Favorite Fictional Characters, #31: Lt. Col. Frank Slade
Scent of a Woman is about an hour too long. Other than that, it's a tremendous film. Even Chris O'Donnell is tolerable in his bemused role as Charlie, a victim of the politics of prep school discipline. The entire movie is ostensibly a parable, a paean to integrity, to fidelity to self in the face of corruption and cheap reward. As improbable guide on Charlie's journey, he gets Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade, retired. You couldn't want a more flawed fairy godfather: drunk, dissolute, hedonistic, disdainful of authority, irascible, and blind because of his own recklessness. This is a man so shattered by his own destruction of his once-promising life that he has gone to great lengths to arrange to end it, after one last tour of life's pleasures. In doing so, Pacino inhabits Slade with memorable, utterly infectious gusto.
Everything goes swimmingly - a fine dinner, a grand hotel, a sultry tango - until Charlie intervenes and prevents Slade's planned suicide. While everyone (myself included) enjoys his rousing, full-throated peroration at the movie's conclusion, to me this is Slade's greatest, most revealing moment, and Pacino's finest acting. Not barking, not preening, not dispensing pearls of wisdom about breasts or cars or courage, Slade reclines, a tired, blind, prematurely old man, and reveals his true pain. "Did you ever have the feeling that you wanted to go, but still have the feeling that you wanted to stay?" When he declares that he's in the dark, it's not the blindness he's talking about. This is a man who spent his entire adult life filled with purpose, and its absence, more than that of sight, leaves him untethered. He's alive but he doesn't know why, and it tortures him. As he observes later, there is no prosthetic for an amputated spirit, and that's his true disability.
Anyone who has suffered a loss of purpose, or indecision in our own life, can identify with this weary, terrifying sense of being adrift. It's not rising for the battle that's hard. It's rising with no battle to fight. That subtext of quiet panic, of life without purpose, is the tragic undercurrent to this otherwise straightforward fairy tale. Sure, it's about standing your ground. But it's also about the terror of not knowing if there's any ground left to stand on.
And Harry, Jimmy, Trent, wherever you are, fuck you too.