Scent of a Woman (1992): Al Pacino Stars in his Oscar-Winning Performance

Al Pacino is arguably one of the three or four best American actors working today. You may recall his towering achievements in the “Godfather” movies, “Scarface,” and others. After a series of failures in the 1980s (most notably the disastrous “Revolution”), Pacino launched a major comeback in l990 with “The Godfather: Part III” and “Dick Tracy.”

Pacino’s new movie, “Scent of a Woman,” is at once a testament and a tribute to star power, a reminder of the good old days when actors displayed their charismatic screen persona. While not exactly formulaic, there is a familiar, old-fashioned quality about Scent of a Woman, a drama revolving around the relationship of two seemingly different men. Lt. Colonel Frank Slade (Pacino), a former aide to President Johnson who lost his vision in an accident, is a flamboyant man, admiring fine cuisine, chauffeured limousines–and above all beautiful women (hence the title). Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell) is a poor, fatherless scholarship student at an exclusive boarding school. In need of money, Charlie watches after Slade while the latter’s sister goes out of town for Thanksgiving weekend.

Virile and proud, Slade won’t allow anyone to feel sorry for him. He takes Charlie to New York, and checks into a luxury suite at the Waldorf-Astoria, planning to have one last wonderful weekend before blowing his brains out. Writer Bo Goldman (Oscar-winner for “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “Melvin and Howard”) admires nuances of language and shadings of character; the whole movie is about dialogue. Taking his time, director Martin Brest (“Beverly Hills Cop,” “Midnight Run”) has given the movie a leisurely pace, if also excessive running time (154 minutes).

“Scent of a Woman,” like Bob Reiner’s court drama “A Few Good Man,” stands for basic American values: decency, honesty, integrity. The narratives of both movies is centered on a generational conflict, but whereas “Few Good Men” depicts hate and contempt between its two lead characters (Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise), “Scent of a Woman” is all about love and respect: Pacino and O’Donnell argue and fight, but then make up.

Entering a new phase in his career, the middle-aged Pacino seems to be in a giving mood: Ever since “Godfather III,” he wants to please his audiences. Displaying bravura technical skills, Pacino shows the whole gamut of emotions in his interpretation of Slade, a truly original, if also irascible, personality. In the past, we saw the raging and angry Pacino, the tight and excessively jealous Pacino, but now we get to see his romantic and poetic side. Pacino gives the most theatrical and most stylized performance of his career; he uses his blindness the way a stage actor uses a prop.

The logic of Pacino’s flamboyant performance–and of the movie itself–is that of revelation. In each progressing scene, we get to know another facet of Slade’s multi-shaded personality, another element of his past. Sparkling with unusual ebullience, Pacino is, without doubt, the best thing in the movie, always keeping it afloat. He brings to the role a mixture of strong presence and light self-mockery that helps set the film’s bitter-sweet mood. It’s also the kind of roles that brings Oscars, and Pacino has not won one, despite numerous nominations.