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This movie won an Oscar for Best Actor (Al Pacino).

‘Scent of a Woman’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 23, 1992

The filmmaker who creates a blind character almost automatically paints himself into a corner. It's a technical point: The audience almost never gets past the central fact of the character's blindness. But in "Scent of a Woman," this is never an issue. The man writer Bo Goldman ("Cuckoo's Nest," "Shoot the Moon") and director Martin Brest ("Going in Style") introduce to us is such a foul-tempered, obnoxious, arrogant, self-pitying jerk that the state of his eyesight barely matters. We hate him the minute we meet him.

Frank (Al Pacino) -- that is, the much decorated retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, former Lyndon Johnson aide who blew out his eyesight with a grenade (he was juggling several with the pins out) -- is one of movie history's great misanthropes. His modus operandi is to hate everyone, automatically, and so when Frank meets Charles (Chris O'Donnell), a student who was hired to be his caretaker over the Thanksgiving holiday, the kid barely gets a chance to inhale before the bastard's down his throat.

This is a great performance from Pacino, who has the good luck here to work with Goldman's mostly wonderful, edgy script, but it might not become a beloved one because the man he plays is such a bitter pill. Though he's retired, he still lives the warrior's life; he's a soldier and a hero and he will stand by that strict code, eyesight or no eyesight, until the day he dies. And he insists that everyone who intersects with his world fall in line, as if mysteriously transformed into infantrymen under his command.

This tsoris Charles doesn't need. He has his own problems back on campus, where a student prank has left him on the verge of expulsion. But he needs the dough, and Frank's daughter is so desperate for a break from the sonuvabitch that he takes the job.

That was his first mistake; his second was letting Frank hustle him off to New York City, where he has booked a room at the Waldorf and gone to extravagant lengths to satisfy his every whim. Add to this that the guy's about a two-bottle-a-day drunk and you've got the makings for an emotional roller coaster.

This first part of the film, as the characters establish themselves in our minds and the plot is being set up, is sublime. Especially Pacino. Yes, the actor's face is frozen into a vacant stare, but his voice, his staccato barks and southern-fried wheedlings, more than make up for it.

Pacino's voice has always been a marvel, but it's been a long time since he's had a character that allowed him to showcase the full range of his talents. That voice is pure aggression; it's a sword, and Frank delights in cutting people to ribbons with it. But it can also become a syrupy purr, especially when he talks about women -- the wondrous aroma of them, in particular -- which brings out the poet in him. What Michelle Pfeiffer did with her bullwhip in "Batman Returns," Pacino does with his voice here.

For as long as Brest and Goldman allow Frank to exist on his own ridiculous terms, the character -- and the movie -- work beautifully. And Pacino does a masterful job of making Frank's acid one-liners and put-downs hilariously funny. But then the filmmakers seem to have decided that they wanted to paint themselves into a corner all along. When Frank becomes "lovably" misanthropic -- which has been a perpetual danger since the start -- the movie reverses its position on him. The creators decide they want him to just be a blind guy after all, which allows them to score easy, sentimental points and give the film an upbeat, life-affirming Capraesque ending. The picture didn't start out to be "It's a Wonderful Life" with a blind guy, but unfortunately, that's what it becomes. And in a movie with people this talented, that's a crying shame.

"Scent of a Woman" is rated R for language.

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