Sunday, July 31, 2011

Don't Make a Scene: Scent of a Woman

The Gospel according to Colonel Frank Slade:

The Story: When I first saw this speech from Scent of a Woman, written by Bo Goldman, adapted from the Italian film Profumo di donna, it bothered me.  Col. Frank Slade, the alcoholic, depressed, suicidal vet that Charlie Simms has been "baby-sitting" the past weekend seems to be excoriating and devaluing whistle-blowing.  I believe in "snitching."  I believe that it is that sort of independent thinking away from "lock-step" procedures that keeps those in power from abusing their authority...and actually endangering the Public in the interest of their bottom line.  I think blind loyalty, "huddling the wagons," and the "we do things internally" mentality only perpetuates incompetence, if not malfeasance, and grows the "Old Boy Network" way of doing things that always seems to lead to major crises.  That Congress has recently enacted to withdraw protection for "whistle-blowers" burns my bacon.  Of course, that bunch of "old boys" would want to enact such legislation for their money-lending cronies.  They want to cover their asses.

But, a close examination of Goldman's screenplay reveals more.  That's not what Slade is saying (and sometimes bellowing) here; what he is saying is that Charlie Wills did not tell tales out of his self-interest.  Indeed, he risked everything in order to not expose the privileged creeps who pulled a prank on the Headmaster and were only to willing to let the kid with the least advantages (Charlie) take the fall.  This "I'll sacrifice others if I can get something out of it" attitude is what The Speech is all about.  Selfishness and self-interest—the "what am I gonna get out of it/what's in it for me" mind-set is what Slade is railing against.  Yes, the jerks who pulled the prank are jerks.  They should be exposed, probably.  But the Headmaster dangled a recommendation for college advancement in front of Charlie to encourage his talking—corruption at The Baird School starts at the top.  There is no "doing the right thing" unless there is payback.  And once that offer—for good or ill—has been made, any talking on Charlie's part will be tainted by self-interest, the quid pro quo—the very thing that makes up so much of the unofficial (and unwritten) plea-deal infrastructure of what constitutes our legal system today, and corrupts much of it.

This is a message I can get behind.

Because sacrifice and doing things in the public interest are pretty much dead in America.  Public servants are public grifters, with cushy jobs, health insurance and benefits fit for a King...all denied to its constituents.  There is no free lunch in the Usery Selfishness of Avarice, unless you're part of it.  And the only Golden Rule is the bastardization of it (quoted, mostly, by bastards): He who has the gold, makes the rules.

Where's my flame-thrower?

And Al Pacino.  Sure, he's easy to make fun of when he gets "flamboyant"  (this role did win him a too-long-delayed Oscar), but he took a pretty flat text, gave it a rhythm and cadence, and threw in a couple of screaming sections that just don't seem to be called for in the screenplay.  Here, it's the singer, not the song.  There's only one other instance, I can think of where this largess paid off so beautifully, and that was in a little-seen film called City Hall (written by a committee of great writers...including Bo Goldman) in which Pacino plays a big-city mayor.  At one point, he's called upon to speak at the death of a little girl, an innocent by-stander, in a racial incident.  Pacino starts the speech, but at some point, the audience of extras—unbidden, mind you—started do call-outs, "Amen's," "Right-on's," and "Yes's" and Pacino's response—Pacino, the actor, not the character he was playing—was to amp up the performance to preacher-level, leaving holes for the mourners, building their responses, creating an active, living (and spontaneous) interaction that energized and electrified the scene.  It comes "this" close to being funny, but it is amazing to see.  Pacino is good.  And he's good because he risks.

The Set-Up: Charlie Simms (Chris O'Donnell) spends Thanksgiving holiday from his prep school, Baird, by care-taking an irascible, blind, retired colonel (Al Pacino) for a vacationing family.  But, who's care-taking who?  The Colonel takes Charlie on a flight to New York, a swank Manhattan apartment, and then conspires to commit suicide.  Meanwhile, Charlie must face the consequences of not naming names of several Baird students (Philip Seymour Hoffman, Matt Smith, Nicholas Sadler, Todd Louiso) who pranked Headmaster Trask (James Rebhorn) and his new car.  The Headmaster holds out a letter of recommendation to an Ivy League School as an inducement for talking, but withholds what he would do if Charlie refuses to co-operate.  At the hearing (which Slade has crashed), Charlie hears what his punishment will be.

Action!  (Hoo-yah!)



CHARLIE SIMMS: I'm sorry.

TRASK: I'm sorry too, Mr. Simms, because you know what I'm going to do. Inasmuch as I can't punish...

TRASK: Mr. Havemeyer, Mr. Potter or Mr. Jameson...

TRASK: And I won't punish Mr. Willis. He's the only party to this incident who is still worthy of calling himself a Baird man.

