20 Oscar-Worthy Facts About Scent Of A Woman
He’s one of the greatest actors of all time, and Al Pacino’s portrayal of Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman is often considered to be one of his best performances.
A brilliant and interesting character study, Scent of a Woman is a movie you definitely need to put on your To Watch list, but one that might have slipped your radar – after all, it came out nearly 30 years ago. Below are 20 things that you probably didn’t know about Martin Brest’s Oscar-winning masterpiece, so fasten your seatbelts!
No, seriously, fasten them: the man driving the car is blind.
20. It’s a remake of a 1974 Italian movie
You might have thought that Scent of a Woman was wholly original, but the truth is it’s actually based on an Italian movie from the 1970s.
Martin Brest’s 1992 movie is a remake of Dino Risi’s 1974 film Profumo di Donna, which itself was adapted from the story Il Buio e il Miele (or, Darkness and Honey) by writer and journalist Giovanni Arpino.
Neither film adaptation bears much similarity to the written story, apart from the inclusion of an irascible older man character who happens to be accompanied by a young upstart. Brest’s film, however, owes a lot to Risi’s 1974 version, with the suicide pact and military themes intact.
As a foreign language film, Profumo di Donna hasn’t received much attention since the American remake, but it was hugely famous and successful at the time of its release; it was nominated for Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film as well as Best Writing, Screenplay Adapted From Other Material – for which Brest’s Scent of a Woman would also be tipped.
Unsurprisingly, in Brest’s version, the Italian film is obliquely referenced: Pacino’s character is Italian-American, for one thing, and the woman whom he pursues is called Donna, which literally means ‘woman’ in Italian, as per the 1974 movie’s original title.
19. Jack Nicholson was the first choice for the lead role
It’s hard to imagine anyone but Al Pacino as Scent of a Woman’s lead now, but producers originally had very different ideas about who should play Frank Slade.
Originally, it was going to be Jack Nicholson wielding the cane straight from his iconic performance as the Joker in Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), but Nicholson turned the film down after reading the script.
Other actors who were considered for the part include Dustin Hoffman – presumably because of his well-received performance as a disabled person in Rain Man (1989) – and Joe Pesci, having recently won an Oscar for his role as Italian-American mobster Tommy DeVito in Goodfellas (1990).
Appearing on Inside The Actors’ Studio in 1994, Al Pacino revealed that even he had originally turned down the part.
His agent, however, encouraged him to reconsider, telling him to read the script. In what we’re calling a Reverse Jack Nicholson, Pacino elected to take the part after looking through the script!
18. Al Pacino continued pretending to be blind in between takes
Famously a method actor, Al Pacino was keen to understand the experience of the visually impaired as much as possible on Scent of a Woman, in order to represent them faithfully on the silver screen. As such, he stayed in character throughout his time on set.
According to Martin Brest’s DVD commentary, Pacino fully threw himself into the part of Frank Slade, and had regular contact with members of New York’s Associated Blind, who helped Pacino understand the emotional burden of their blindness.
Pacino also met with the Lighthouse Guild, a charity focused on vision rehabilitation and advocacy for the blind. Coincidentally, the first meeting of the Lighthouse Guild in the early 20th century was held at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel, which also features prominently in Scent of a Woman.
With the Guild’s help, Pacino learned techniques that many blind people use to find chairs, light cigars and pour liquids.
While Pacino was working on the film, he remained ‘blind’ throughout, refusing to look people in the eye when they talked to him, and even using his cane to walk around.
17. Director Martin Brest tried to keep Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell apart
Martin Brest is a famously febrile director, having been fired from WarGames (1983) for allegedly inspiring a bad atmosphere on set, and then having hits with comedies like Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Midnight Run (1988). So you can be sure that by the time his next film rolled around, Brest had some real game theory planned for how he treated his two lead actors. Read: badly.
On Scent of a Woman, Brest aimed to keep Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell separated as much as possible when they weren’t shooting the movie, the idea being that it would create a nervousness and tension between the two.
Unfortunately for Brest, the plan didn’t exactly work out. Pacino took the younger actor under his wing, and the two quickly became good friends.
