Movie Legends Revealed | The Strange Tale of How ‘Scarface’ Beat the X Rating

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MOVIE URBAN LEGEND: There is an X-rated director’s cut of the film Scarface.

One of the best things about the endless re-release of classic films on DVD and Blu-ray is that it gives film studios more opportunities to include new bonus content. It used to be that a “bonus” on a DVD 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 player). When it comes to Brian De Palma’s 1983 classic gangster film Scarface, however, something fans would love to see is the so-called “X-Rated Director’s Cut,” 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 astounding.

Even as the MPAA has moved past X to the less controversial NC-17 (“No One 17 and Under Admitted”), the rating ends the chances of a film becoming a widespread box-office success, with 1995′s Showgirls remaining the only NC-17 release ever to gross more than $20 million. NC-17 films aren’t accepted into many theater chains, and it’s difficult to advertise in some newspapers and on television. By the time 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 (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.

scarfaceposterLike 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 the 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), what 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 Colombians led by Hector the Toad (Al Israel). It turns out to be a double-cross and Hector tries to get the money from Tony. When he refuses, Hector tries to compel Tony by tying Angel to a shower bar and then using a chainsaw to dismember him. Ultimately, before Tony is given the same treatment, his other friends show up and after a firefight, Hector and the Colombians are all killed.

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, the director relied upon the old Alfred Hitchcock mode of horror: Show the chainsaw, cut away and let viewers hear screams, leaving their imagination to make the scene scarier than special effects ever could. However, there was blood in the sequence (you see blood spurt on to Angel’s face as his arm is chopped off) and overall, it’s quite intense.

So De Palma made some edits and re-submitted the film. Again, it was given an X rating. He then 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 to either release the film as is or fire him and get another director to make the necessary changes. The studio wasn’t ready to do either (although if it came down to it, executives likely would have chosen the latter option). Instead, Universal appealed the decision.

scarfacechainsaw3Studio President Robert Rehme went to the hearing, with MPAA President (and Rehme’s friend) 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, and film critic Jay Cocks read a letter of support from 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 Valenti didn’t 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 an R.

Next came the tricky part: De Palma believed (and I think rightly so) that if this latest cut was considered an “R” then 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 no one would ever notice if he just put out the original version anyway. 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 …

STATUS: False

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 bcronin@legendsrevealed.com.

Be sure to check out my Entertainment Urban Legends Revealed for more urban legends about the worlds of TV, Movies and Music!

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Comments

  • Der Langhaarige

    Isn’t there a similar story about Carpenter’s ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13? That the MPAA gave it an X, unless he cuts out how the little girl gets shot? So he cut it out, they gave the movie an R, then he just put the scene back in? At least that’s how I remember it. Apparently the MPAA didn’t bother with checking the movie again after its release.

  • Andy E. Nystrom

    One documentary I recommend for anyone interested in the various controversies surrounding the MPAA is This Film is Not Yet Rated. The movie takes the MPAA to task for a lack of transparency, being harder on indie films, etc.