By Marc S. Sanders

When it comes to Thanksgiving films, majority turn to that John Hughes road picture.  However, there’s another film that is just as meaningful to the spirit of the holiday and that is Martin Brest’s Scent Of A Woman which features Al Pacino’s Oscar winning Best Actor performance; at last!!!!

Before Chris O’Donnell became Robin in some tired Batman movies or a tough guy on NCIS, he was the staple prep school achiever (see also School Ties).  Here he plays Charlie, a student attending a prestigious boarding school in New Hampshire.  He does not have the wealthy background of his classmates and without the funds to go home for Thanksgiving, he opts to accept a weekend job tending to retired Lt. Col. Frank Slade, U.S. Army (Pacino).  Frank is a frightening lost soul with Pacino’s signature outbursts.  What’s even more challenging is that Frank has been plagued with blindness following a reckless accident with a hand grenade.  Unbeknownst to Charlie, Frank assumes control once his niece’s family leaves town for the weekend and sends himself with Charlie in tow to New York City.  Frank plans to enjoy a pleasant stay at the famed Waldorf Astoria, have a nice meal, crash his older brother’s holiday dinner, get a new tailored suit, bed a beautiful girl and drive a Ferrari.  Afterwards, he’s going to blow his brains out in full dress uniform.

This is not a problem Charlie needs to be dealing with right now.  The pressure is on the young man to identify the students of a prank that occurred just before the holiday break.  The Dean of Students (James Rebhorn) has given Charlie and another student, the privileged George Jr. (Phillip Seymour Hoffman, in a very early role) the weekend to ponder how they should respond.  Charlie, however, seems to face expulsion and likely an opportunity to miss out on admittance to Harvard.  George Sr., a former student and benefactor, will likely save his son.  Frank has predicted this outcome, and Charlie can’t deny that it is likely the truth.  Charlie’s dilemma is in his own morals as a man.  He’s not a snitch who will sell out his future to satisfy the esteemed integrity of the prep school and the ego of the Dean.

I miss the director, Martin Brest.  He has some magnificent films on his resume (Beverly Hills Cop, Midnight Run & Scent Of A Woman).  His other two popular films are broader in action comedy.  Here he is much more sensitive, and he uses the legacy of Pacino’s craft to the highest level.  He allows Al Pacino the freedom to be intimidating and frightening and intrusive.  A most uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner at Frank’s brother’s house begins with awkwardness and ends in terrifying fear for Frank and all at the dinner table. 

Brest also lives up to the title of the picture.  There’s really not a main female character in the picture.  However, the camera captures a woman entering the frame at random times for Frank’s heightened senses to kick in.  If Frank is going to end his life soon, then he will at least absorb the finest things the world has to offer and that is a beautiful woman.  Charlie doesn’t realize this yet, having spent most of his days at an all-boys private school.  Martin Brest does such good work.  He’ll position his close up on Pacino doing his work and then a brown-haired young lady will enter from behind.  The scene will shift gears from morose to eye opening. Simple, yet great technique at play here.

Pacino may have won the Oscar, where some debate this was not his finest material and that it was a more likely a long-time coming career award at this point.  The portrayal has also become spoofed so many times over since the release of the film (Seinfeld) and “Hoo Ahh!”.  Still, look at the individual scenes on display here.  There are so many different angles to this guy.  Frank Slade is a lonely man who doesn’t directly identify his sorrow, but rather masks it with drill sergeant persona.  Yet, Frank is also a charming man who graciously does a sensual tango in the middle of a dining room with a beautiful young girl (Gabrielle Anwar).  Reader, if you are a regular subscriber to my write ups, then you know I adore a dance scene that occurs within a non-musical.  Scent Of A Woman may feature the number one ranked scene in that category.  Try not to grin or smile during this marvelous centerpiece.  How fortunate for Anwar – the one woman who got to do a tango on film with the great Al Pacino.  I’m thankful it is cemented in my consciousness for eternity.  It’s an amazing scene; one that can be taken out of context from the film and adored on You Tube, many times over.

Pacino and O’Donnell have brilliant chemistry together and it makes sense that the story takes place during the Thanksgiving weekend.  These are two men from very different backgrounds and neither realizes how much they need to be rescued by one another.  Charlie will have to literally save Frank’s life, no matter how intimidating he appears.  Frank will have to save Charlie’s future against an established school that’s offered up some of the country’s most brilliant minds.  Poor Charlie from Oregon, without the coat tails of a legacy to ride upon doesn’t fit the mold for the next President or championship football coach.  Both issues have insurmountable odds of being overcome, and yet these two are the only ones who plow through the challenges.

