Television writer Ken Levine (CHEERS) gave a nice shout-out this week to one of my favorite unsung movies of the 1980s. ABSENCE OF MALICE, which stars Paul Newman and Sally Field and was justly nominated for three Oscars, is a terrific drama about a legitimate businessman (Newman) who is libeled in print by an unscrupulous prosecutor (Bob Balaban, who else?) trying to build a murder case. With stories of an irresponsible press becoming more and more prevalent, even reaching as high as CBS News and the New York Times, which actually apologized in print for its inept coverage of the war in Iraq, ABSENCE OF MALICE's central themes of truth and responsibility in reporting the news are as relevant as ever.
Michael Gallagher is an honest businessman who is implicated by newspaper reporter Megan Carter (Field) in the disappearance of a labor boss. Megan isn't really incompetent, just naïve, since she has been suckered into printing the story by an unscrupulous government investigator (Balaban) whose inquiry into the case has run into a standstill. Gallagher's uncle and late father were gangsters, so Balaban hopes the story's notoriety will shake a few clues loose, Gallagher's livelihood and reputation be damned. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, a former reporter himself, really cuts loose when Gallagher begins his own sting operation with the direct purpose of teaching lessons in responsible behavior to those with virtually unchecked power to hurt innocents in their pursuit of their own goals.
Newman and Melinda Dillon (the mom from CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and A CHRISTMAS STORY) as Gallagher's fragile friend were also nominated for Academy Awards, but Field actually has the trickiest role. Megan is not a very good reporter, nor is she particularly likable, although Field does a wonderful job of keeping the audience on her side. We want to like her, of course, because she's the cute, plucky Sally Field, and the manner in which she is led astray by men who want to use her position to advance their own agendas lends some sympathy. The actor-friendly director Sydney Pollack delivers plenty of big moments for the talented supporting cast, especially Wilford Brimley, who wanders in during the final reel to snatch the scenery. Newman's quiet intensity and intelligence make it appear as though he's barely acting, but the intricacies of the increasingly complex plot likely wouldn't have worked in Pollack's subdued dramatic context without him. And Brimley, along with Alec Baldwin in GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS, wins the All-Time Great Performance With Just One Scene In A Major Film Award.
Filmed in Miami, ABSENCE OF MALICE was a hit for Columbia and is an excellent companion to Newman's 1982 film THE VERDICT, for which he also was nominated for (and deserved to win) a Best Actor Oscar. In fact, I believe that rarely has a single movie star acted in back-to-back films with performances as great as Newman is here and in THE VERDICT, which is one of my all-time favorite films. Watch ABSENCE OF MALICE at Netflix stat.