Surviving Scarface: Elvira

Wow, the restaurant scene in Scarface (1983) is powerful.

That’s all I kept thinking the other night when I watched Brian De Palma’s epic tale of the rise and fall of Cuban “political refugee” and drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino in one of his most popular and oft-quoted roles). The movie is chock-full of memorable moments, too many for me to even bother noting here. But the scene that’s really come to affect me the most through the years takes place towards the latter part of the film, right before Tony’s ultimate, hubris-and-cocaína-fueled downfall. It’s the most depressing scene in a film bursting with them.

Tony, his trophy wife Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer in her breakout role), and right-hand man Manny (Steven Bauer) are dining out for yet another swank, opulent meal that’s just another excuse for Tony to flaunt his largess, especially in a restaurant full of upper-crust white high society folk. It’s clear from the start, this dinner has already gone south. Elvira’s not hungry (probably due to her appetite-suppressing coke habit) and she positively bristles at Tony’s mocking attempts to get her to eat. Manny is embarrassed and wants to focus on discussing business, but Tony, coming down after a high and slouched down low in his chair, won’t stop his verbal harassment.

Hindsight being 20-20 and all, but Michelle Pfeiffer certainly could have been nominated for an Oscar for this role. Actresses have been nominated for fall less, plus it’s a true, star-making performance that announced her to the world as not just a stunningly pretty face, but as a serious actress and a movie star. The Academy certainly has a history of loving young, beautiful actresses in roles like this. If she had been nominated, I like to think the restaurant scene would have been the clip played at the Academy Awards ceremony. It’s such a tour-de-force moment, where Michelle elevates an already strong performance into the stratosphere.

As Tony embarrasses her and himself while other diners begin to take notice, Elvira’s rage simmers. At first Michelle shows us without any need for words, with just a sharp glance or a death-stare. Then, when Elvira blasts back at Tony, Michelle is nothing short of a woman on fire. “What makes you so much better than me? What do you do? You deal drugs and you kill people. Oh, that’s wonderful, Tony. Real contribution to human history.” It’s even more impressive when you consider how the up and coming Pfeiffer more than holds her own in scenes with the established Pacino, and especially during this one. Their verbal sparring, thanks to Oliver Stone’s crackling script, is at turns hilarious and heartbreakingly sad. To see a couple unleashing so much animosity towards each other is almost unbearable, but the performances by Pfeiffer and Pacino are so grand we simply can’t stop watching.

Pfeiffer’s explosive dinner scene ends with Elvira, shaken and tearful, leaving Tony for good as she exits the restaurant, and the film. We never see Elvira again over the last act. This leads directly into Pacino’s memorable “Say goodbye to the bad guy!” speech as he slurs and stumbles out of the restaurant. Hardly anyone makes it out of this movie alive, and in fact Elvira’ empowering decision to emancipate herself that evening at dinner makes her the only main character to survive. Pfeiffer has discussed how she saw Elvira as enmeshed in a transactional, abusive relationship. She got all the coke she could snort, a glamorous wardrobe, and a lavish mansion to live in from Tony, but her mental health was being destroyed, bit by bit, by his emotional abuse. Pfeiffer wanted to express how Elvira’s insecurities could compel her stay for as long as she does. She’s a woman who was always valued for her looks, which has already made her deeply cynical about men and the world.

Elvira is the ice cold, white gold queen that Bruno Mars would sing about decades later. It’s the role that really boosted Pfeiffer to the next level: a fantastic performance in a big film from a highly skilled filmmaker, working opposite one of the world’s best actors. And for me, at least, the restaurant scene when Elvira finally breaks free before Tony’s world ends in a hail of bullets, is her finest moment in the film. I always feel a great sense of relief when Elvira escapes. Pfeiffer delivers an extremely vulnerable and powerful performance. It was an Oscar-worthy turn in 1983, and it only looks more worthy every time I revisit Scarface.

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