Monday, July 24, 2017

Michelle Pfeiffer: Scarface

Revisiting—or in a few cases, watching for the first time—and celebrating the work of Michelle Pfeiffer, the best actress of my lifetime.

"Michelle Pfeiffer was a star from the moment she descended in that glass elevator in Scarface—although the automatic prejudice that assumes beautiful people can't act means it took a while for people to see she was also an actress."
— Charles Taylor, in Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You

Like everyone and everything in Brian De Palma's wildly overstuffed, profane, and bloody morality tale of Tony Montana's (a gloriously over the top Al Pacino) dogged pursuit of the American dream, Pfeiffer's Elvira Hancock is not entirely what she seems at first glance. Certainly, she posses an otherworldly beauty, but she's also fiercely intelligent. Pfeiffer's masterful performance in Scarface (1983) upends our perceptions of the traditional, frigid ice queen trope—while Elvira is hardly impressed with Tony's bombast or power, she's also a woman with little power of her own beyond her sexuality and acerbic wit. Pfeiffer offers a memorably brave portrait of a women who's entire life has been defined by her beauty, and then subtly shows us how this fosters in her a detached cynicism and damaged self-worth. Pfeiffer underplays it all perfectly, making Elvira the cynical female voice of reason amidst the power-hungry and misogynist male egos around her.

Seeing Scarface in my early teens was transformative. The absurd spectacle and epic length alone blew my young mind. I would spend more than a decade watching it at least several times annually. To say I was obsessed with the film's black humor and extravagant violence would be an understatement. Truth be told, I was also more than a little obsessed with Pfieffer. No matter how often I watched, Elvira always took my breath away. It wasn't just her physical beauty, but also her delicately nuanced portrayal of a woman defiantly rebelling against her role as a cocaína empire trophy wife. She smolders with contempt throughout. Every icy glare, every verbal grenade she tosses makes an impact. It's astonishing to realize Pfeiffer was only twenty-four during production, yet she stands toe to toe with the legendary Pacino in every scene they share.

As the quote above notes, Pfeiffer's entrance in Scarface (1983) is indeed the moment where her nascent stardom first exploded onto the public consciousness. At the time, some critics and moviegoers may not have seen past her exquisite looks to realize her tremendous talent, which is a shame. Six years later though, everyone seemed in agreement about that stardom, thanks to her breakout, Oscar-nominated performance in The Fabulous Baker Boys (1989). But for anyone who first saw her in Scarface, including that younger version of me, it was crystal clear from the moment she arrived on screen, a luminous vision in that iconic turquoise dress, clearly too perfect for this world: Michelle Pfieffer was a star.


  1. Great post <3

    1. Thank you! There are more Michelle Pfeiffer posts to come so stay tuned.

  2. Fine review, I’d say anyone who hasn’t managed to see Scarface after all these years really should get on it. It’s a must-see for Michelle Pfeiffer’s work alone.
    As you say she is spot on as a bitter trophy wife, and her performance is so sharp I always shake my head wondering why it took another five years for her to receive an Academy Award nomination.
    Apart from her Elvira’s famous entrance in that fabulous dress dress, I really enjoy the scene where Pacino is trying to seduce her and she’s just not interested; finally he gets into her car, puts on her hat and does a funny face. You can see a smile finally dawning on Michelle’s lips, it’s pfabulous!