Were critics who moaned about the 2-hour, 37-minute length of Universal’s “Scent of a Woman,” the male-bonding drama starring Al Pacino and Chris O’Donnell, being sticks-in-the-mud? Variety’s Todd McCarthy said it “goes on nearly an hour too long” and Newsweek’s David Ansen said it “doesn’t warrant a 2 1/2-hour running time.”
The film’s screenwriter, Bo Goldman (“Shoot the Moon”), and executives at Universal couldn’t disagree more. And they want it understood that decision on the final length of “Scent of a Woman” was “long, agonizing and painstaking.” They also feel, based on test-screening results as well as their own instincts, that it was absolutely the right call.
In its first weekend, “Scent” did a respectable $357,000 on 20 screens in a platformed release. (It opens wide Friday.) The widespread talk about Pacino being the guy to beat for this year’s best actor Oscar should pull in crowds. But there were jitters at Universal that its length might dampen enthusiasm--an added burden for a film that can be shown only four times daily.
Brest’s first cut of “Scent,” screened for Universal brass last summer, was slightly longer than the version now on screens, about 160 minutes. Initial enthusiasm about quality was soon tempered by differing views on length. Brest, Goldman and Pacino, not surprisingly, wanted a longer cut; Universal wanted to go shorter.
“The role of an artist is to know what a thing is,” Goldman says. “This movie was a tall son whom Marty and I nurtured and fell in love with. What were we going to do, cut off his legs?”
Universal chairman Tom Pollock and production president Casey Silver wanted to see if “Scent” could be trimmed to 135 minutes or less, so that theaters could squeeze in a fifth show. (An executive with Pacific Theaters argues that a film has to be closer to 125 minutes to allow for five screenings.)
To reach a consensus, “Scent” was shown to recruited audiences at shorter and shorter lengths “to see what we could lose and still have the picture work,” says Perry Katz, Universal marketing executive. “Every movie has a ‘fighting weight.’ If it’s any longer, it’s laborious. If it’s any shorter, it’s disjointed.” Audiences responded positively to various shorter versions, ranging from 130 to 140 minutes. “We never had negatives,” Katz adds. “It became a matter of which version played best.”
Given that Pacino’s character, an abrasive, alcoholic blind man, had the potential to turn audiences off, shading was important. In Goldman’s view, “the shorter the length, the meaner Pacino became. You knew less and less about who he was, where his pain was coming from. For me, the 135-minute version was all peaks and no valleys.” Audience scores improved slightly with each longer cut, says Goldman, with the 157-minute version ranking the highest.
Goldman remembers “an exhausting, all-day meeting in Pollock’s office. It was, ‘Why do we need this scene? Why do we need that scene?’ It was brutal, but they finally gave Marty his movie.” Pollock made the final decision in October after more test screenings.
Says an inside source, “We could have played the big, bad studio and demanded a shorter cut. But audiences liked the longer version better. It was that simple.”
A Universal executive adds, “Believe me, if the 2-hour, 15-minute version had played as well, we would’ve gone with it.”
Given average moviegoers’ indifference to “Scent’s” running time, have critics shown a rigidity in their thinking? Why was “Scent of a Woman” assailed but not the three-hour-plus running times of “Malcolm X,” “JFK” or “Dances With Wolves,” or the four-hour “La Belle Noiseuse”?
As Times critic Peter Rainer (who liked “Scent”) wrote, “We’ve become so accustomed--even in our so-called ‘adult’ dramas--to action-oriented, short-attention span scenarios that the deliberate, one-step-at-a-time relationship between (Pacino and O’Donnell) can seem a little perverse and attenuated.”
Syndicated TV critic Gene Siskel is more impatient with critics than films. “This length thing is really aggravating,” he declares. “Are people’s lives really that precious that they have to watch shorter movies? What are they going to do for the extra 40 minutes? See another movie?” Roger Ebert, who joined Siskel in giving “Scent” an enthusiastic thumbs-up, says, “The plain fact is, no good movie is too long and no bad movie is too short.”