New book delves into the world of Tony Montana and 1983’s ‘Scarface’

Film critic Glenn Kenny’s “The World Is Yours: The Story of Scarface” succeeds at what any attempt at film journalism or criticism should do: it’s entertaining and enlightening, regardless of the film being discussed.

Kenny’s story about the making and legacy of the 1983 Brian De Palma gangster film is deep-rooted with juicy interviews and a healthy dose of historical context to help explain why the film should matter all these years later.

I was able to sit down with Kenny over Zoom to talk about his motivation for capturing this particular piece of cinema, his approach to writing, and his affinity for Kansas City. The discussion has been edited for clarity and space.

Owen: So why “Scarface”? What drew you to this particular film?

Kenny: I’ve wanted to write a book about the film for over twenty years. But it made some sense after my last book (the also very entertaining “Made Men: The Story of ‘Goodfellas’”) and the fact that it sold relatively well.

My first idea after “Made Men” was to focus on a rom-com, and I wanted to write a book about “Sleepless in Seattle.” But I found the research on that a bit tricky because some people didn’t want to participate and those who did seemed irritated by the experience. It didn’t feel festive.

Although my instinct after “Made Men” was to do something counter-intuitive, my advice is: if you write a successful book, don’t be counter-intuitive.

Owen: It seems like De Palma and (screenwriter) Oliver Stone might be a bit tricky in terms of subject matter.

Kenny: I enjoyed researching this. De Palma was extremely cooperative, but also frank and forthright. Stone was very lively. He also wrote a great book of stories about ‘Scarface’. (Note: I reviewed the Stone memoir “Chasing the Light” in November 2020 and it is indeed a great book.) I wanted to interview Pacino, but he was difficult to reach. I did see him do a Q&A. I talked to a number of people who thought Pacino would rather talk about playing Richard III than “some gangster.” But isn’t the story of a gangster very Shakespearean?

Owen: How did you approach writing the book?

Kenny: I was young when I first watched “Scarface” and I was more of a movie fan than a critic. Now I’m interested in its status in the culture. Tony Montana is a despicable character that people have hung on their dorm room wall. Hip-hop has embraced it. That’s an interesting story about how that happened.

In terms of approach, there is always a plan. But nothing goes according to plan, so it’s best to be accommodating. You can chase an interview and not get it, as happened with Pacino. I worked hard to get Michelle Pfeiffer (who plays Elvira in the film) to talk. Steven Bauer (Tony’s right-hand man, Manny) was initially willing to talk, but it was very difficult to make an appointment. I would talk to him, ask follow-up questions, and then spend three months getting that additional interview.

Owen: Why has ‘Scarface’ survived? What drew those dorm kids and rappers to this story?

Kenny: ‘Goodfellas’ shows a transgressive lifestyle where people get away with things. People try to act within the law and ethics. But Henry Hill is just a foot soldier.

In ‘Scarface’ the question is: what if you are the king? You see the copper ring as the Cocaine King of Miami. In that position you either come out on top or you die. His journey is amazing. Some people find that attractive; pushing life to the limit.

“The World is Yours” is a catchphrase that Montana encounters at crucial moments in the story. It’s an existential statement. For me, he can enjoy his position before his downfall comes.

Owen: Do you have to watch the movie to appreciate the book?

Kenny: It helps. I’m breaking the movie down scene by scene, and that’s meant to be a way to watch it with me. There is an element of how history and entertainment are intertwined. The humor is underground. It’s lively and operatic. It’s opera and operas are not for all tastes.

Owen: Since I follow you on Twitter (or X or whatever), I know you’re married to a Kansas City native. I have to ask what you like about that place.

Kenny: We love Kansas City. In 1985 I read the book ‘American Fried’ by Calvin Trillin, in which the author says that Arthur Bryant’s is the best restaurant in America. No barbecue, dinner period. “I have to try this stuff,” I told myself. I’m meeting my wife and I want to meet her family immediately so I can go to Kansas City. The marriage was kept alive by KC Food. I’m kidding!

The interview ended with our conclusion that Q39 is a really good barbecue that many people don’t know about. Check it out the next time you’re in Kansas City. In the meantime, check out “The World is Yours.” If you like movies, this is a great summer read.

James Owen is the Tribune’s film columnist. In real life, he is an attorney and executive director of the energy policy group Renew Missouri. He graduated from Drury University and the University of Kansas and created, where he co-hosts a podcast. He enjoyed an extended stint as an on-air film critic for KY3, the NBC affiliate in Springfield, and is now a regular guest on Columbia radio station KFRU.