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“Scent of a Woman” proves a putrid example of early ’90s Oscar bait
1991's Scent of a Woman remains one of the most baffling recipients of Oscar gold, a prep-school drama lifted only by an early Philip Seymour Hoffman turn.
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Before he passed away at the age of 46, Philip Seymour Hoffman starred in 52 feature films. Starring roles, character pieces, chameleon work—he left a legacy nearly unmatched in both quality and quantity. Now, with P.S.H. I Love You, Jonah Koslofsky wafts through the cornucopia of the man’s offerings.


There’s a fine line between tension and cringe. How the hell did Al Pacino win an Oscar for Scent of a Woman? As someone who wasn’t alive in 1992, I couldn’t tell you. Then again, this voting body loves showboat corniness – this is the same “academy” that crowned Green Book “Best Picture.” Nearly thirty years later, Martin Brest’s (Beverly Hills Cop, eventually Gigli) Scent of a Woman stands as nothing but a blemish. 

Pacino’s actually the least of the film’s problems. The bigger issue is actually our point-of-view character, Charlie Simms (Chris O’Donnell). He’s a senior at Baird, an expensive New England Prep School, a fish out of water thousands of miles away from his Oregon home and convenience-store operating mother. While his classmates vacation to ski slopes and commit merciless misdeeds, Charlie scours the job board looking for work to pay for his plane ticket home. 

Only, the movie can’t muster the depth to make any of this convincing or interesting. O’Donnell just can’t carry something like this, with his handsome presence rejecting any air of suffering or adversity and his clunky physicality the opposite of organic. In the end, he comes off closer to a block of cheese than a real person in a performance that feels deeply miscast. Even after he’s witness to a prank that could land him in serious trouble, O’Donnell can’t communicate any turmoil – this protagonist, possessed by passive indecision, is about as interesting as that aforementioned block of cheddar. 

Scent of a Woman (1992) Directed by Martin Brest Shown from left: Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell

Anyway, on that job board lies a seemingly simple gig: looking after Frank Slade, a blind, retired army Colonel over the Thanksgiving break. But Slade (Pacino) berates his new assistant when he first meets him, and it’s clear from his first frame that the actor is on a quest to take over-acting to new heights – or rather, lows. His mannerisms and inflections are cartoonish. As his harsh assessments dominate the stammering student, Pacino’s bizarre, abrasive aura makes it impossible for us to take him seriously – or seriously engage with him. 

They say go big or go home. Maybe Al should’ve stayed home, anyway. All the gusto in the world can’t endear a character who is equally defined by his horniness and his proclamations like “Puerto Ricans! Always made the best infantrymen!” 

The best thing I can say about Pacino’s choices is that they’re just that: choices. Slade is over-compensating for the loss of his eyesight, so he’s a controlling, overbearing asshole to everyone he knows. Pacino exaggerates purposefully – unlike O’Donnell, who doesn’t seem to be intentionally giving a poor performance. Had another actor actually played Charlie in a naturalistic style, there could’ve been some neat contrast between him and Pacino. In what we got, Al’s buffoonery always dwarfs O’Donnell. 

Though he’d appeared on-screen a handful of times before, this was [Hoffman’s] first time in a high profile, prestige work – not that you could tell.

Scent of a Woman also gambles big on Pacino’s pathos in the second-half – a bargain it can’t pay off. Neither his performance nor the script can find any true tragedy beneath his showboating. It’s trite whenever a film dangles a character harming themselves to generate tension, and Scent of a Woman is particularly guilty of this issue. Sure, I cracked a smile during the outlandish tango scene, but I never felt anything – not even a spec of investment – as Charlie attempts to prevent Slade’s self-destruction. 

But no, that’s not even the headache of an ending, which involves Slade giving a rousing speech to the Baird student body to save Charlie from his own passivity (he succeeds, while Charlie sits). By the time the movie reaches the conclusion of its 2 hours and 37 minutes (!) runtime, it has thoroughly worn out whatever welcome, campy fun it can occasionally provide. Brest seems incapable of constructing any memorable images to speak of, while Thomas Newman’s quirky, upbeat score accidentally signals what you’re watching: a movie where nothing means anything, because nothing matters. 

So why am I talking about this god-awful relic? Well, because it’s the place where many got their first taste of Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s here as George Willis Jr., one of Charlie’s entitled classmates, in a role that feels like a younger version of the rich asshole he plays in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Though he’d appeared on-screen a handful of times before, this was his first time in a high profile, prestige work – not that you could tell. He makes the most of his few scenes, and he fits right into Baird’s cushy surroundings. 

Hoffman’s not in enough of this thing to save it or make the same impression he does in Ripley. Then again, it’s not the sort of movie interested in his style, performances where the actor shows instead of tells. I’ve lavished praise on Pacino before (on this very site!), and that same year, he worked wonders in Glengarry Glen Ross. I suppose the enduring lesson of Scent of a Woman (one that I’ll surely remember as I keep writing this column) is that even our best thespians aren’t immune to bad performances. But the least we can do is not award them for it. 

Scent of a Woman Trailer: