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Scent of a Woman Print E-mail
Thursday, 01 November 2007

Image When Al Pacino connects with a role, he soars, he sings, he's at the top of the acting world — and he connects with Lt. Col. Frank Slade in "Scent of a Woman" like a wet finger connects with a socket. It's a glowing, incandescent performance, unlike anything Pacino did before or since—and yet it’s become his emblematic performance, along with “Dog Day Afternoon” and “The Godfather” trilogy. Using an odd delivery that sounds like John Huston doing an impression of W.C. Fields, Pacino also adopts a different speaking rhythm than he used before, and a faint Southern accent.

Slade is an exasperating, aggravating guy, a now-retired career soldier who loves to refer to being on Lyndon Johnson’s staff, but who also made a stupid blunder (juggling live hand grenades) that blinded him. Now he's sitting in a little house behind the New Hampshire home of his niece, snarling at her, annoying her little children, and downing gallons of John Daniels. "He may be Jack to you," he explains, "but when you've known him as long as I have...."

The movie begins with the story of the other main character, 17-year old Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell), in New Hampshire attending the prestigious Baird prep school on a scholarship. He’s from Gresham, Oregon, has little money, and is attending on a scholarship. He and a classmate, George Willis (Philip Seymour Hoffman) see some boys from their dorm planting a paint bomb that smears the beloved Jaguar of their disliked headmaster, Mr. Trask (James Rebhorn). Trask demands that Charlie tell who the pranksters were, and suggests that if he does reveal, he'll be sure to get into Harvard. But Charlie is reluctant to rat out his dorm-mates, and intends to follow George’s lead. Still hanging on the horns of this dilemma, and needing money to go home for Christmas, Charlie takes the job of looking after Frank Slade over the Thanksgiving weekend. Slade has his own plans, and no sooner has Charlie arrived than they're off to New York, where Slade plans to have a high old time, living lavishly, visiting his somewhat estranged older brother, and then...

At first, Charlie is frightened and annoyed by Slade, but slowly develops some respect. Slade checks them into the Waldorf-Astoria, much to Charlie’s amazement, then they head out to a fancy restaurant. Slade surprises Charlie when he chooses a surprised, charmed young woman (Gabrielle Anwar, instantly likeable) to teach how to do the tango. Slade keeps forestalling Charlie’s return to New Hampshire, keeps insisting that Charlie follow his lead. He hires a limo to drive the two of them to the suburban home of Slade’s brother and his family. It’s obvious Slade has rarely visited his relatives (he forgets almost everyone’s names), and he’s not exactly welcome. Slade is almost infuriatingly buoyant, bossy, crusty and courageous, but finally begins to sink into despair. Charlie finds a way to lift the older man’s spirits, resulting in one of the film’s two most famous sequences (the other being the tango lesson)—when a blind man drives a $100,000 Ferrari through the (blessedly) empty streets of New York.

The script by Bo Goldman is loosely based on an Italian film of the same title, but other than the very basic arrangement (young naive man with a more sophisticated blind man), the films have little in common. Goldman and director Martin Brest have chosen to examine not what Slade and Charlie do in New York, but how they react to one another. It's a classic pairing of opposites, and it works very well; you really get into their personalities. Brest dares to have the length and rhythms of scenes dictated by what the characters must go through, not by what the plot insists befall them. As a result, at almost two and a half hours, the movie is probably too long, but it's deeply engrossing, and ultimately very satisfying, despite a somewhat contrived conclusion. You care about these characters — and, as with all of Brest's far too few other movies, including "Midnight Run" and "Beverly Hills Cop," everyone who has a line has a character, from the chauffeur hired to drive Slade and Charlie around New York, to Slade's youngest nephew, who has maybe three lines. (Brest is so adept with actors, and Goldman — "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and "Melvin and Howard" — so fine a writer that we know this boy, unlike the rest of his family, worships his uncle.)

It's not easy to like Frank Slade. He's abrasive, sour, sarcastic, insolent and crude — and those are his good qualities. His niece, he says, bakes "cookies like wing nuts." He snaps at Charlie, "Are you listening to me, son? I'm giving you pearls, here." He's always courteous to those who wait on him, and always charming to women — he can identify every perfume and soap whose aromas he encounters. But he's also deeply self-pitying and self-destructive, though he's ashamed of those traits,and of the mess he feels he's made of his life. He sees in Charlie an unmarked page, an honest, principled young man who is faced with a terrible choice, and he wants to leave Charlie with a better chance in life, a better outlook, than he had himself. How Slade helps Charlie at the end seems almost like a scene from another movie, one along the lines, perhaps, of “Good Will Hunting.”

