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Scarface ripped into theaters 30 years ago Monday, and though it would eventually be considered a modern classic, it took years for star Steven Bauer to fully enjoy the fruits of his labor.
The film was famously panned by critics and industry insiders. “We were shunned,” says Bauer, who played Manolo, the handsome right-hand man to Al Pacino‘s Tony Montana.
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But before all of that, he thought the film was headed for greatness after it was a big hit at a Broadway Theater screening full of Hollywood heavy-hitters. Cher embarrassed him by screaming “Rocky!” (his childhood nickname) the first time he appeared on screen, and Martin Scorsese congratulated him afterward.
However, the director also gave him a warning. ” ‘They are going to hate this movie in Hollywood,’ ” Bauer recalls Scorsese saying to him. “And I said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s about them.’ “
Bauer believes Scorsese meant there were similarities between the excesses of Tony Montana and some Hollywood executives at the time: “There’s nothing wrong with chasing the American dream, but if you become greedy, it’ll fall from under you. You will self-destruct…. [Scorsese] knew there were tendencies in Hollywood to just be over the top.”
The actor, who enjoyed a stint on Breaking Bad as Don Eladio and currently stars in Showtime’s Ray Donovan, called it a “terrible blow” when the bad reviews poured in for Scarface.
“They were completely full of shit and just talking out their asses basically, because they needed to get on that bandwagon that ‘This is typical of Hollywood’s treatment of a subject as important as addiction or immigration.’ It really hurt,” Bauer says.
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As he remembers it, the film disappeared from the public consciousness from 1983 to 1990. The first time he realized it was making a comeback was in the early 1990s, when he was watching ESPN and heard sportscaster Chris Berman yell, “Say hello to my little friend!” after someone hit a home run. “I was amazed,” Bauer recalls.
Then friends started telling him to watch MTV’s Cribs, the show that featured celebrities give tours of their homes. “Every time they went to a rapper’s house, inevitably they would go into his favorite room in his house, and it was the Scarface room,” the actor says. “Or his dog would be named Scarface. They brought it back.”
Bauer, who was born in Cuba but left the country as a child, says he and Pacino spent nearly every day together “for a month or two” to prepare for the roles and make their friendship real for the cameras. Bauer didn’t live in Cuba during Fidel Castro‘s revolution, as their characters did, but he shared family stories with Pacino about what it was like living in the totalitarian state. The conversations made them “like brothers.”
“It was just like a big brother and little brother — even though we’re not brothers in the film. But we’re that close,” he says.
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Given that relationship, it was excruciating to shoot the scene in which Tony kills Manolo for sleeping with his sister. To make it more challenging, director Brian De Palma was incredibly exacting for the scene, doing “at least 25 takes” to get the action from six or seven different angles.
“The way he looked at me was a little hard to take, I have to say,” Bauer says of Pacino. “I was sort of secretly happy it was over in a second, and that he fires the gun right away. There’s no scene where I say, ‘You got it wrong.’ I am really glad it was written that way. [Screenwriter] Oliver [Stone] made it short and sweet.”
He says fans still come up to him and ask why his character didn’t explain to Tony that he’d actually married Tony’s sister (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), so it wasn’t scandalous that they were together. “Fans frame it as almost as if I’m responsible for the way the scene turned out,” he says laughing.
Bauer says he still finds himself stopping to watch Scarface whenever he’s flipping through the channels and sees that it’s on. “When I watch it, I’ll usually get caught up right away. If I see a scene from it, I leave it on for two minutes, and I’m hooked,” he says. “It doesn’t have lapses in entertainment or the compelling nature of it. The character Al created — that Tony Montana character is so interesting and so compelling that he sucks you in. You can hate him, but you can’t stop watching it.”
Bauer’s upcoming projects include The Lookalike, a New Orleans-set film noir co-starring Jerry O’Connell and Justin Long, and Last I Heard, starring Paul Sorvino.
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