Scent of a Woman Opened a Gateway to a More Stylized Al Pacino 30 Years Ago

Movies Features Al Pacino
Scent of a Woman Opened a Gateway to a More Stylized Al Pacino 30 Years Ago

In 1992, Al Pacino was riding high. Pacino had been resurgent since the 1989 hit Sea of Love following a disappointing run that lasted much of the 1980s, but the fall of ’92 must have felt particularly triumphant, with an acclaimed supporting turn in the film version of Glengarry Glen Ross, followed by the December release of his star vehicle Scent of a Woman. Further validation arrived over the next few months, as he received Oscar nominations for both movies (his seventh and eighth overall), then won Best Actor for Scent.

At the time, it was hard to find anyone claiming that Scent of a Woman represented Pacino’s absolute top-tier work (though Roger Ebert did, in fact, call it “one of his best and riskiest performances”)—and, moreover, equally difficult to find many willing to deny that, 20 years and many classics after his first nomination for The Godfather, the man was due. Like so many Oscar winners, particularly of the ’90s, a sour aftertaste developed over the years that followed. And it didn’t take the full three decades since Scent of a Woman to formulate the idea that it represented a turning point for Pacino, surely not for the better.

Though 1992 does indeed feel like a inflection point in Pacino’s career, it may not be for the precise reason often suggested: That Scent of a Woman was a point of no return for the actor’s hammiest, most self-consciously showboating tendencies, which he wasn’t able to shake for years or really ever, depending on who you ask. It’s a tempting line to draw, especially given that Pacino could have easily won Best Supporting Actor for an equally magnetic, far quieter and, yes, probably better performance in Glengarry Glen Ross. The Academy chose big and so, in the following years, did Pacino.

Yet, revisiting Scent of a Woman today, it’s striking how much of it plays in a quieter register than its reputation. Yes, Pacino’s Lt. Col. Frank Slade makes a catchphrase out of his exclamations of a military-style “hoo-ah!” especially as the movie goes on. And yes, there is a ridiculous faux-courtroom finale full of grandstanding that directly recalls Pacino’s sweaty legal drama …And Justice For All, with Slade hollering “I’ll show you out of order!” in Scent subbing in for the “You’re out of order! The whole trial is out of order!” moment from Justice, a pilfering so shameless that it feels less like homage than sloppy misquote (appropriate, given how much more famous that line is than anything else in the earlier film). The Oscars clipped from this scene, right on cue.

At the same time, not all of Pacino’s performance goes to this level—a lot of the movie’s show-offy, vaguely insufferable qualities come from the writing, rather than the acting. Pacino delivers much of his dialogue in a rhythmic growl, rather than a roar, making Slade a lazy, self-impressed poet breaking all his lines in the same places. (Was John Goodman consciously parodying this speaking style in Inside Llewyn Davis, or does it just come naturally when playing a man more interested in imparting his opinions than empathizing with others?) To be sure, it’s a different tempo from Pacino’s standout scene in Glengarry, where his Ricky Roma philosophizes/bullshits to a prospective client (Jonathan Pryce). (He also looks, and seems to be playing, 10 to 15 years older in Scent, an old man before his time.) But there’s a similar calculation visible as both character and actor craft their messages for their audience. With Roma, there’s never doubt that the customer is his audience. With Slade, it’s harder to tell; his primary audience, at least in the early stretch of the movie, may be himself.

Pacino is even better when Scent allows him some quiet; the best scene in the movie (which got its own Oscar-night rep as the film’s Best Picture clip) has Slade dancing a tango with a pretty stranger (Gabrielle Anwar), his face relaxing into the moment as he lets go of all that regularly issued wisdom and wisecracking. It’s hard to tell whether the movie even wants to let go of these mostly-canned Slade-isms, even as it’s made clear that they mask Slade’s pain. Scent of a Woman, at 157 minutes, is leisurely and indulgent at first, then turns gassy; director Martin Brest lets multiple scenes play out at length, which is effective until it isn’t.

Did this glorification of Frank Slade ruin Pacino, though? It seemed to set a tone for some of his subsequent ’90s performances: The jazzy blasts of hollering in Heat; the gleeful litigations of The Devil’s Advocate; the locker-room speechifying of Any Given Sunday. At the time, these performances were largely taken for granted; even among the peers who delighted at the opportunity to hand Pacino an Oscar for Frank Slade passed on nominating him again until The Irishman, nearly as long as the time between Godfather and Scent. While Oscars aren’t the only, or even a very good, measure of a performance’s success, they’re an easy way to take the temperature of other actors, who did not appear to cotton up to Pacino’s “inches” speech in Any Given Sunday as readily as his promise to take a flamethrower to a straw-man prep school in Scent.

But the very derivativeness of that Scent sequence illustrates just how long Pacino had these brasher instincts. If Scent of a Woman saw Pacino directly rewarded for volume over the relative subtlety of Glengarry Glen Ross, well, …And Justice For All was already encouraging him many years earlier. Hell, his last Oscar nomination before the 1992 twofer was for Dick Tracy, perhaps the least measured performance he or anyone else has ever given in a movie.

If anything, his work in Scent of a Woman is a gateway to a more stylized version of Al Pacino that was well-used throughout the following decade, before a later-period weariness set in circa Insomnia. Heat contains a lot of memorable outbursts, themselves more celebrated than dismissed these days; it also has a centerpiece of a diner scene between Pacino and Robert De Niro, where director Michael Mann rarely lets them fully share the frame, so that he can capture more reactive moments on their faces, in their eyes. The Devil’s Advocate is so satisfying because it allows Pacino to keep his cool for so much of the film, before unleashing the full powers of Hell during the climax. That half-regretful, half-inspiring speech in Any Given Sunday takes a flamethrower to the histrionics at the end of Scent. His smaller work in Donnie Brasco is all the more effective for its contrast with the Full Pacino moments that surrounded it.

Maybe these performances all would have happened without Scent of a Woman; again, this was hardly the first time Pacino indulged in the most noticeable quiet-loud dynamics this side of a Pixies song. Still, as fashionable and understandable as it is to dismiss Scent of a Woman as a bloviating star turn that somehow managed to compete with genuinely great movies like Unforgiven and Malcolm X, it feels like the movie’s burden is lifting from the actor (albeit slowly): This will please the crowds—it made more than Glengarry, or Donnie Brasco, or Carlito’s Way, among others—and the Academy. It’s the life-affirming, catchphrased 1980s hit that Pacino never had. After that, he was free to continue fiddling with the volume.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.

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