The movie was nominated for a best picture Oscar, Goldman for best screenplay and Brest for best director. Al Pacino has been nominated for acting Oscars seven times—and this is the role for which he won Best Actor. It’s one of his most colorful, intense roles (in a career of colorful, intense roles); the reason he won is probably the movie’s layer of sentimentality. Almost as soon as we see Pacino as Slade that we know he’s going to go through a dark night of the soul, and that we will ultimately be expected to feel sympathy for him. And we do—but we’re guided that way a little too obviously.

Studios seem to be rushing onto Blu-Ray and HD DVD all recent films of some fame, whether or not the films are enhanced by high definition, and sometimes the haste shows, not in the quality of images, but in the packaging. There are no extras on “Scent of a Woman,” not even a note about Pacino winning the Oscar. No making-of, no commentary tracks, no interviews. Universal can’t be ashamed of the film—it did well at the box office—so this almost egregious oversight can be attributed only to haste.

But then again, this is not a film that’s especially enhanced by high definition. It does look great, no doubt about it, with the soft late-fall colors of the trees, the gray skies, the majestic buildings of the prep school, the well-decorated interiors. We can now see that Pacino’s clothes are expensive: you can see the weave in his suits and ties. And you can see the fine lines that time has etched into his face. But this kind of story would work almost as well as a radio show; it’s not about the visuals, handsome though they are. Here, a high definition presentation is almost beside the point.

Chris O'Donnell seems as fresh and open as a sunny day, but there's nothing naive about him. He's intelligent and shrewd, but his very honesty may cost him his future. This was the beginning of O’Donnell’s brief period of stardom. His callow nature helped him in roles like this, but was out of place later on—and yet it seems intrinsic to him. He’s a decent actor but he doesn’t “own the screen.” He’ll have a long career, but almost always as a TV performer or supporting actor in movies.

"Scent of a Woman" tries to dramatize real issues of choice facing young people today, but the situation is essentially artificial, though Charlie's choice is indeed a difficult one. But learning from an irascible blind veteran isn't something we all can do. The climax, in which Slade appears at the disciplinary hearing for Charlie and Willis, doesn't send off the sparks that Brest and Goldman want, partly because some of Slade's dialogue is too elliptical, partly because we're uncertain as to the way Charlie should go. Those he could refuse to inform on are upper-crust snobs who treat him with not very veiled contempt; the man he might confess to is a remote disciplinarian. You really can't guess the outcome, in one sense, but also because the film has focused more on Slade than on Charlie, even at this point, we're more concerned about what's going to happen to Frank than what's going to happen to Charlie.

Slade's character is complex enough that we can believe his niece really means it when she tells Charlie, before he meets Slade, that "down deep, the man is a lump of sugar" — and yet we immediately realize that this lump of sugar is pretty damned sour most of the time. Pacino's impersonation of blindness is among the best I've seen; his eyes really do seem sightless, but the actor has somehow done this from within — he doesn't aim unblinking eyes straight ahead, as some misguided people have done. It's also clear that this guy was not pleasant before he was blinded, and that his agony over where his life has gone is not due entirely to having gone blind. It's as if that's the capper, the last rotten thing he's done to himself in a lifetime of disappointing himself and others.

In this role, Pacino could have gone for sympathy, even pity, but he and Slade almost reject both — Slade sometimes violently. Pacino wants us to understand Slade, not feel sorry for him, to recognize that this is a guy who's screwed up his life and thinks he has no more chances. And yet Brest still tries for sympathy, right over Pacino’s intentions. The contempt Slade feels for others is real, but it's never as strong as Slade wants us to believe, and there is the faint suggestion that Slade is pushing his niece and her family away from him, so they won't be devastated when he carries out his plan. The script is very wise in showing us — but not Charlie — that Slade wants to help the younger man, but also that it's really Slade who has more to learn, and he learns it from Charlie, from the boy's compassion, principles and honesty.

As with Brest's other films, the acting by everyone is outstanding. Particularly good are Philip Seymour Hoffman (billed as Philip S. Hoffman), as the preppie who's up against the same wall as Charlie; he's unpleasant but not nasty, and we can see why Charlie might feel friendly toward him. Gabrielle Anwar is very affecting as that young woman Frank and Charlie meet in an elegant restaurant; Frank whirls her around the floor in a brilliantly-choreographed tango, while Donald E. Thorin's camera emphasizes her gleeful, headily romantic reactions. The tango scene provides the film with its one real aphorism: "If you're tangled up, you tango on." That's almost poetic — Frank does have a touch of the poet — and it does apply to the film. Charlie and Frank are both tangled up, but as in a tango, it takes the two of them to successfully tango on together.

"Scent of a Woman" is a long movie, and some may find it boring at times because of its insistence that the real material of movies is the characters in them; Brest cuts from closeup to closeup, allowing actors the space and time to feel out the parts and demonstrate their characters to us. That’s daring, but it pays off in "Scent of a Woman."

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