90's-vember: Scent of a Woman (1991) - Can't Stop the Movies
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90’s-vember: Scent of a Woman (1991)

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Looking through the winner's of the Oscar for Best Actor in the '90s an interesting trend emerges.  Aside from today's notable exception, there were very few "apology" Oscars or "issue" films rewarded for their lead performances.  The winners tended toward the weird and eccentric (Geoffrey Rush for Shine) or the outright terrifying (Anthony Hopkins for Silence of the Lambs).  Then there was Al Pacino, clutching his Oscar for the most crowd-pleasing dramatic performance of the '90s in Scent of a Woman and, since then, we've all taken that Oscar as an apology to the man.

An apology for what?  He's been one of the most respected actors in and outside of Hollywood for decades and earned countless acclaims outside of the Academy.  Yet since this win I've had a difficult time talking to people that find that his performance won not on its own merits but as some kind of years-late excuse for not winning the statue for The Godfather Part 2 (or any of his exquisite work with Sidney Lumet).  To borrow some phrasing from the Colonel, this is a crock of shit.

The general consensus that "nuance" means "excellent" when it comes to performances is misleading in two ways.  The first being that an overemotional, wide arcing performance can't be effective in its own right (see the better movies of Nicolas Cage for great examples here) and the second being that nuance somehow equals artsier, and for this more deserving of statues and awards.  This is a bit of snobbery I cannot tolerate, because Pacino took a man's endless pain and turned it into something that could be delivered to the masses without much of a protective coating.  That he did this in the guise of a crowd-pleasing mass-marketed performance is all the more impressive.

How does this film exemplify the 90's?

This film also marks the first appearance of future Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Unsurprisingly, he plays the creep effectively right out of the gate.

  • Catchphrase fever, even in dramas.  just count the "hoo ah's", I stopped at 8.  This was the fourty-five minute mark of a two and a half hour movie.  I can assure you, there are still quite a few more.
  • Discussion of President Bush's political plans, and we can talk about the good one.
  • Chris O'Donnell in a starring role.  Much like Elizabeth Hurley before him in my comedy pick, O'Donnell would rise and fade in this decade.  He should not feel alone, Batman and Robin claimed Alicia Silverstone's star as well.
  • Uplifting adult contemporary soundtrack abound.  The dramas of the '70s were more about gritty bands and dirty music, the '80s synthesizers, and the '00s overwhelmingly depressing symphonic scores.  There isn't a single emotional moment in Scent not punctuated in flute form.  This trend lives on in Lifetime original movies and whenever Cameron Crowe puts out a new trailer.
  • Comedies and cartoons of the '90s took a gander at Pacino's "hoo ah" and saw an unpolished gem waiting for the right context.  The Critic did it best, but we also got fun riffs from SNL, Animaniacs and many others.

What makes this my pick?

One look at this face tells you all you need to know about the Colonel, and he still hides it under bravado.

Aside from Anthony Hopkins' performance in Silence of the Lambs, very few Oscar winners have made their mark on the cultural landscape as indelibly as Pacino did for Scent of a Woman.  But Silence is one of the "great" films, studied and debated endlessly as a jump-off point for feminist and queer cinema, as well as complex psychosocial dynamics in constrained situations.  Scent is just another one of those supposedly vapid films designed to please a mass audience which just happened to win an Oscar.

This sort of snobbery discounts just how damn good Pacino's performance really is, and despite the blunt nature of the production it works as a great morality tale.  It's a simple message of standing up for your principles no matter the situation, but still one worth learning as well as emphasizing.  Chris O'Donnell might be outmatched in Pacino but that's sort of the point, watching this fresh kid be run over by so many other people before finally encountering a train of personality willing to stop and help him up.

Scent of a Woman deserves to endure more than many other drama's of the '90s and this is an attempt at a little historical reconstruction.  Pure entertainment value can sometimes speak to individuals a lot higher than weighty messages or lofty ideals.  Besides, why isn't just wanting a mass of people to feel good perceived as a loftier ideal?

Pacino is much better and the film more affecting than you remember.  Maybe it's time to introduce your kid to a little "hoo ah".

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Posted by Andrew

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  1. I recognize a few of my words in the beginning haha. Granted, Al Pacino managed to give some weight to his performance, but it’s the repeated yelling-style acting in future productions that diminished this performance. Not that he wasn’t good in later performances (aside from the silly yelling part in Devil’s Advocate, he was not that bad).

    This isn’t a bad movie. In fact, it’s a pretty good one. Why is it not held in high regard? Who knows. Maybe it’s because too much time has passed. Maybe its because people didn’t like Pacino’s performance. I don’t know.

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