It’s impossible to say if Brest’s Machiavellian tactics would have made the film even better, but there’s something fun about the director being thwarted by the power of friendship.
In 2014, O’Donnell revealed that Pacino gave him some advice while on set: “He always told me don’t ever marry an actress,” O’Donnell said. “You’ll always be second in their life.” O’Donnell took his advice and married a teacher instead.
16. It was Philip Seymour Hoffman’s breakthrough
After his untimely death in 2014, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s New York Times obituary described him as “perhaps the most ambitious and widely admired American actor of his generation.” But just over two decades earlier, Hoffman was stacking shelves. Then Scent of a Woman changed everything.
In the film, Hoffman plays George Willis Jr, the rival of Chris O’Donnell’s Charlie, who attempts to implicate Charlie in the prank that could get him expelled from prep school. While it’s a minor role that ranks well below the leads, Hoffman’s inimitable screen presence ensured a prosperous Hollywood career began there.
Hoffman had auditioned five times for Scent of a Woman, and was determined to get the part. At the time, he was living a life of hard knocks in Brooklyn, living on a futon and working long shifts at a deli.
“When I catch Scent of a Woman on television now,” Hoffman later said, “I’ll watch it, and I say, ‘Do less, Phil, less, less!’ Now, I’m a little mortified by parts of my performance.”
“But back then, it was huge! It was pure joy to get to do the work. The director, Marty Brest, told me to never call acting a ‘job.’ Even now, I’ll catch myself calling it a job, and I get angry at myself.”
15. Al Pacino stole his famous “Hoo-ah” catchphrase from someone he knew
For a movie that’s a road trip film, a prep school film and a romance film (with themes of suicide) rolled into one, it’s admittedly a little surprising that the Scent of a Woman script manages to find room to give the lead character a catchphrase. Yet that’s exactly get Al Pacino gets with “Hoo-ah!”, and it’s a yell that has an interesting story behind it.
Historically speaking, “Hoo-ah!” is a battle cry that originated in the US Army, but later spread to the Navy and the Air Force.
According to Brigadier General Creighton Adams, “it all started out as kind of an exclamation point, and that was just fine. Then it became something almost perfunctory, as in saying, ‘Hoo-ah’ instead of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit much.”
As for how Al Pacino encountered the term, he recalled in an interview with MTV: “I was working with a lieutenant colonel who was teaching me the ways [of the Army]. We worked every day, and he’d teach me how to load and unload a .45 and all this stuff. Every time I did something right, he’d go, ‘Hoo-ah!'”
“Finally, I asked, ‘Where did you get that from?'” Pacino continues. “And he said, ‘When we were on the line, and you turned and snapped the rifle in the right way, [you’d say] ‘Hoo-ah!’ So I just started doing it. It’s funny where things come from.”
14. Chris O’Donnell was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance
It’s fair to say that Chris O’Donnell has had a career of two halves, separated by his involvement in the most ignominious Batman films in history: Batman Forever (1995) and, in particular, Batman & Robin (1997).
But back in the early 90s, O’Donnell was tipped as one of the greatest talents of his generation, beating heavyweights like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon to some of Hollywood’s biggest roles.
Much like the Hindenberg, O’Donnell’s early days were the height of luxury and success, with a starring role alongside Al Pacino and even a Golden Globe nomination for Scent of a Woman.
But, also like the Hindenberg, O’Donnell was soon embroiled in the inferno that was Batman & Robin, which was utterly panned by critics. Oh, the humanity!
O’Donnell has since gone on to star in NCIS: Los Angeles, a spin-off of NCIS. His most recent Hollywood role was as Police Officer Shane in Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore (2010). He played a human.
13. O’Donnell’s nerves at the audition helped him get the role
Chris O’Donnell’s talent was first discovered in the late 80s, when he starred in a McDonald’s commercial opposite basketball legend Michael Jordan, and after a solid performance in Men Don’t Leave (1990), the world was his oyster.
But O’Donnell hadn’t quite mastered his nerves when auditioning for roles (“I hate auditions to this day,” he revealed in an interview with Yahoo in 2013).
