Armchair Cinephile 

SNEAKING AROUND THE CENSORS

 
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Scarface (Universal)
Sea of Love (Universal)
Billy Wilder Collection (MGM)
Irreversible (Lions Gate)
There's Something More About Mary (20th Century Fox)

The big DVD news this week, obviously, is a little Cuban refugee with an ego as huge as the state he is named for: Al Pacino's Tony Montana, the drug dealer who sets Miami on fire in 1983's Scarface (Universal), has become one of the most memorable personalities in the history of crime movies, if not of the movies, period. It's also the most enjoyable example of Pacino's "look Ma, I'm a lunatic" acting mode. He stinks in Scent of a Woman, he's a cartoon in Dick Tracy, but for Tony Montana every one of Pacino's loopy, over-the-top choices makes sense. And don't think director Brian De Palma and screenwriter Oliver Stone, both known for their unwillingness to rein in their obsessions, didn't push him in any way they could.

(Just to prove Pacino was still in control in the '80s, check out Universal's recent Sea of Love. Again playing a character whose passions might draw out an actor's hammiest side, Al shows a great deal of restraint. The film's reputation would probably be higher if there hadn't been such a spate of sex-and-murder films in its wake; Sea is a solid little thriller, but it takes some work to view it without Basic Instinct and Fatal Attraction, et al, clouding your judgment.)

One of the most entertaining things about the Scarface reissue is a very brief feature that compares the film to the version that was sanitized for network television. What kind of person would dream of airing this festival of "fuck"s during prime time? By setting clips from the movie against the same scenes in the censored version, the DVD producers treat us to a few laughs while incidentally showing just how horrible the pan-and-scan process - where widescreen films are turned into square TV fodder - truly is.

The late Billy Wilder lived with censors as a fact of life. Making movies in the '50s and '60s, he was forbidden not only to use four-letter words but to traffic in certain themes. Still, he got away with a lot: Sinister motivations hide in the shadows of his film noir classics, lascivious double entendres lace his comedies. MGM's recent Billy Wilder Collection, which focuses on the director's late career, shows him pushing those boundaries as far as they would go. From the cross-dressing hijinks of Some Like It Hot, in which Jerry famously winds up having a wealthy bachelor propose marriage to him, to the adulterous traffic jam in The Apartment, most of the raciest stuff seems to happen to poor, straight-laced Jack Lemmon. Hell, in Irma La Douce, he starts off a cop and winds up becoming Shirley MacLaine's pimp.

Some of the later work in the collection is not Wilder's best. Even Irma, which has an awful lot to offer, goes on too long after a hilarious first half. (It's shocking to see that almost all these films are more than two hours long - Some Like It Hot and the other greats never feel that long.) But even toward the end, the filmmaker had greatness left; his The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes is as irreverent as any film he made, and manages to get laughs while spinning an involving mystery. In 1970, it was able to push the limits significantly more than the rest: Here Holmes is quite explicit about his cocaine use, and throughout the film there is a running joke suggesting that he might be gay.

You have to do a lot more than that these days to risk having your film censored - that is, if you're not aiming for the multiplex. The recent French import Irreversible (Lions Gate), for instance, features an excruciating 10-minute sequence in which Monica Bellucci (The Matrix Reloaded) is raped in a hellishly red hallway. It was released without an MPAA rating, so there was no cutting necessary, even if most viewers wished some had been done.

Mainstream films, on the other hand, still can't do just anything they want. The Farrelly Brothers pushed an awful lot of boundaries in There's Something About Mary, but as expected, the gross-out factor is slightly higher in the recently expanded DVD There's Something More About Mary (20th Century Fox). Honestly, the restored footage doesn't add much; the film works so well in its original version (which is also included in this two-disc set) that the additional sleaze and storylines are superfluous. What is appealing, though, is the alternate credits sequence, a claymation segment that has a little animated Jonathan Richman singing sweetly over plasticine titles. It's a shame that some poor suckers slaved over something like that and had it cut from the film - the sequence represents a lot more work than most stuff that's trimmed in the editing process - but at least it's here for animation fans to enjoy. Now if only Fox had done a Scarface-style exposé of how TV censors handled Mary's images of genital zipper injuries, withered breasts, and unusual hair gels. •


More by John DeFore

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