Scent Of A Woman has delightful moments to simply watch, such as a blind Frank driving a Ferrari through So Ho district and of course that tango scene, but this is an actor’s piece for sure.  The climax confirms that distinction.  The holiday weekend has come to an end and Charlie must face his peers and the Dean and confirm what he will do, but Frank will make sure to attend this makeshift trial. Then the opportunity is given for an outstanding monologue performance that only confirms one simple notion.  Al Pacino is one of the greatest film actors in history. I imagine the dialogue for this wrap up scene is quite something to read on a page.  However, to watch Pacino bring it to life is something else entirely. 

Therefore, on this Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell and Martin Brest, along with the tango, and I’m especially thankful for Scent Of A Woman.


By Marc S. Sanders

Robert Mandel’s adaptation of a story from Dick Wolf might be regarded nearly 30 years later as the film with the next generation of up-and-coming brat packers, but School Ties remains an underrated and topically important film nonetheless.  Just as it is still a problem of today, victimized by ignorance and unfounded bigotry, anti-Semitism was an issue that spread like a social disease within the confines of a prep school New England community in the 1950’s.

Brendan Fraser is David Greene, a high school senior awarded a scholarship at the school in order to usher in a championship football season as their quarterback.  David is well aware of his ultimate purpose for his scholarship and he brushes that aside as just one year of attendance will ultimately lead to acceptance at an Ivy League school.  He’s just like any other handsome boy attending the school, and he’s immediately accepted among the masses.  He’s hilarious at mischievous horseplay with the French teacher.  The beautiful girl (Amy Locane) at the nearby girls’ school is taken with him.  His football skills are applauded.  It may be a little surprising that he stems from the blue-collar town of Scranton, Pennsylvania and he buses the tables at dinner time, but David is an all-around okay guy who can knock over a linebacker while passing exceptional touchdown passes.  Amid this environment of different Christian denominations and WASP culture, however, David knows that he will stand apart if he reveals he is Jewish.  Therefore, he tolerates the casual jokes and accepts that it’s best to hide his Star of David necklace. 

The most important relationship occurs between David and his back up quarterback, Charlie (Matt Damon, before he became a superstar, but already looks like he’ll be a superstar).  Charlie begrudgingly accepts that David got to cut in line to be the star player.  As David becomes more of the celebrity on campus, Charlie is proud to be by his side.  Yet, Charlie has his own pressures to live up to as the fifth in line of his esteemed family who must carry on the legacy at the school followed by attending Harvard the following year. 

The roadmap of School Ties is easy to navigate.  You know when each note of the script is about to be played.  There will be a swastika that will shockingly appear.  Fist fights will happen.  The blue blood parents and faculty will interfere preaching their own “codes of honor” and the school’s storied 193 year history.  Yet, the film works very, very effectively.  The dialogue isn’t hokey and nothing feels like what could have been an after school special. 

No debate among the viewers.  Anti-Semitism is evil and thoughtless without merit or justification.  Questions appear where is it right to ask if David should have hidden his Jewishness or was he even lying about being Jewish, when in fact he just wasn’t even asked.  Is it right that David confronts his problems with his fists first?  Yet, Wolf’s script, apparently based on personal experience, delves further into the mounting pressures of these prep school kids who are primed from birth to be the latest model churned out from the respective family lineage for greatness in academics and athleticism.  Much of the material is devoted to the horror of actually not acing a class, and I appreciate that it’s not diminished to a standard line of “my parents are going to kill me.”  Raw emotion and stress are legitimized among these students.

The third act comes with no foreshadowing as a cheating scandal is suddenly introduced. Collectively the boys must debate who is the guilty party and why are they the guilty party.  Is it because one is Jewish, or is it because one actually cheated?  Good dialogue, good debate, but this also may be where the standard stuff spills over a little too much.  As such, the ending hinges on the third act, when it should have embraced more of the film as a whole.

The cast is made up of, at the time, soon to be superstars like Fraser, Damon, Chris O’Donnell, and Ben Affleck.  School Ties should be regarded as a winning audition for these guys’ careers that were only just on the horizon.  Their respective performances here are just as good as any of their most well-known roles, and they are happy to hide in the background as extras or step up for a camera shot.