as she is reluctant to knowing that she can get a life that is good or bad. Her breakdown in her final scene is incredible as it paints the reality of not just addiction but also the downside of greed.

March 31, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

As a huge fan of both Michelle and De Palma, I'm embarrassed how long I've had this movie on my bucket list. I resolve to see it soon.

March 31, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMike in Canada

The movie was great ... Pheiffer was good.

March 31, 2018 | Unregistered Commentergrrr

I too cannot see why she was overlooked other than this is male viewed life and people who watch it do so Pacino and guns and blood and excess not great actressing from Pfeiffer and also Mastrantonio great as the tragic sister.

I'd have given Pfeiffer a nomination for the film with ease,I love her elevator descent she's come from a place far higher than us mere mortals,and her best scene is at the dinner table nr the end,her total disinterest whilst doing her lips in mirrors is a gift to us all,she is a total opposite to how Sharon Stone played a similar role in Casino,Stone is all emotions where Pfeiffer is a much harder shell.

March 31, 2018 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Please let DePalma have one more excessive, over the top, gloriously violent masterpiece like this!

April 1, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

Have to admit that despite my love for Pfeiffer I don't really feel the love for this performance. Nothing to do with her but the role is so tangential to the plot and only marginally more connected to the thematic content, that there's really only so much she can do. Mastrantonio steals it for me.

I personally think the Karen Morley version of the role is actually the more interesting version of the role because she actually reveals herself to have greater survival instincts than any of the men she surrounds herself with. Pfeiffer is terrific but the role is just standard girlfriend of gangster whose life implodes because of him. Morley sees Muni is falling down the totem pole and brushes him off and goes looking for the next man, we know that she can take care of herself.

April 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

The first time I watched this I was impressed by Pfeiffer and Mastrantonio.
Great writing, thanks, Nathaniel.

April 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterMarcelo - Brazil

One of the very few "boy movies" that I actually love (I hadn't even seen any of the Godfather movies until last year) and Pfeiffer is a big part of why. The character's boredom is always so palpable, but she's never boring to watch.

Curiously, the way you wrote about this being a true breakthrough for Pfeiffer reminds me of how Margot Robbie's performance in The Wolf of Wall Street was such a 180 from the blandness that enveloped her on Pan-Am. Not saying there's anything remotely similar about the two as actresses, though.

April 1, 2018 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

There should be a Pfeiffer cut available. I just want to watch her scenes!

April 1, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

PSA: This movie was just added to Netflix, so those of us who've never seen it finally can! Unfortunately, it clocks in at nearly three hours. (So does another Pacino classic new arrival to Netflix I've never seen, Heat. What is up with these long running times?)

April 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Thank you, Suzanne!

April 2, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

I saw the first half of this last night. Pfeiffer really is a revelation. Having a big movie star entrance doesn't hurt, either. I remember in interviews she said she resisted parts that were like the trophy, but Elvira's character has something to say about those types of women.

I fast forwarded the chain saw scene. Steven Bauer was a BABE.

April 4, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

I don’t think I’ve ever actually watched Scarface fully all the way through, As a teen I just used to fast forward to Pfeiffer’s scenes.
My dad had this on vhs and I don’t know how many times I watched and rewound and re-watched that elevator entrance.

April 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJB

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