We gave it a B-
The loss of sight in Hollywood movies has proven to be a durable gimmick, from Virginia Cherrill as the flower girl in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights in 1931 (she’s the only one who ”sees” the Little Tramp’s gentlemanly essence) to Scent of a Woman, just released on tape. Yet the role for which Al Pacino won an Oscar last year — Frank Slade, an embittered, self-pitying lieutenant colonel who toys with blowing his brains out during a weekend jaunt he makes in New York City on the arm of a naive preppy caretaker, Charlie (Chris O’Donnell) — could just as easily have involved, say, the loss of a limb. It’s virtually blind to blindness.
Thematically, apart from a standard there-are-none-so-blind-as-those-who- will-not-see speech by Frank defending Charlie in front of his entire school, the colonel’s blindness is something casual. The only time it’s put to dramatic use, apart from ripping at heartstrings, is as an action-movie ploy — a hair-raising drive in a Ferrari in Brooklyn.
One thing is certainly unusual about Pacino’s role: Men have seldom been blind in movies. Sightlessness has been portrayed mostly as a feminine affliction, giving the damsel-in-distress genre even greater, although calculated, poignancy. Whose heart didn’t go out to Audrey Hepburn, unknowingly in possession of a doll filled with drugs, as she was terrorized by thugs in her apartment in Wait Until Dark (1967), with darkness her only ally? Or even to the blinded waif Mia Farrow plays in the far lesser See No Evil (1971)? Yet Pacino’s blindness exists seemingly only to give him a chance to whip that Ferrari around unseen corners.
What Scent of a Woman does share with most other Hollywood movies about blindness is an almost unavoidable sentimentality. In A Patch of Blue (1965) a sightless white girl from the slums (Elizabeth Hartman) falls for a young man (Sidney Poitier) without realizing that he is black. The film has power — purchased by pure manipulation. The highly charged 1954 melodrama Magnificent Obsession, however, reaches beyond the maudlin into the realm of the operatic: responsible for accidentally blinding a woman (Jane Wyman), a man (Rock Hudson) must expiate his guilt by becoming a surgeon and performing an operation to save her sight. Here, blindness becomes as theatrically intense as it was for Oedipus.
To Hollywood, blindness has always been high-concept material. But one movie without any trace of the maudlin or the manipulative is The Miracle Worker (1962), in which the blind and deaf Helen Keller (Patty Duke) at the water pump makes the overwhelmingly moving connection between a word, water, and what it signifies. It reacquaints us with behavior — and life — at its simplest and most meaningful. B-