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Here's One Scent We Won't Soon Forget
by Jon Schuller

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If you close your eyes you can hear the music, that famous tango, and visualize a man and a woman moving effortlessly across a dance floor. Your imagination's camera moves in closer and sees the man is handsome and graceful; the woman is beautiful and matches her partner's moves perfectly like Ginger Rogers did with Fred Astaire. Wait a minute, something's not quite right. You look at the man again and notice he's blind. But he's dancing so well, he's in command and his partner responds to his every whim.

Scent of a Woman opened in 1992 and was immediately acclaimed. It deals with two plot devices happening simultaneously; the main character is Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade (Al Pacino) who is blind and retired from the Army Rangers. He's nasty, cantankerous and alcoholic. He is not an old man and his memories of military life, ones he obviously cherishes, haunt his every waking moment. The fact that he used to command others while being totally independent in mind and body is something he cannot reconcile with his present and permanent condition. He needs others now to help him.

Enter young Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell). He's a student at an exclusive New England prep school but doesn't share the wealthy background of his classmates, especially his close friend, George Willis Jr. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). They've both witnessed an elaborate school prank set up by other boys they know. The headmaster and his car are "bombed" from a large balloon with white paint. Charlie and George are called to the headmaster's office and
told to tell the truth; neither of them responds. Charlie needs money for a flight home during the Christmas break and has accepted a job helping the Colonel over the Thanksgiving weekend. He very gingerly meets Colonel Slade and slowly begins to realize what he's gotten himself into. But Charlie will somehow find strength he didn't know he possessed as he and the Colonel go to New York City on an unannounced visit. During the visit they pay a visit to Slade's brother's home where his family is celebrating the holiday. The old acrimony between the Colonel and his brother comes out, leaving Charlie again wondering what he's gotten involved in. Slade had announced that during their stay in New York at the famous Waldorf-Astoria hotel, Slade would enjoy the luxury of the hotel, then "blow his brains out." We too are left to wondering what's going on.

Slade alludes to what sort of life he'd previously led before losing his sight. He knew all about the ways of military life and the responsibilities of command. Staying at a hotel in New York was one of the perks he'd been used to as a senior officer. But we know that beneath the gruff, tough exterior there's a sad man lurking; his joke about blowing his brains out is slowly looking like the truth. He cannot live this way anymore. Slade expects Charlie to help him make a dramatic, yet sad exit. Charlie says no. Charlie has his own troubles and confides in the Colonel. Slade tells Charlie to give up his so-called friends and accept the deal the headmaster offered: tell the truth in exchange
for a personal recommendation to attend Harvard.

While dining at an exclusive restaurant they meet a beautiful woman, Donna (Gabrielle Anwar), and the Colonel invites her dance to the famous tango (Por Una Cabeza). She cannot believe how this obviously handicapped man can be so light on his feet. We too are mesmerized by the music and the couple as they clear the floor of other dancers and command everyone's attention. This famous melody has been used in countless films and television programs and the song itself, Por Una Cabeza ("By a Head of a Horse"), details a gambler's addiction to betting and women. It was used in the dance sequences in True Lies and the orchestra, The Tango Project, was used in the Scent of a Woman dance sequence. They go back to the hotel. The next morning Slade wants to ride in a Ferrari while Charlie drives. They wind up in the empty streets beneath the Manhattan Bridge. Slade convinces Charlie to let him drive. We see them speeding along the streets with a blind driver at the wheel. The nearness of death and destruction is something only one of them is used to or even enjoys. They return to the hotel and the Colonel tells Charlie to run errands but Charlie goes back to Slade's room to see him preparing to commit suicide. Charlie convinces him to stop.

Charlie concludes his weekend with Slade and returns to school to face expulsion at an all-school meeting the headmaster has called. Colonel Slade shows up unexpectedly and defends Charlie before the assembled classmates and school staff. Charlie's friend
George gives up the boys who committed the prank but Charlie steadfastly refuses to say anything. Slade makes a passionate speech defending Charlie's integrity and denounces a school where dishonesty and lies are prized above one's principles. One of the school's female teachers tells the Colonel how much she admired his speech and the possibility of another romantic involvement by Slade closes the scene.

Maybe the famous tango scene is a metaphor for the entire film. While doing something we love, taking us away from reality, there is always the real world just lingering off-stage, in the wings, ready to intrude. Frank Slade has been dealing with the harsh, horrifying realities of war and military life for most of his life. He's become a victim of that reality himself and it's pushed him to the limits. Amid beauty and luxury which he can no longer see, the monsters that haunt him daily are waiting to take command and push him over the precipice. It's still a good reminder of how veterans returning home today from war are equipped or not equipped to re-enter civilian life and begin to act "normally." The wounds we cannot see are the most serious of them all.

Al Pacino deservedly won his first Academy Award for Best Actor in Scent of a Woman after seven previous Academy nominations. It was well-received when it opened in 1992 but some criticized it as too long (2 hours). The director wisely chose the length to tell several complicated stories and make them all work together. You decide, of course. If you've not seen this movie, get it.

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Mike Thomas
Apr 19, 2012 3:09 AM
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This, I believe, was his first "Al Pacino" movie, where he now plays THAT character- the one who's in on the joke that no one's gotten yet. He duplicates this performance in The DEVIL'S ADVOCATE, The RECRUIT, 88 MINUTES, and OCEANS ELEVEN.

Not that this is complaint. He's gotten a character people are familiar with, like John Wayne, or Vince Vaughn.

He also used the catch phrases, "Woo-ah!," and "I'm just getting warmed up!"

Good analysis.
Apr 19, 2012 4:12 AM
[X] delete
There's an urban legend about where Hoo ah came from. When Ike asked the 82nd Airborne to go back into combat after the d Day landings they supossedly said Who Us?

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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