ABSENCE OF MALICE —-choice suspense drama from 1981 gave Paul Newman, 55, one of his two best latter-career roles (along with The Verdict), bumped Sally Field, 34, back in the game after a couple of duds, added another feather in the cap for director Sydney Pollack, gave plum roles to dewy Melinda Dillon and crusty Wilford Brimley, and an overdue black eye to crap journalism ‘ethics’. As the bored newspaper lawyer blandly informs fidelity-fidgety reporter Field: “I’m telling you, madam, that as a matter of law, the truth of your story is irrelevant. We have no knowledge that the story is false, therefore we’re absent malice, we’ve been both reasonable and prudent, therefore we’re not negligent. We may say whatever we like to say about Mr. Gallagher, and he is powerless to do us harm. Democracy is served.”
Miami. Scoop-sniffing newspaper reporter ‘Megan Carter’ (Field) takes advantage of an ambitious Federal prosecutor’s “inadvertent” leaking of an investigation that seems to implicate local independent liquor dealer ‘Michael Gallagher’ (Newman), who has family ties to illegal activities. The resultant brouhaha plays havoc with Gallagher’s business, has dire consequences for his close friend ‘Teresa Perone’ (Dillon) and obviously tweaks what looks to be a budding relationship with Megan. Someone—plural version—are set to be bested at their own hypocritical/chickenshit game.
The for-grownups script came from ‘been & done’ former reporter/editor Kurt Luedke. Tweaking was then furnished by frequent Pollack collaborator David Rayfiel. As was often the style in the day, the neo-noir man v. system setting was the bright daylight of a seemingly pleasant and secure environment as opposed to the oppressive dark-toned shadow world suggested in the you’re-caught thrillers of the late 40s. Sunshine splashed surroundings or black & white vise-grip, the odds are not on Joe Individual’s side, let alone fantasies like rights or redress.
Smart writing, smooth direction, excellent acting. Newman digs into this with seasoned self-assurance: Gallagher is tightly contained fury steered by steely intelligence, outrage channeled by wits. Field has a harder job, as Megan’s opportunism trumps her self-respect and audience sympathy. Dillon captures the poignant fragility of Teresa, and Brimley gets a plum assignment made to order for his cut-the-bull honesty. Bob Balaban scores as a self-righteous SOB: he did likewise prick-duty that year in Prince Of The City.
Critics clapped. Newman pulled down his 6th Oscar nomination for Best Actor, Dillon nabbed her second as Supporting Actress (after Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and the screenplay was also up for the prize. The Paul-pleased public made the movie the 9th most popular of ’81, grossing $50,500,000, easily putting to bed a $12,000,000 outlay. With Don Hood, Barry Primus, Josef Sommer, Luther Adler, John Harkins. 116 minutes.
* This was personal for Our Man Paul—in 1983 Newman told ‘Rolling Stone’ the movie was a “direct attack on the ‘New York Post’ (a Rupert Murdoch shit generator)…..”I could sue the Post, but it’s awfully hard to sue a garbage can.”
The success gave Newman (also on view that year in the pretty good Fort Apache The Bronx), his best showing in six years—he hadn’t had a big hit since The Towering Inferno, hardly an acting challenge— and it pushed Sally past her triple embarrassments Beyond The Poseidon Adventure ,Smokey And The Bandit II and Back Roads.
Pollack on Newman: “There’s stillness in his acting now that is quite magnetic. You can feel his intelligence, you can see him thinking. He has the depth of a clear pool of water.”