For Scent of a Woman, “I really wanted it, I really prepared hard for it,” O’Donnell continues. “Al Pacino was a no-brainer. But when I got in there, Al is such an intimidating presence and the character is supposed to be intimidated by him.”
“I was able to play on that natural nervousness that I had around him in the audition process,” he explains. “That helped me to win the role.”
It goes to show that nervous energy can sometimes be a help, rather than a hindrance.
12. The film features what is still Al Pacino’s only Oscar-winning performance
Unbelievably, despite a career filled with amazing performances in some classic movies, Scent of a Woman is to date still Al Pacino’s only ever Academy Award win, despite the actor having been nominated eight times.
The same year that he picked up his Best Actor Oscar, Pacino was also nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Glengarry Glen Ross, which made him the first male actor ever to receive two acting nominations for two movies in the same year.
Pacino’s Best Actor Oscar win aside, Scent of a Woman didn’t take home any of the Academy Awards it was nominated for, they being Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published.
It did however win three Golden Globe Awards: Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Actor and Best Screenplay.
Scent of a Woman represented not just Al Pacino’s first Academy Award win, but the last of his nominations, with some, such as Philip Strick of Sight & Sound magazine, calling Pacino’s performance a smorgasbord of “joker, orator, virtuoso, humanist and dirty old man,” – a victory lap turn seemingly designed to elicit Oscar buzz.
11. Critics thought it was too long
While Scent of a Woman has garnered a respectable 88% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, and made well over $100 million in box office profit, some critics have been markedly less kind to the film.
Most of these criticisms focus on the film’s long runtime, which comes in at a hefty 2 hours and 37 minutes.
Even David Ansen of Newsweek, who said of Pacino’s performance that “his Slade is a volatile, fascinating mix of old-fashioned courtliness and viperish hostility,” was critical of the film’s length.
“Still,” Ansen continues, “the two-character conceit doesn’t warrant a two-and-a-half-hour running time. There’s too much of Charlie’s prep-school ethical crisis … which comes to a phony Capra-esque conclusion designed to please the youth market.”
Scent of a Woman has since had something of a critical renaissance (see this article from Little White Lies, for example), but Scent of a Woman’s broad sentimentality and emotional intensity evidently isn’t for everyone!
10. Al Pacino damaged his vision for real whilst acting blind
Stories about actors being injured on set are a dime a dozen, from Harrison Ford’s tribulations filming The Force Awakens (2015) to Tom Cruise breaking an ankle (but carrying on like a trooper) while filming Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018). But it isn’t just action stars who get to enjoy all the pleasures of falling over and hurting themselves.
In 2010, Al Pacino revealed on Larry King’s radio show that he’d injured himself quite severely while filming Scent of a Woman when he fell into a bush.
Speaking about his methods for looking convincingly blind, Pacino said that the trick is “you don’t focus your eyes. And what happens is, you go into a [trance] state.”
“As a matter of fact,” Pacino continues, “I had an eye injury during the shooting of the film, because I fell into a bush [while pretending to be blind].”
“And the worst kind of eye injury is when plant life gets into your cornea. It stuck into my cornea … the thing went into my eye.” Stay away from plants, Al!
9. Special ‘blind’ contact lenses were made for the film, but Pacino refused to use them
Practical effects have had been around since the dawn of cinema, as has filmmakers’ determination to tell stories about lost senses (blindness, deafness) and heartwarming stories about how people can overcome their disabilities. So it seemed like a certainty that Scent of a Woman would employ state of the art practical effects for its big star.
In fact, while Pacino would eventually just ‘go method’ and develop his own technique to represent his character’s blindness, special contact lenses were manufactured for his use.
“We are perfecting the art,” said Dr Mitchell Cassel, a contact lens specialist, in an article by the New York Times in 1994, though he admits the lenses don’t always work out, as was the case for Scent of a Woman.
According to the article, Pacino went through a months-long process being fitted for these lenses, but at the last minute decided with Brest not to use them.
The pair were worried that prolonged use would be uncomfortable for Pacino, and figured the actor’s portrayal of blindness was convincing enough already. He did, however, use the lenses during rehearsals.
