Happy Thanksgiving to my American readers! Although there are many horror films featuring reel librarians to help celebrate the Halloween holiday — as well as many holiday-themed films featuring reel librarians for the Christmas holiday season — there remains a scarcity of Thanksgiving-themed films featuring reel librarians. In fact, I have come across only ONE example in my 20+ years of researching librarians in film. That film is 1992’s Oscar-winning film Scent of a Woman, starring Al Pacino as Lieutenant Colonel Frank Slade and Chris O’Donnell as Charlie Simms.
Scent of a plot
Has it been awhile since you’ve seen Scent of a Woman? Catch up by watching the trailer:
This coming-of-age story focuses on a young, clean-cut prep school boy, Charlie (Chris O’Donnell), who attends a New England private school on a merit scholarship and works as a student worker at the school library. To pay for a flight home to Oregon for Christmas, he agrees to be temporary caretaker for an alcoholic blind man, Lt. Col. Frank Slade (Al Pacino), who takes Charlie on an adventure-filled Thanksgiving weekend in New York City.
Scent of a school library scene
A little over 17 minutes into this 156-minute-long (!) film, we see Charlie working as a student assistant in the school library. While standing behind a high desk, he’s stamping and checking out a book to another student. The library is in the classic style, with lots of wood tones and tall bookcases, befitting a private prep school.
A classmate, George Willis, Jr. (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman) then rushes up to the library desk with an armful of books. George has already been introduced in earlier scenes, as one of a group of rich, elite boys, so we know that he likes to mess around and make fun of those who are not elites like himself.
George: Chas, Chas, hold up. [Puts books on counter] How ya doing’?
Charlie: I’m good.
George: That’s great.
Charlie: [looks at one of the books] This can’t go out. This is on reserve.
Their conversation continues:
George: Here’s the thing. I need the book tonight for a Thanksgiving quiz with big-shit Preston in the morning.
Charlie: Yeah I know. That’s why he put it on reserve. This is our only copy.
George: Chas, I’m pulling an all-nighter. Without that book I’m dead, okay?
Charlie, as the one working behind the elevated library desk, is standing above George, ostensibly the one in the power position, at least visually. He also has the power of rules supporting him, the rules that the school instructor set for the book on reserve. The camera mimics the angle of Charlie’s perspective, as he’s looking down at George, who is pleading with him to bend the rules. However, we also know that Charlie is the “poor” kid, the one on merit scholarship, and George is the “rich” kid. Therefore, George is the one who really holds the power in this situation.
It’s no wonder that Charlie is the one who relents. You can see it on his face, as evident in the screenshot below. He knows the score.
Charlie: If it’s not back by 7:30, it’s gonna be my ass.
George: Oh, I promise. I promise.
They then leave the library together. Charlie tells George to wait because he’s “gotta lock up.”
Side note: As a self-respecting, professional librarian, I gotta interject and say, this is NOT realistic. I do not believe for one second that any library would allow a student worker to be solely in charge of the library — especially a library at a private school that surely has lots of expensive materials and collections — and be allowed to lock up the library by themselves. Nope. Not happening. Librarians usually take turns working a night shift during the week, or there are specific librarian positions designated for evening services. In my personal experience, student workers usually help with closing up the library — tasks like announcing when the library is about to close, checking group study rooms, etc. — but the professional staff is ALWAYS ultimately responsible for locking up.
SIGH. Okay, soap box moment over. Please continue. 😉
The library scene lasts about 40 seconds in total. As they walk away from the library, Charlie and George see George’s friends setting up some kind of prank. This will prove pivotal to the rest of the film plot, as this prank later humiliates the head master, Mr. Trask (James Rebhorn). Trask then tries to get the two boys to reveal who pulled the prank, but neither Charlie nor George cooperate. Trask then puts the screws on Charlie — the vulnerable one on merit scholarship, natch — and gives him the Thanksgiving weekend to think about cooperating; otherwise, Trask will hold a discipline hearing in front of the whole school right after the Thanksgiving holiday.
After the holiday weekend with Lt. Col Slade and lots of “white male bonding” adventures — eating fancy dinners! dancing the tango with a beautiful woman! endangering the lives of others by encouraging a blind man to drive a sports car! — Charlie faces judgment at that discipline hearing. Lt. Col. Slade joins Charlie at the hearing and defends the young man.
Scent of a Liberated Librarian
So what role does Charlie fulfill? I believe he fulfills the role of a Liberated Librarian, a character who “discovers” himself — and what he’s capable of — during an adventure or crisis. These characters are usually younger (check!), become more “masculine” or “assertive” after the liberation (check!), and usually need an external force to aid or instigate the “liberation” (check!).
It’s important to note that in the case of this Liberated Librarian character, Charlie is not liberated from being a librarian or working in a library like some others (e.g. Joe Versus the Volcano). Rather, he is liberated from his own fear and self-doubt.
I place this role and this film into the Class II category, films in which the protagonist or other major characters are librarians, but the librarian’s occupation does not directly affect the plot.
Charlie is a not an actual librarian, of course, since he is a student worker in the school library, but he is considered a “reel librarian” for the purposes of this research and blog post. He is the only one we see in any kind of authoritative role in a library, using that authority to break the rules about reserve books as well as lock up the library. However, the fact that he works in the library does not directly affect the plot. He could have worked elsewhere on the campus; his job as a student library worker is used primarily to demonstrate that he needs a job. (Clearly, the salary for a student library job is not enough to pay for a plane ticket to Oregon.) And the library setting itself is not essential because it’s a library and serving as a center of knowledge or access to information; instead, it’s used as a convenient locale and reason for the boys to be out late at night on campus. But there could have been other locales chosen on campus, like a tutoring center or student center or even a dormitory, which would have worked just as well for reasons of plot.
Charlie is one of the two leads, but he’s not really the main character. After all, Al Pacino is the one who chews up the scenery throughout the film and won an Oscar for Best Actor for yelling out “Hoo-ah!” a lot. We learn a lot more about Pacino’s character, Lt. Col. Slade, than we do about Charlie.
So how is Charlie described in the film, and what do we learn about him?
Here’s how he describes himself:
I’m not a squealer.
Here’s how Lt. Col. Slade first describes Charlie, at the beginning of the film:
You little snail darter from the Pacific Northwest.
And then toward the end of the film, he recognizes Charlie’s worth:
You got integrity, Charlie.
When the shit hits the fan, some guys run and some guys stay. Here’s Charlie facing the fire.
Scent of an award
As I mentioned, Al Pacino won an Oscar for Best Actor for this role (he had previously been nominated 6 times, and was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for Glengarry Glen Ross the year he won for this film). Scent of a Woman was also nominated in the Best Writing, Best Picture, and Best Director Oscar categories but didn’t win.
The film also won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, and Pacino won the Golden Globe for Best Actor.
And in a rare example of a reel librarian character resulting in major acting awards: Chris O’Donnell was also nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category for the Golden Globes and won the Chicago Film Critics Association Award for Most Promising Actor that year. Hoo-ah!
Scent of a comment
Have you seen Scent of a Woman lately? Did you remember that it’s a Thanksgiving movie?! Like me, are you left wondering if George ever returned that reserves book?
Please leave a comment and share… and then get back to your turkey and pumpkin pie! 😉 Happy Thanksgiving!
- Scent of a Woman. Dir. Martin Brest. Perf. Al Pacino, Chris O’Donnell, Gabrielle Anwar. Universal, 1992.
- “Scent of a Woman (1992): Trivia.” Internet Movie Database.com, n.d.