There was a time, in the 70s, when Al Pacino was the young, fresh faced, nasally voiced quiet guy. Michael Corleone in The Godfather is only as imposing as the monster he becomes by the end because of that fresh faced performance in the preceding couple of hours. But to anyone who’s only seen the last twenty, or even thirty years of Pacino’s career, he’d only be known as the guy who yells almost every line, with the odd piece of gravelly whispering here and there for texture. And while this current version of Pacino had existed for a little while, his real coming out party was Scent of a Woman.
Chris O’Donnell is Charlie Simms, a blue collar kid on a scholarship at a prestigious Boston school, surrounded by spoilt rich dudes. One of whom is George Willis Jr. played by a jarringly young, yet already middle aged looking in a lot of ways, Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The two witness some other students putting in place an elaborate prank targeting an asshole teacher, James Redbone as Mr Task. Task later tries to bribe Charlie into snitching on the pranksters, by offering an assured admittance into Harvard.
At the same time, Charlie answers a help wanted ad to be a carer for a local blind man while his family goes away for the Thanksgiving weekend. That blind man is Al Pacino as the awesomely named “Col. Frank Slade. Brash, boorish and no bullshit, Frank tricks Charlie into joining him on an indulgent weekend in New York City. A weekend of luxury hotels and fine dining, whores, fast cars, impromptu and ill fated family reunions, and a planned suicide. All that is to say, just another weekend with Al Pacino in the 90s.
With all of this heavy stuff going down in the Big Apple, it makes the school snitch storyline seem kind of inconsequential and childish, yet Scent of Woman keeps trying to give it weight and importance throughout. Sure, it leads to one of the great movie speeches of the last few decades, but it just never quite worked for me.
But even with the burden of such a lightweight subplot, Scent of a Woman shows that the brief Hollywood obsession with Chris O’Donnell wasn’t totally undeserved. He might be in every single scene of this movie, and more than holds his own against Pacino. There’s a scene toward the end, when he’s watching Pacino in full flight, deliver a rip snorting monologue. And even then, with no dialogue, O’Donnell’s look of silent admiration for the Frank Slade character is one of the most convincing, real pieces of acting you’ll ever see.
There’s one major downside to Scent of a Woman, and it’s also one of its greatest strengths… Pacino’s previously mentioned, awesome, yelly performance. As Col. Frank Slade, the constant erratic outbursts and constant ear rupturing volume are perfect. This confident, yet vulnerable, bitter yet noble, proud yet broken man would yell like this all the time. I makes perfect sense and it won Pacino his one and only Academy award. The only problem is, he’s kept the volume and hamminess at Frank Slade levels in almost every movie he’s made in the more than twenty years since.
I would have been 11 or 12 when Scent of a Woman came out, so I get why I had no interest in it at the time, even though it made a pretty big and unavoidable pop culture splash. Frank Slade’s “Oo-wah” was one of those move trailer moments that everyone knew, even if they never saw the movie. I remember it being a cultural thing, I just don’t know why it’s taken me so long to watch it in the years since. I think I wrote it off as Oscar-bait fluff, which is really undeserved. Because Scent of a Woman is really, really great.