Welcome to our new and hopefully regular feature “So-called Classics”. All connoisseurs of film have those few pictures they should have seen and may even go to great lengths to pretend they have; Citizen Kane, Battleship Potemkin, Manhattan, Flash Gordon – the list is endless. As Mark Twain said on “classic” books…
Something that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.
So here at Spooool we’ve taken it upon ourselves to knuckle down and conquer the classics. No longer will we look at our shoes when The Big Lebowski is brought up in conversation or slyly change the subject when someone mentions how superior Infernal Affairs is to The Departed. These won’t be straight forward reviews but more-so examining what makes the film a “classic” and if it’s warranted. From time to time there may be spoilers so don’t say we didn’t warn you, but we’ll try our best not to mention what Rosebud was.
I’m going to get the ball rolling with Scent of a Woman, the 1992 film in which Al Pacino won his only Oscar to date playing a blind, retired war veteran. Now the main problem with classics is the pre-conceived notion you have going in. I’d seen the trailer and some memorable scenes over the years and came to the conclusion that it was a romantic movie about some blind guy which culminates with him dancing with a pretty woman whose perfume he probably smelt.
How wrong I was. The film centres around Charlie Simms, played by Chris O’Donnell, a poor prep-school student who is trying to earn some money so he can pay for the flight home at Christmas. The only means to make this money is by babysitting a curmudgeonly blind war veteran for the Thanksgiving weekend.
The beginning of the film has a Dead Poets Society vibe to it and it takes its time setting up the world in which Charlie feels so out of place in. His band of so-called brothers sees an early appearance from Philip Seymour Hoffman who, even at the start of his career, was stealing many a scene as the sleazy back-stabbing rich boy.
We get a little taster of Pacino as Charlie goes for an interview but then it’s back to school for the moment that will become the crux of the film. We get the moral core, do you stand up and take the heat or snitch and run for cover? This will be the defining conundrum that propels things as we watch a boy’s journey into manhood.
When Charlie turns up for duty he realises that Frank has no intention of staying cooped up in his grandad flat while he has finally got rid of his daughter. So it’s off to New York for the holidays and it’s pointless for Charlie to stand in his way. Here the film goes into overdrive and it’s one quotable scene after another and this is also when I realised the film wasn’t going to be some soppy romantic nonsense.
Frank proclaims he’s going to have a delicious last meal, say goodbye to his brother, sleep with a beautiful women and then promptly blow his brains out. The film really is about staring your own mortality in the face, just like Charlie, Frank must decide whether to continue living his disabled life or end it all with a bullet. The dynamic between O’Donnell and Pacino is fantastic, each at opposite ends of the spectrum; we have O’Donnell fresh-faced and wet behind the ears regarding the ways of the world and ultimately terrified that he’ll end up like Pacino – a bitter old man enraged at the world unable to see any hope or meaning. With Pacino he is reminded of what it once was like to be young, stupid and naive, O’Donnell serves as a constant reminder of what Pacino’s lost or thrown away making him more steadfast in his resolve.
Pacino’s performance is outstanding, all his mannerisms and quirks as an actor are in full swing with the right amount of cheese and self-awareness thrown in to give one of his most emotional and charismatic performances. We start to see why Oscar loved this film and ultimately gave him the award with his performance bookmarked with grandstanding speeches full of his pearls of wisdom. The best of these is without question his oration on the majesty of women which you can find below.
There is nothing that new in the premise of Scent of a Woman; a wise old man imparting his years of experience to a young upstart but it’s the way in which Pacino delivers all this that makes it so memorable. His jaded, pessimistic musings on life and the rigid social structures at play make for sobering viewing. O’Donnell is the necessary antidote to his views, always trying to point out the good in everything, while all the time being terrified that this is really all that life amounts to – being alone with a family who hates you and having no place in the society that you fought to protect.
Martin Brest is in the director’s chair and with the man behind one of the funniest and underrated comedies of all time in Midnight Run, it’s easy to see his use of humour coming through. Unfortunately Scent of A woman has been his only film of any real note and the less said about Gigli his last outing in 2003 the better. Batman’s Robin aside, Chris O’Donnell didn’t make any real waves until 2004’s Kinsey and sticks mainly to television these day. The obvious star in the making was Hoffman while Pacino was already unstoppable. The next year would bring him to Carlito’s Way and his speech in Any Given Sunday was just a twinkle in his eye.
The film comes to a predictable end, lessons are learned, speeches are made, backs are slapped but without this ending I’d certainly have felt cheated no matter how cheesy or phony it all seems. With all classic films we leave our cynicism at the door or have it beaten out of us during the course of the film. There are no bells and whistles, no tricks or big twists just the performances. Be it over-the-top grandstanding or subtle nuances, somehow each actor finds enough breathing space to survive as they are surrounded by the whirlwind that is Al Pacino.
A stone cold classic.