8. Gabrielle Anwar rehearsed the tango scene for three weeks; Pacino didn’t rehearse at all
In the only scene that’s even vaguely appropriate to the title of the film, at one point in Scent of a Woman Slade encounters a beautiful woman and they dance the tango, the most sensual of ballroom dances. Ooh, la la!
According to Gabrielle Anwar, who plays Donna, she attended rehearsals for the scene for three weeks. Anwar was a dance novice, and Pacino was supposedly an expert, but the Godfather star was too busy to practice.
“[His dancing] was a bit dodgy,” Anwar recalled in an interview with Access Hollywood Live. “I have a few sort of half-broken toes still … [but] it’s Al Pacino, for God’s sake, I couldn’t exactly complain.”
The scene was choreographed by Jerry Mitchell, who would go on to win a Tony award – one of his many accolades – for his choreography in the Cyndi Lauper musical Kinky Boots (2013).
As for Anwar, she would star alongside Chris O’Donnell again in The Three Musketeers (1993). She’s also had several successes on television, appearing in the historical drama The Tudors as well as espionage series Burn Notice.
7. The prep school is actually for girls, not boys
Even though Al Pacino is undoubtedly the star of the film, Scent of a Woman centres on Charlie and his ethical conundrums at the Baird school, a prestigious prep school (yep, it’s certainly a mixed film). But while the school in question is for boys only, the real-life location is actually exclusively a school for girls.
The Emma Willard school, often simply referred to as Emma, was founded in 1814 by women’s rights advocate Emma Willard, who dedicated her life to the promotion of education for women. In fact, the school was the first higher education institution for women in the entire United States, and is ranked first among the private schools of Upstate New York, even in Utica.
Putting aside the posh lives of prep schoolers, steamed shirts and luxurious hams among its many perks, you might be curious as to what other films might have been happening in there.
It’s not exactly as glamorous as Scent of a Woman or, say, the Aurora Borealis, but The Emperor’s Club (2002) also used Emma as a filming location. It again transmogrified the school into a boys-only establishment.
So, if you’re in the business of shooting a drama set in a boys’ prep school, at a particular time of year, in a particular part of the country, you could do worse than to consider such an illustrious filming location!
6. Chris Rock could have played Charlie
Considering that Scent of a Woman was something of a victory lap for Al Pacino, several prodigious young actors were keen to star alongside him as Charlie. It would not only be a chance to act with one of the greats, but to make their mark on film history. One of these people, surprisingly, was comedian Chris Rock.
Rock is best known nowadays for his voiceover work on the Madagascar series of films, as well as his successful sitcom Everybody Hates Chris (2005-09), and of course his luminous stand-up career. But in the early 90s, Rock had just broken through into the cast of Saturday Night Live.
It’s unconfirmed whether or not Rock auditioned for Scent of a Woman, but in a Rolling Stone article from 2014, he was certainly ambiguous. There was “a little bit of talk” that he might be involved, he says.
“[It] actually would’ve been a better movie,” he continues. “Not ’cause of me – it just would’ve been a better movie with a black kid playing that part. But that’s the only time I remember anyone thinking of anything even remotely dramatic…”
Matt Damon, Brendan Fraser and Ben Affleck all auditioned for the part, but it was Chris O’Donnell who won out in the end.
5. Donald Trump filmed a scene but it was deleted
One of Scent of a Woman’s filming locations was the Manhattan Plaza hotel, which at the time was owned by Donald Trump.
Along with the usual pecuniary perks of being a real estate mogul, Trump managed to negotiate a bit part for himself in Scent of a Woman, much like his famous cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (also 1992).
When Slade and Charlie arrive at the Plaza in a limo and get out, a limo pulls up behind them. Out of that limo stepped Donald Trump and his then-fiancée Marla Maples.
For all his negotiating prowess in getting the cameo in the first place, the scene involving Trump was ultimately cut. And in a film that was criticised for being too long, and the director defending the length to the hilt, it must have been pretty awkward.
In 1995, Trump sold a controlling stake in the hotel to Saudi prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. Trump is estimated to have made a loss of over half a billion dollars.
