A Look Back: Scent of a Woman

“Scent of a Woman,” a 1992 Academy Award-winning film, based on the 1974 foreign film “Profumo di Donna,” is a “teen” movie in that it stars an adolescent (Chris O’Donnell) but unusual in that most of it takes place away from school – in this case, a private New England school for repressed rich folk. (In the movies, is there any other kind?) The first and the last act takes place there, but the bulk of the story occurs in New York, the perfect place, of course, for a mismatched duo to head and learn a slew of life lessons. Here the other partner is retired Army officer Colonel Slade (Al Pacino, who nabbed a Best Actor), who is blind. Chris plays a cash-hungry student who takes a caretaking job over Thanksgiving break (recipient: Al) so that he can fly home for Christmas. Alas, he is under a cloud as he leaves campus, as a result of a dilemma that will be waiting for him when he returns.

To summarize. Both Chris and a classmate (Philip Seymour Hoffman who manages to steal his final scene) are in the vicinity when three boys pull a prank on the headmaster. Discovering this, the headmaster promptly pressures Chris to come clean with the names, even attempting bribery (a letter of recommendation to Harvard). Though Chris refuses at the time, he is still conflicted. However, he soon has his hands full dealing with the irascible colonel who hijacks the week’s plans and ropes Chris into accompanying him to the big city. There Al gives Chris a rather different (but equally valuable) education in the ways of the world – including liquor, dancing and how to woo an attractive woman. Indeed despite his handicap, Al winds up performing a flawless tango with Gabrielle Anwar (who didn’t get quite the “lift” fame-wise that some thought she deserved after that). But unbeknownst to Chris, Al is planning his own death. Fortunately, however, after a tussle, Al gives in to Chris, and they both return to face the music.

During the “trial” at school, Philip winds up weaseling his way out of trouble by insisting that he was changing his contacts at the time of the incident and so could not see clearly. Despite being an obvious few years out of high school, Philip effortlessly channels the immature arrogance of a guy born with a silver spoon (later using it as Matt Damon’s nemesis’s friend in “The Talented Mr. Ripley”). After Chris takes his place on the witness stand and is scapegoated for not snitching, Al, who is in the audience, is given a perfect opportunity to stand and raise a ruckus. Defending his young friend, he states, “I mean, the only class in this act is sitting next to me, and I’m here to tell ya this boy’s soul is intact. It’s non-negotiable. You know how I know? Someone here, and I’m not gonna say who, offered to buy it. Only Charlie here wasn’t selling.”

After declaring that it’s about time someone takes a “flamethrower” to the school, Al then gives a rousing speech about principles, thus making sure Chris will be freed of blame. But Al has learned a few things about life, as well, and so have the students. Just as Al finally realizes that the way forward for personal growth is taking a stand, so, too, does everyone in the auditorium realize the importance of honor and integrity. In this case, it’s clear that the staff might need more schooling than their students.

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