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Scent of a Woman: Inspirations

Screenwriter Bo Goldman felt that Scent of a Woman was the most personal script he’d ever written. ‘Lt. Colonel Frank Slade,’ he explained, is a combination of his father, one of his brothers and his Army first sergeant. Even the film’s prep-school backdrop and the snobbery that ‘Charlie’ encounters came from his personal experiences.

“My father was a very rich and powerful man who began losing all his money in the crash of 1929 – three years before I was born,” Goldman said. “He’d come from the ghetto, one of 10 children, and was totally self-made. At one time he owned more than 80 retail stores… He had a lot of interests and was a real character, completely charming and charismatic… He was also FDR’s intimate. Roosevelt had been his attorney, after he was assistant secretary of the navy.”

When Bo Goldman was a child, his family lived in a large rent-controlled apartment on Park Avenue – but their rent was paid by better-off relatives. “It was right out of Sunset Boulevard, with all the rococo furnishings,” said Goldman. “There would be echoes of glory, like theater tickets… And every few months, my mother would say, ‘Which Ming vase should we break now?’ for the insurance.”

Read about Bo Goldman’s brother’s time in the drunk tank after the jump.

"My father was embarrassed about his own father,” revealed Goldman. “He sent me to the best schools, Exeter and Princeton – gave me the things he hadn’t had. He desperately wanted to plug into the dead center, but of course he couldn’t, because he was Jewish… And he wreaked havoc on the whole family. None of us really talk to each other anymore. Nobody wants to remember."

Goldman’s two older brothers, Chester and Douglas, were at Exeter before him. “My first year there, I came home for Thanksgiving, but my brother Douglas went to Nashua, New Hampshire, to a friend’s home. What happened to him on that trip and in its aftermath became the basis for the story for Scent of a Woman.”

“It began on Wednesday afternoon, the day before Thanksgiving,” Goldman recalled. “Douglas and his friend went to the Boston Bruins game that afternoon, and his friend bought a pint of cheap whiskey. Douglas never drank, but they drank the whole thing on the train from Boston to Nashua.”

“So what happened was, my family and I are all sitting down for Thanksgiving supper in New York, and my father’s bemoaning the fact that Douglas didn’t come home for Thanksgiving – he considered it an act of rebellion. Then the phone rings… It’s the dean of Exeter, saying that Douglas had been hopelessly intoxicated on the train and that his friend’s father had called him to say he was worried, and they were bringing him back to the school infirmary.”

Goldman: “Next thing you know, my father’s on a train to Exeter, calling on all the members of the committee who are going to expel Douglas for intoxication – for embarrassing the academy in public. He knocked on all the doors and said, ‘I was betrayed by another father. I grant you my son shouldn’t have done this.’ He’d signed an agreement that granted in loco parentis control… that’s where the line in the script came from. The agreement said that whoever was inviting the student would be in charge and have full parental authority.”

Years and years went by, and Goldman had forgotten all about his experiences at Exeter. “In about 1990, I get a call – my oldest brother, Chester, was in the drunk tank at Lenox Hill Hospital. Chester was this kind of Gatsby-like character, a self-made guy, immensely successful, always trying to pass in Gentile society. And now he was an alcoholic.”

“My once-rich brother was going to need a conservator,” recalled Goldman. “He was living in a big, expensive New York apartment, a year behind in his rent, and had no money at all. I went there and found him living in a kind of shabby elegance. The skeletons of his life were riddled with moral cancer, to strike a phrase.”

Goldman dealt with his brother’s problems, and a week later returned home to California. “I didn’t have work, and I heard about this project that Marty Brest had been trying to do for years, a remake of the Italian film Profumo di donna, about an Army cadet who goes along with a blind army officer on a trip. So I went over to Universal to watch this movie in a screening room, and I was in no mood to like it.”

“I looked at it, and this character struck me as being exactly like my brother… The minute I saw Vittorio Gassman, I realized that this was Chester. And then I noticed that the character was wearing the same clothes as my father.”

Goldman suddenly felt he understood everything about the story. “It was really a merging of Chester’s story – a guy with a past who has a drinking problem but is still charming and charismatic and unpredictable – and Father’s story.”

Then Goldman mixed in another aspect of his personal history. “The second element was the betrayal of my brother Douglas at Exeter – sure, it’s bent and turned, because the real issue is whether the kid will inform – as opposed to my brother’s friend’s father, who did.”

“The third element that contributed had to do with my two-year stint in the army,” said Goldman. “I had a first sergeant in basic training, a Nisei from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was the most highly decorated unit in the Army. He was the most terrifying person I’ve ever known – and the one I respected the most… He just terrified me. He was the first man I ever met in my life who was living his life exactly the way he wanted. He was a soldier. That’s what it was all about… I think the character of Slade has some of his resonance. There was something of the night about both of them.”

Bernard Weinraub, “A Screenwriter Profits from his Years of Pain,” New York Times, 2/25/93
William Froug, Zen & the Art of Screenwriting: Insights and Interviews, Silman-James Press, 1996
Joel Engel, Oscar-Winning Screenwriters on Screenwriting: The Award-Winning Best in the Business Discuss their Craft, Hyperion, 2002

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