Scent of a Woman

During the Foundations of Ethical Leadership course I co-teach with Prof George Reed, he likes to show a cut from the movie Scent of a Woman – a movie in which Al Pacino plays Frank Slade a retired Army LTC who has gone blind. In the cut George shows our students, LTC Slade stands up and defends Charlie Simms at a disciplinary hearing at ‘the Baird School,’ an exclusive New England prep school. Most of you recall the scene in which Charlie refuses to ‘snitch’ on a couple of his classmates, and the Baird superintendent threatens to expel him, and ruin his chances to go to Harvard and all the future success that implies. LTC Slade’s spririted defense of Charlie changes the mind of the disciplinary board, and Charlie is allowed to stay at Baird and everyone lives happily ever after. The issue for discussion is Moral Development, and the tension between Charlie’s duty to tell the truth versus being true to who he is, and whether he is willing to let the superintendent ‘buy’ his testimony by offering a guaranteed entry to Harvard.
This weekend I was channel surfing and saw that Scent of a Woman was beginning on one of the non-premium movie channels, and so I decided to watch the beginning of it – since it had been years since I had watched the whole movie. Watching it this time, a little older, and after having spent the last several years teaching ethics and character development, I saw so much more in this movie than when I viewed it the first time, soon after it came out in 1992.
This is the story of a man, Frank Slade, who though blind, has achieved so much that many men aspire to. He’s a war hero. He had seen power up close and had directly served President Lyndon Johnson in the White House. He is sophisticated, well dressed, comfortable in the most exclusive bars, hotels, and restaurants. He is the quintessential urbane worldly man, throws money around like a mafia Don, can identify by its scent the type of perfume a woman wears, is confident, glib, charming, and can sweep a woman off her feet with his charm and his dancing. The scene in which he teaches a beautiful young woman the Tango is as classic as John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s dance scene in Pulp Fiction. And with all of this, Slade is weary of himself, his pretensions, his vanities, and his life, and is ready to end it all. He is reminiscent of Jean-Baptiste Clamence in Albert Camus’ classic existentialist novel “The Fall.”
Into his life comes Charlie Simms, a young man with none of Slade’s urbane sophistication, and also none of his cynicism. He is about 17 years old, naive, trusting, optomisitic, honest, and completely unpretentious. The contrast between these two is dramatic, and is the basis of the story. Slade is using Charlie as a mere means to his own pleasures and ends, and Charlie is too polite, naive, and trusting to avoid being manipulated by him. Nonetheless, Charlie intervenes when Slade is about to commit suicide, and Slade threatens to kill him. They both confront their own deaths, and both are transformed by their experience together. The cynical old Slade who had ridiculed Charlie’s courage and simple honesty, becomes inspired by it, so much so that at the end of the movie, he has clearly taken a new lease on life.
This is a wonderful movie that can be appreciated on so many levels – a great story, with colorful characters, and on another level, a look at human values and purpose in today’s society. Highly recommended.

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