SCENT OF A WOMAN, 1992
Cast: Al Pacino, Chris O'Donnell, James Rebhorn, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Gabrielle Anwar, Bradley Whitford, Richard Venture,
To earn some extra money, scholarship student Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) agrees to baby-sit the elderly and blind Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino). But to Charlie’s surprise the vibrant Mr. Slade isn’t planning on staying in over the holiday period! Instead he’s booked them a one-way ticket to the city that never sleeps: New York City! The trip changes both men forever and a lasting friendship is formed.
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After two decades (and a film career full of Oscar worthy performances) Al Pacino was finally honored with the Golden Statue for his turn as the aggressive, charming and always temperamental Colonel Frank Slade. The film itself is a much smaller event in comparison to the great Godfather movies and other powerhouse Pacino films like Scarface (1983). But one cannot disagree that Pacino is on top form in this movie and thoroughly deserved the accolade that had long been owed!
We first meet Colonel Slade in his dark living compartment that’s separate from the main family house. And once he gets going we can see why he’s been put there. Poor Charlie can’t get a word in and anything he does say is wrong! Pacino’s Slade is extremely agitated not to mention abrupt but there’s not a second that he isn’t completely engaging: “When in doubt... fuck.” Like with Jack Nicholson in the equally brilliant As Good as It Gets (1997) we’re about to hit the road with one of the coolest cats on the block!
So Charlie has no choice but to give in and join Frank on a journey that will teach him more about life than all the books in the Baird School library. Pacino and a very young O’Donnell form a delightful comic pairing that has you in stitches! O’Donnell deserves special praise for being able to act alongside arguably one of the greatest ever screen actors holding his own throughout. Frank charms his young babysitter with his favorite topic of discussion: women. As Pacino plays out Slade’s fascination with the fairer sex you feel as though the part was written specifically for him: “Yes, Mr. Sims, there's only two syllables in this whole wide world worth hearing: pussy.”
As the title suggests the film does feature much of Slade’s antics with the ladies. Frank charms his way skillfully into the affections of just about every woman he meets. He explains his obsessions to Charlie in their private moments as if reciting poetry: “Have you ever buried your nose in a mountain of curls... just wanted to go to sleep forever? Or lips... and when they touched, yours were like... that first swallow of wine... after you just crossed the desert.” Like Brando, Pacino has a powerful sexuality and knows how to express it with his voice and body. Pacino can carry off this kind of romanticism without it sounding false or farcical and then add his own brand of humor to it. It’s something that sets him apart from peers like De Niro and Hoffman who have consciously never ventured into this territory with their performances.
Perhaps the scene that people always remember from Scent of a Woman is where Frank shows Charlie how to get the girl in the restaurant! O’Donnell’s shy and unsure Charlie has it in him but clearly needs someone to show him the way. Pacino’s Frank Slade is the perfect mentor as he teaches by example! Frank dazzles the young and beautiful Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) with his insightful nasal abilities: “Well, I'm in the amazing business.” Then takes her to the empty dance floor for a tango, showing us that being old and blind doesn’t spoil your chances with a lady! The scene is beautiful to watch and touches your heart. Pacino’s wonderfully understated routine harks back to the days of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly; leading men that could get up and dance with their female co-stars.
Another great scene is when Frank manages to convince Charlie to take a Ferrari out for a test drive. Frank impresses us again with his blind driving skills relying on poor Charlie to advise him on when to turn! By this point in the movie Frank has almost done everything he had set out to do on his trip to New York… the last thing he keeps a secret from Charlie. Pacino expertly shows us Frank’s slide into despair, gradually the energy so rampant in his aggressive ranting prior is now dying down. Pacino with his performance tells us without any direct gesturing that something is not quite right with Colonel Slade. Pacino and O’Donnell change gears and take us into deep and disturbing emotions. The fun is over and both Charlie and Frank have to confront their demons back in the hotel room. Pacino plays a man in his most vulnerable moment and O’Donnell plays his savior, someone from outside Frank’s daily life who now knows him so well the he can bring him back. Scent of a Woman is an ode to the beauty and struggle of life. The sweet with the sour and how friendship gets you through.
There is a classic ‘feel-good-movie’ formula that we see time and time again. While they may get the reaction out of an audience initially, over time they began to feel artificial and don’t last. Scent of a Woman is a refreshing change as it does uplift you emotionally but it never feels over eager or artificial. Charlie and Frank’s resolution is believable and not kitsch in any shape or form. A slightly offbeat Pacino movie in comparison to the classics in the seventies but a great performance in a movie that will stand the test of time and it did win Pacino his Oscar after all!