Editor’s note: The following includes references to suicide.
Perhaps the most interesting element in 1992’s Scent of a Woman, from someone who hasn’t seen it before, is how reined in Al Pacino is. The years since have painted his Lt. Colonel Frank Slade as a bombastic force that shouts “hoo-ah!” at every given opportunity. So it’s refreshing to note that while he certainly does have those moments, Al Pacino’s performance is much more nuanced. The role would earn Pacino an Oscar and a Golden Globe for Best Actor, and the film itself being nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards and winning Best Motion Picture at the Golden Globes. So all that said, does Scent of a Woman still pass the sniff test?
Oregon-born Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) attends Baird, a prep school in New England, on a scholarship, unlike his peers that hail from wealthy families. In order to save up money for a flight home at Christmas, Charlie takes a Thanksgiving weekend job looking after Lt. Col. Frank Slade, retired Army Ranger who is blind, an alcoholic, and an arse. Slade lives in a guest house on his niece’s property, and despite their first meeting not going well, Charlie agrees to look after Slade when his niece and family go out of town for the weekend. Back at Baird, Charlie and George Willis, Jr. (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are hauled into the headmaster’s office after witnessing other students setting up a prank on him. Neither give up names, even after the headmaster tries to bribe Charlie with guaranteed acceptance to Harvard, setting up a formal inquiry after the weekend. Charlie heads to Slade’s home to begin his weekend.
After his niece and family leave, though, Slade takes Charlie along on a clandestine trip to New York City, where he tells Charlie that he has two goals for the weekend: live the high-life, and commit suicide. Charlie isn’t sure if the latter is a serious note, but Slade keeps him along as he spends freely, a luxurious few days of extravagance on formal wear, whiskey, women, and good food. Sure enough, the comment about suicide is real, forcing Charlie to talk Slade out of it. Successful, the pair head home. At the formal inquiry, Charlie is surprised when Slade appears for support, and joyful after Slade gives a rousing speech, defending Charlie and his moral integrity.
The most prevalent theme in the movie is duality, yin and yang, light and dark. Charlie comes from a poor background and a broken family life, but his peers are wealthy and have families that can pay off infractions without a second thought. Slade can wax poetic and be devastatingly charming, then be entirely crass in the same sentence. Slade pushes family away, while Charlie has no family to turn to for support. Charlie has little backbone, and Slade has too much. Blind versus sight. Rat on others to get the grand prize, or keep your integrity. Visually, this dichotomy is set up early on, where Slade sits in the dark of his home, with a stark, contrasting beam of sunlight illuminating him through the window, and continues to use lighting to express it through a good portion of the film.
Scent of a Woman progresses, the contrasts begin to soften, melting into gray. This starts slowly at first with subtlety. Slade is downright hostile when Charlie reaches out for him, barking that he is not to be touched, that he will reach out if needed, but as the two share time together, the hostility ebbs to a point where Charlie can reach out to Slade in order to help. Charlie is as strait-laced as they come, a weak-willed boy that doesn’t drink and wouldn’t say s**t if his mouth was full of it. The changes are gradual. When Slade has done all he wants to do, his facade gives way to the tired, broken, and real man inside. Charlie and Slade begin to influence one another, positively. Charlie orders a beer, a seemingly trivial thing to do, but it signals that he is starting to grow, so when he takes charge as Slade is at his lowest and demands that Slade surrender his gun or get on with it, it feels earned. Slade is a bitter and blind arse, but Charlie helps him to see that there is still hope and much to live for, when he returns home to his family and is rather playful with the children, it too feels believable.
Which leads to another theme, one that grows stronger as the film runs along: family. For most of the film, family is a bad word. Slade tires of his niece coming in to see if he’s alright, and barks at her young kids. Charlie’s father left the family years ago, and he doesn’t get along with his stepfather. An excursion over the weekend sees Slade and Charlie pop in to his brother’s home, where the family is clearly uncomfortable with Slade being there, which is only helped by Slade’s off-putting and downright rude behavior. By the end of the weekend, though, it becomes obvious that the two have developed something akin to a father/son relationship. When Charlie is dropped off at Baird, Slade reaches out to touch Charlie’s face, “seeing” him for the very first time. And when Slade shows up to be by Charlie’s side at the formal inquiry, stepping in for support, and passionately defending Charlie as a father would do, it cements their relationship as something deeper.
The minor characters in Scent of a Woman are not given much to do – the film is centered primarily on Slade and Charlie – and as a result are not especially memorable, but they serve the story well and do nothing to detract from it. James Rebhorn plays headmaster Trask as pompous and arrogant, completely devoid of integrity. Hoffman’s George Willis, Jr. is great as the rich boy who knows that his father will see to it that his sins will not result in punishment. It is O’Donnell and Pacino that drive the bus here, though, and both are exquisite. O’Donnell has the good American boy charm to pull off the innocent Charlie, the one that stares slack-jawed at Slade’s actions, but makes his growth in the film real to the extent that one can see how he gets from point A to point B honestly.
As for Pacino, he delivers a master class. Every facet of his character is captured in his movements and intonations. He’s bold when he needs to be, charming when called for, and even terrifying. You can sense the contentment in Slade as he takes Donna (Gabrielle Anwar) across the dance floor for a tango. You can feel the intense joy from being behind the wheel of a Ferrari for a time (that’s right, blind man driving a Ferrari, and it’s one of the best, funniest scenes in the movie), and his utter despair at choosing to end his life. It’s a performance well-deserved of the Oscar Pacino got for the role.
Scent of a Woman is not what yours truly expected, and that is a good thing. It’s an engrossing tale that captures you at the beginning and doesn’t let go, with powerful performances from its two leads.