If there is one movie character who personifies the disco couture era, then that’s Michelle Pfeiffer as Elvira Hancock in Scarface (1983). That’s the disco glam of the 1970s (the story may be set in the early 1980s, but the clothes carry un undeniable ‘70s and ‘30s vibe), provoking and showing off, meant not to go unnoticed. The costumes were designed by Patricia Norris, but each one of them carries the undeniable mark of Halston. Roy Halston was the designer who had the strongest influence on the American fashion early in the decade, when he helped bury the girly, tie-dye, hippie look of the 60’s and introduced the virtually opposed minimal, utterly simple, modern clothes that women were ready for. He was a master of the art and one of the names who helped acknowledge the importance of the American designs on the world fashion scene.
His designs included both slinky dresses worn by the ladies of Studio 54 and smartly tailored, linear, refined suits – all governed by a glamourous, simple, sleek, minimal quality. Halston’s greatest flair was to master simplicity – in form, line, cut, texture, tailoring. His approach to minimalism was so radical that he eventually dropped even buttons and zippers. There is no button or zipper on any of the dresses Elvira is wearing either, and even the white suit jacket is a tie waist jacket. Her make-up is very 70’s, too: smoky eyes and a highly saturated lip colour, and the jewellery is glitzy, but not excessive, as it mainly consists of drop earrings – the only type of jewellery a low-cut dress calls for.
Brian De Palma’s Scarface (with a script by Oliver Stone who made it to the screen intact) is inspired by Howard Hawks’ 1932 classic Scarface, based on the romanticized life of Al Capone – it “abounds in lovely discoveries”, François Truffaut described it. The 1983 film however can hardly be called a remake, and if we consider it that, it’s one of the very few remakes that outdo the originals. Shifting the plot to 1980s Miami (before Brian De Palma was brought on to direct, it was Sidney Lumet who was attached to the project for a while and he reportedly came up with the idea of turning the antihero played by Paul Muni in Hawks’ film into a Cuban immigrant in Miami and making the film as “a Marielito picture in Miami”), it reveals both a psychological and political dimension: Fidel Castro’s brief boatlift that allowed emigrants out in 1981, thus ridding Cuba of many of its criminals, unscrupulous craving for wealth and power in the greed-driven America of the Reagan era, a world of excess and money and losing one’s soul on their way to achieving it.
Elvira’s costumes also reference the thirties. And again Halston comes to mind, as his designs remind us of the glamour of the past,… as well as of modernity. I realise I reference Halston a lot, but the fact is the merit goes to costume designer Patricia Norris. The film was made in a time when contemporary film design still meant really designing the costumes for a movie, not shopping for them off the rack. And Patricia Norris was very much a costume designer, not a stylist. However, in an interview for The Film Experience, Norris gracefully ceded credit to the director and producer, “who knew exactly what they wanted”, and to Michelle Pfeiffer herself for the enduring appeal of her look as Elvira Hancock.
In her near-uniform numbers, the backless halternecks in silk or satin with plunging necklines, Elvira – first the love interest, and then the wife of Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, one of Castro’s criminals fled from Cuba, who rapidly stakes claim on the drug trade in Miami – is a sullen coat hanger, showing nothing but boredom, insolence and contempt – feeling trapped without escape, “Elvira wards off boredom with cocaine and cynicism,” wrote film journalist Steffen Haubner.
From her show-stopping entrance gown, a shimmery sea-green chemise dress trimmed in gold appliqué, backless and with a huge slit up the right leg, to the crimson-rose pink satin dress and the brown sequined dress (first two photos in this article), Elvira Hancock doesn’t look like anything but a femme fatale, a look made even more intriguing by her classic bob with innocent bangs that offsets her blatant sultriness.
But she never loses the radiance from when we first see her, seizing her audience just as quickly as she seizes Tony’s attention, even when their world of self-contained wasteland unravels and she is ready to abandon everything. “Can’t you see what we’re becoming, Tony? We’re losers. We’re not winners, we’re losers.”
photos: movie stills captured by me from this Blu-ray edition, except for the first one – a publicity still | Universal Pictures