Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends about movies and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the movie urban legends featured so far.
MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There is an X-Rated Director’s Cut of the film Scarface.
One of the best things about the endless re-releases of classic films on to DVD and Blu-Ray is that it gives film studios more and more opportunities to include new bonus content with the films. It used to be that a “bonus” on a DVD of a film was that it included the option to select a particular scene (I own a couple of DVDs that predate that “bonus” content and it is utterly bizarre to watch a DVD that just goes right to the movie when you put it into the DVD player).
When it comes to Brian De Palma’s 1983 classic gangster film, Scarface, though, something fans would love to see is the so-called “X-Rated Director’s Cut” of the film, as Scarface is notorious for originally receiving an X Rating from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) before being released with an R Rating. Reader Frank W. specifically wrote in asking if such a cut exists. The answer might surprise you, as the story behind how De Palma dealt with his X rating is quite surprising.
Even as the MPAA have moved past the X Rating to the less controversial (and trademarked by the MPAA, so pornographic films could not use it like they used the X Rating) “NC-17″ rating (No One 17 and Under Admitted), the rating remains a death knell to a film having widespread box office success, with 1995’s Showgirls remaining the only NC-17 film ever to gross over $20 million. NC-17 films are not accepted into many theater chains and it is difficult to advertise the film in some newspapers and on television. By the time that the X Rating was retired in 1990, the same went for films rated X. There was a time before pornography had tainted the rating that films could legitimately be released with an X Rating (Midnight Cowboy and A Clockwork Orange are two notable examples), but by the time the 1980s had rolled around, the X Rating was a kiss of death for a film that a studio felt would appeal to a broad audience.
Like today, the easiest way for a film to get an X Rating was sexually explicit content. However, when it came time to submit Brian De Palma’s 1983 remake of Howard Hughes’ 1933 gangster masterpiece, Scarface, starring Al Pacino as Cuban gangster Tony Montana, it was violence that got the MPAA’s attention.
While they were put off by the violence throughout the film (not to mention the nearly 200 uses of the f-word), the scene that ultimately led to the X rating was a sequence where Tony and his compatriot Angel (played by Pepe Serna) are buying some cocaine from some Columbians led by Hector the Toad (played by Al Israel). It turns out to be a double-cross and Hector tries to get the money from Tony. Tony refuses. Hector tries to compel Tony by tying Angel to a shower bar and then using a chainsaw to dismember Angel in Tony’s face. Ultimately, before Tony is given the same treatment, his other friends show up and after a firefight, Hector and the Columbians are all killed. First off, the most important thing to note about the scene is that De Palma never included a scene of a body part actually getting cut off. In general, De Palma relied upon the old Alfred Hitchcock mode of horror – you’d show the chainsaw, you then cut away and hear the screams and your imagination would make it scarier than film special effects would make it.
However, there was blood in the scene (you see blood spurt on to Angel’s face as his arm is chopped off) and overall, the scene is quite intense.
So De Palma made some edits to the scene and re-submitted the film. Again, it was given an X Rating. De Palma made some more edits and once again submitted the film. Again, it was given an X Rating. De Palma refused to edit the film any more, telling Universal Pictures that either they release the film as it is or else fire him and get some other director to do the necessary edits. Universal was not ready to do either (although if it came down to it, they likely would have chosen the latter option). Instead, they appealed the decision.
Robert Rehme, president of Universal, went to the hearing, with MPAA President (and friend to Rehme) Jack Valenti choosing to preside over the appeal. The head of the Broward County, Florida Organized Crime Division spoke out in favor of the film, film critic Jay Cocks read a letter of support from film critic Roger Ebert. The head of a major theater chain, Alan Friedberg, felt that the film was acceptable as an R. Head of the ratings board, Richard Heffner, later recalled that he could have fought harder for the X but he could tell that Valenti did not support the decision (Valenti did not want to alienate the big movie studios), so he did not want to go to war over this X rating. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of releasing the film as a R.
Next came the tricky part. De Palma believed (and I think rightly so) that if this latest cut was considered an “R” than his original submission should be an R, as well, as his edits were minor. The MPAA told him, in effect, don’t push your luck and said that no, only the last version will count as an R. However, De Palma also believed (and again, it turns out that he was right) that the changes were so slight that no one would ever notice if he just put out the original version anyways. And that is what he did. De Palma spoke about it in a recent interview,
I was able to beat the ratings board with Scarface. Even though they rated it X, I was able to appeal to the whole committee and we got it passed. There’s a lot of controversy about how Scarface was edited, but in reality, everything I cut out to appease the rating board I put back in and that’s what you see.
So contrary to popular belief, there cannot be a “Director’s Cut” of the film because what was released was the Director’s Cut! Amusingly enough, De Palma gave a notorious interview to Esquire at the time discussing the controversy:
As soon as I get this dignity from Scarface I’m going to go out and make an X-rated suspense porn picture…I’m sick of being censored…So if they want an X they’ll get a real X. They wanna see suspense, they wanna see terror, they wanna see SEX – I’m the person for the job.
The film he is referring to is his next film, Body Double.
It was rated R.
The legend is…
Thanks to Frank W. for the suggestion!
Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.