TRASK: I'm going to recommend to the Disciplinary Committee...

TRASK: ...that you be expelled.

TRASK: Mr. Simms, you are a cover-up artist...

TRASK: ....and you are a liar.

COl. FRANK SLADE: But not a snitch!

TRASK: Excuse me?

SLADE: No, I don't think I will.

TRASK: Mr. Slade...

SLADE: This is such a crock of shit !

TRASK: Please watch your language, Mr. Slade.

TRASK: You are in the Baird school, not a barracks. Mr. Simms, I will give you one final opportunity to speak up.

SLADE: Mr. Simms doesn't want it. He doesn't need to be labeled "still worthy of being a Baird man." What the hell is that? What is your motto here? "Boys, inform on your classmates, save your hide."

SLADE: "Anything short of that, we're gonna burn you at the stake."

SLADE: Well, gentlemen, when the shit hits the fan, some guys run and some guys stay. Here's Charlie facin' the fire, and there's George...

SLADE: ...hidin' in big daddy's pocket.

SLADE: And what are you doin'? You're gonna reward George...and destroy Charlie.

TRASK: Are you finished, Mr. Slade ?

SLADE: No, I'm just gettin' warmed up.

SLADE: I don't know who went to this place. William Howard Taft, William Jennings Bryant,

SLADE: William Tell, whoever. Their spirit is dead, if they ever had one. It's gone. You're buildin' a rat ship here, a vessel for seagoin' snitches.

SLADE: And if you think you're preparin' these minnows for manhood, you better think again, because I say you are killin' the very spirit this institution proclaims it instills.

SLADE: What a sham.

SLADE: What kind of a show are you guys puttin' on here today? I mean, the only class in this act is sittin' next to me. I'm here to tell you this boy's soul is intact. It's non-negotiable. You know how I know ? Someone here, and I'm not gonna say who,
offered to buy it.


SLADE: Only Charlie here wasn't sellin'.

TRASK: Sir, you're out of order.


SLADE: I'll show you out of order. You don't know what out of order is, Mr. Trask.

SLADE: I'd show you, but I'm too old, I'm too tired, and I'm too fuckin' blind. If I were the man I was five years ago, I'd take...

SLADE: ...a flamethrower to this place!

SLADE: Out of order? Who the hell you think you're talkin' to? I've been around, you know?

SLADE: There was a time I could see. And I have seen. Boys like these, younger than these, their arms torn out, their legs ripped off. But there is nothin' like the sight of an amputated spirit. There is no prosthetic for that.

SLADE: You think you're merely sendin' this splendid foot soldier back home to Oregon with his tail between his legs, but I say you are...

SLADE: ...executin' his soul! And why? Because he's not "a Baird man." Baird men! You hurt this boy, you're gonna be Baird bums, the lot of you.

SLADE: And, Harry...

SLADE: Jimmy, Trent, wherever you are out there...

SLADE: ...fuck you too !

TRASK: Stand down, Mr. Slade!

SLADE: I'm not finished. As I came in here, I heard those words: "cradle of leadership."

SLADE: Well, when the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, and it has fallen here. It has fallen. Makers of men. Creators of leaders.

SLADE: Be careful what kind of leaders you're producin' here.

SLADE: I don't know...

SLADE: ...if Charlie's silence here today is right or wrong; I'm not a judge or jury. But I can tell you this: he won't sell anybody out... to buy his future! And that, my friends, is called integrity. That's called courage. Now that's the stuff leaders should be made of.

SLADE: Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew, but I never took it. You know why ? It was too damn hard.

SLADE: Now here's Charlie. He's come to the crossroads.

SLADE: He has chosen a path. It's the right path. It's a path made of principle, that leads to character. Let him continue on his journey. You hold this boy's future in your hands, Committee. It's a valuable future, believe me. Don't destroy it. Protect it. Embrace it.

SLADE: It's gonna make you proud one day, I promise you.

SLADE: How's that for cornball?





Scent of a Woman

Words by Bo Goldman

Pictures by Donald E. Thorin and Martin Brest

Scent of a Woman is available on Universal Home Video.










* Sorry about getting all-Kozinski there, but the situation gets worse every year.  And if you think I'm being un-American or anti-commerce: 1) screw you, you're an idiot, and 2) the same sort of corruption has existed in ever Communist Government ever installed (at the point of a bayonet) on this Earth.  Every system of government can be corrupted, depending on the people who run it.  And unfortunately, most of them come in looking to feather their own nests.

An antidote to this next week. Then we'll stop with the preaching.

1 comment:

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

And who would have thought in 19 years Phillip Seymour Hoffman would be the ubiquitous Oscar winning actor and Chris O'Donnell would be doing trite work on a genre TV show.

This movie isn't brilliant, but I do like it.