Sunday, May 26, 2013

Oh, Henry! Pacino Copied You on the Silver Screen-o

As one of the most lauded actors of his generation, Al Pacino has portrayed a litany of iconic characters who have weaved their way into the national consciousness: Michael Corleone, Tony Montana, Sonny Wortzik, Frank Serpico, Carlito Brigante, and Ricky Roma among them.
Yet Pacino has won only a single Academy Award during his more than 40 years in film: a Best Actor for his portrayal of Lt. Col. Frank Slade in Scent of a Woman—an honor with which I vehemently disagree, because…Pacino stole that character from McLean Stevenson!
Case-in-point: Pacino’s hallmark quote from Scent of a Woman is his many and varied expressions of hoo-ah, which have come to embody the character of Lt. Col. Frank Slade.
However, in Episode 43 of M*A*S*H, “The Chosen People”—almost 19 years before Scent of a Woman’s release—as a Korean family puts down stakes smack in the middle of the 4077th compound, Lt. Col. Henry Blake exclaims, “We got a real hoo-hah going here!”
(Additionally, in Episode 61, “Mad Dogs and Servicemen”—which aired later in 1974—after Radar is bitten by a stray dog, Henry Blake declares to Radar’s caged menagerie that to avoid this problem in the future, “I’m gonna vaccinate all you little hoo-hahs.” And further evidence is amply provided by Father Mulcahy in Episode 71, “White Gold,” when he asks, “What’s all the hoo-hah?” B.J. Hunnicutt and Col. Potter similarly query Margaret Houlihan with “What’s all the hoo-hah, Major?”—B.J. saying it in Episode 89, “Dear Ma,” and Potter following nearly four years later, in Episode 159, “Dear Comrade.”)
Now, Pacino’s more-famous version is actually a softer variant of the expression, leaving out the first h from the second syllable to create an ah rather than a hah. And perhaps differentiating the exclamation from McLean Stevenson’s delivery was intentional on Pacino’s part—in which case Pacino would richly deserve his Oscar…if that were the only element of his award-winning character that he lifted from the venerable Stevenson.
Sadly, it is not.
Beyond the obvious copying of rank—like Henry Blake, Frank Slade is a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army—as well as the monosyllabic nearness of their surnames—Blake and Slade, which may have been Pacino's homage to the beloved commander of the 4077th—each character threatens suicide. The entire plot of Scent of a Woman revolves around the blind Frank Slade’s desire to enjoy a riotous farewell weekend in Manhattan before killing himself. Similarly, during the tumult of the Korean family building a home on “their” land, Henry Blake exasperatingly asks Capt. Pak, “What’s Korean for ‘suicide?’”

Suicide is a powerful plot device, but perhaps Al Pacino is not fully culpable in this shameless rip-off of McLean Stevenson’s character. Scent of a Woman is a remake of the 1974 Italian film, Profumo di Donna (which actually involves a suicide pact between the “Frank Slade” character and a comrade who was terribly injured in the same wartime incident). That film was released on December 20, 1974—less than eleven months after “The Chosen People” first aired.
Now, I’m not sure of the exact lag time that M*A*S*H experienced from original air date on CBS to broadcast in Europe—in England, for example, the pilot episode premiered eight months after it debuted in the United States—but such lag time would most likely put the Italian airing of “The Chosen People” episode at the time of the writing or filming of Profumo di Donna. So it’s a good bet that director Dino Risi “borrowed” heavily from Henry Blake’s popular on-screen antics. And even if Blake’s hoo-hah expression was not among the elements nicked by Risi*—which would mean that Pacino went directly to the source for his catchphrase—those character traits and plot devices borrowed for Profumo di Donna then were annexed by Pacino nearly two decades later and ridden to an Academy Award—not to mention into one of the most oft-used sound bites in the history of film.  
* I simply do not know if the expression appears in the original film—to a non–Italian-speaking viewer, every other word in an Italian film sounds like hoo-hah.

It is not known what McLean Stevenson—who died in 1996—thought of Pacino winning the Academy Award with a performance built on Henry Blake’s back, but, even though he never appeared in a film during his career, McLean Stevenson sure deserved a scent of that Oscar...

(Image of Al Pacino copyright Universal Pictures; Image of M*A*S*H copyright CBS.)