4. O’Donnell was studying at college while shooting the film
As if acting in a major Hollywood film wasn’t enough work, Chris O’Donnell was putting himself through college while principal photography was taking place.
O’Donnell had enrolled at Boston College, Massachusetts, to study a degree in marketing. But while students are stereotyped to have a lot of time on their hands, there still isn’t quite enough to get involved in Al Pacino’s latest project.
According to Boston College’s website, “We ask our students to explore the big questions and challenge them to ask: What difference will I make? How will my knowledge serve the world?” And for Chris O’Donnell, the answer was to play the most widely derided Robin in film history.
It’s rumoured that O’Donnell was busy with his degree all the way through to the premiere of Scent of a Woman, with a paper due the next day and three finals on the horizon.
It’s certainly not unusual for high-profile actors to also get college degrees. Famously, Ashton Kutcher was studying biochemical engineering before his big acting break, while Natalie Portman went back to college after mainstream success with The Phantom Menace (1999), earning a degree in Psychology from Harvard.
3. The TV edit is credited to Alan Smithee
We’ve already mentioned that the length of Scent of a Woman was a contentious issue for critics, but it was also something that caused consternation for Brest and his editors.
Brest’s first cut came in at a whopping 160 minutes, or two hours and 40 minutes. Brest and Pacino wanted it to be even longer, brushing up against a three-hour film, but the studio demanded that cuts be made.
As a result, Brest delivered a 157-minute cut, and other shorter ones when the studio was still unconvinced by the three minute snip. However, in test screenings, audiences reacted more positively to the 157-minute version, which therefore became the edit that went to theatres.
Later, however, the edit for TV and flight broadcasts was significantly more brutal. Brest has disowned this version, and as a result it is credited to Alan Smithee.
Coined in 1968, the pseudonym Alan Smithee (sometimes Allen Smithee) is used in place of directors who have rejected their works. It was employed dozens of times until it was officially discontinued in 2000.
2. There was an Egyptian remake of the film
Scent of a Woman is a remake of an adaptation of a short story. But did you know that there was an Egyptian remake of the remake of the adaptation?
Amir El Zalam premiered in 2002, and reuses the major plot points of Scent of a Woman while bringing a distinctly Egyptian historical outlook to proceedings.
Saeed Al-Masri is a pilot who lost his vision while flying in the Yom Kippur War (also known as the 1973 Arab-Israeli conflict). He now lives in a home for the visually impaired, so strict that he considers a prison.
Over the course of the film, he befriends a group of youngsters and ventures beyond the confines of his assisted living facility. He even goes to a nightclub and falls in love with a beautiful woman, Alia. Then the film diverges a little…
A group of foreign terrorists decide to use the assisted living facility as a base of operations for their plan to assassinate an Egyptian politician. At the climax of the film, Al-Masri summons up the courage to face the terrorists alone. It’s definitely a snappier conclusion than the Pacino film!
1. Slade is based on three different people
The script for Scent of a Woman was written by Bo Goldman, who had garnered acclaim – and two Oscars – for his work on One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and Melvin and Howard (1980). And with that level of experience, Goldman was an expert at creating characters from all sorts of places.
Goldman was first inspired by his brother, whom he believed wasn’t living life as he should. “I had been estranged from most of my family,” Goldman said when interviewed for the film, “and still am from the ones I grew up with and my long-lost brother, who made millions in mortgage brokerage, became an alcoholic, and had a terribly tragic life.”
“A week later,” he continues, “I came back to California and got a call from Martin Brest, who showed me this sort of forgotten Italian movie, Profuma di Donna. I looked at this movie, and this character struck me as being exactly like my brother, who became the character in Scent of a Woman
“The character was crossed with my first sergeant in the Army, a member of the famous 442nd Regimental Combat Team, who was the second man I’ve ever really been afraid of, and the first man I was afraid of—my father.”
Given the father-son dynamic that exists between Slade and Charlie, you might even argue that Charlie is a stand-in for Goldman himself. Of course, the only person who knows for sure would be Goldman himself.