Tuesday, September 09, 2008

My NETFLIX pick of the month

This is one of those movies nominated for a bunch of Oscars that you probably have never heard of or have forgotten, which isn’t easy considering it stars Paul Newman. And yet it’s one of his best.

ABSENCE OF MALICE was a 1981 gem. Warning: It’s not a comedy (despite Paul Newman AND Sally Field). Nor is it action-packed, gory, or features a hero (or nun) that can fly. What it is is a very involving textured drama that just holds your interest throughout. You won’t be folding laundry an hour in. And with the exception of Paul Newman sleeping with Sally Field, it all seems very logical and plausible. Actually, that’s not fair. Sally looks very cute in this movie. The Farrah-hair works for me. And their age difference was more of a problem for me when I was younger.

This is the world-weary Paul Newman (ala VERDICT) giving a masterclass in acting – showing how by underplaying you can create a character with tremendous power and presence. Sean Penn, see this movie!

And Sally Field holds her own with him – and that ain’t easy to do. If you’re up against a great actor and you’re not great yourself you have the tendency to just disappear. But Sally is right in there, scene for scene. She plays a reporter who doesn’t check her sources, is unethical, inexperienced, and irresponsible. And unlike today, those were considered bad things for journalists. Still, you don’t loathe her. Not an easy trick. If Liza Minelli played the part audiences would rush the screen.

But with all of that, it’s another actor who steals the movie – Wilford Brimley, in his very first role. His scene as Assistant U.S. Attorney General laying down the law and touting Quaker Oats is one of the greatest. Ever.

Supporting thesps Melinda Dillon (the mom in CHRISTMAS STORY) is terrific, and when you need a sleazeball your first call is always to Bob Balaban.

ABSENCE OF MALICE was written by Kurt Luedtke and directed by Sydney Pollack. It lost its three Oscar nominations but Melinda Dillon did win the Kansas City Film Critics Circle award.

29 comments:

Iago Giacomo said...

But Luedtke did go on to win an Oscar for adapting Out of Africa...then he wrote Random Hearts. 2 for 3 in the great films department--that's a some career in any league.

Jeff said...

I absolutely agree with you about Wilford Brimley's scene - just awesome. There are more quotable moments from him in that scene than there are in most movies.

rob! said...

this is one of the few Pollack movies i've never seen. time to add it to my Netflix list!

Toby said...

Actually Brimley had a lot of roles before this movie, but many of them were uncredited. Some decent TV work as well, including a recurring role on 'The Waltons'.

Almost all of them could have gone unnoticed so that one would think 'Absence of Malice' was his first role. However, I remember seeing this movie in anticipation of seeing Brimley because I had already seen him in 'The China Syndrome', where he first grabbed my attention.

Geoff said...

I was just chiming in to echo the comments about Wilford Brimley. Your Quaker reference is a bit dated, though; nowadays with him it's all about the "dia-beetus."

D. McEwan said...

I thought I'd seen Wilfred before ABSENCE OF MALICE and THE THING. Thanks Toby, for reminding me it was in THE CHINA SYNDROME.

It's funny that A CHRISTMAS STORY is your go-to reference for Melinda Dillon. I've never seen it, so to me she's always the mom whose toddler was stolen by the aliens in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS, and of course, the original Honey in WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLFE on Broadway.

Sometimes you WISH a not-great actor would just disappear next to a great actor. Sadly, in the Coppola DRACULA, Keanu Reeves did not just disappear next to Gary Oldman. Instead you were presented with what looked like what you might get if Laurence Olivier, at the height of his powers, had appeared in a high school production of DRACULA.

Mobutu said...

I unironically love Wilford Brimley and, in spite of the DIABEETUS and THESE ARE MY TESTING SUPPLIES jokes, am heartened by any commentary that praises his work as an actor.

Mike Bell said...

Brimley is absolutely believable as the U.S. Attorney. I had forgotten about seeing him "China Syndrome" and thought they'd actually cast a real U.S. Attorney.

And damn, I wish we could have had Sydney Pollack around a little longer. I'm just selfish that way.

Joey C said...

This was on HBO four times a day for months at a time in the early '80s so I saw it a lot. Loved it! Didn't know it was a Pollack until after he died. Just tremendous story-telling.

webbie said...

Another of my favorites! Your picks of the month mirror my DVD shelves.

Andrew Feldstein said...

"Ahm pretty smart muhself."

John Royal said...

Ken, great choice of a movie. I saw this as a youngster -- in the theater -- and try to watch whenever I can.

It's kind of easy to forget about Melinda Dillon in this movie. But when she made this, she was on quite a roll. She had been in Slap Shot and Close Encounters before this movie, then did A Christmas Story not long after.

Sure, compared to what Paul Newman did, that's not much, but I bet there are a lot of actors who would love to have been in just one of those movies.

Michele said...

The Canadian Press is reporting that apparently, without malice, the Large Hadron Collider sent its billions of hadrons crashing into each other today and accidentally, without malice, created a black hole that has sucked out of the universe all the unethical, inexperienced, and irresponisble journalists. Unfortunately, they had been witholding from the public the truth about everything and the Secret to the Theory of Everything but, of course, they did so without malice. Now we'll never know if O.J. really did it.

Cap'n Bob Napier said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cap'n Bob Napier said...

Wilford was also the Postmaster General in a Seinfeld episode.

Max Clarke said...

One of the smartest movies ever made, its questions about the abuse of criminal justice power and media manipulation are relevant today. You could put several of the characters into Washington right now and they'd fit, and that's a shame.

Anonymous said...

DIABEETUS!

MattDW said...

This is a terrific movie but I have to say I think there's some pretty dated, reactionary attitudes about feminism and career women in here. It hasn't aged well in that department. Otherwise fantastic.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ken,

Here's a question. I was just reading through Forbes' Most Overpaid Celebs List (http://www.forbes.com/2007/12/11/hollywood-kidman-crowe-biz-media-cz_dp_1211overpaidcelebs.html).

Do people in the industry really pay attention to these things?

Thanks- you're blog's hilarious!

Evan

Non-Lawyer said...

Hmmmm...In America can a man be guilty until proven innocent? I think, that's what the OJ Simpson case proved to be a truism.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I think I love everything about this movie except the badly miscast Luther Adler as an Italian (Cuban?) godfather type. Government and media using each other for their own ends without regard for those caught in the crossfire -- it's a theme that never gets stale, sadly.

Chad said...

I remember watching "Absense of Malice" in a journalism class in college to foster discussions about ethics in the newsroom. It seems almost quaint now, regretfully, in this age to see the power and impact of newspapers.

Anonymous said...

Agree on this as being a great movie and Wilford Brimley in particular as the U.S. Attorney ("I'm going to have someone's ass in my briefcase.")

Someone mentioned his role on a Seinfeld. Bob Balaban was also on early Seinfelds as the NBC exec not sure he wanted to put on "a show about nothing." I never until this blog connected Balaban as being the guy in both these roles.

A lot of great cast has already been mentioned. This film featured another relative newcomer as well - Lindsay Crouse. She would go on to her own Oscar nomination in a later movie - also with Sally Field. Crouse was also the star of, and was outstanding, in her then-husband's and Director David Mamet's "House of Games" - another worth a Netflix rental.

Chad said...

The journalism professor who showed us this movie was constantly twitching a paperclip around. I told him after watching the movie that he reminded me a lot of Bob Balaban. He laughed and said he wasn't so sure that was a good thing.

Vermonter17032 said...

Ken,

Perfect choice for an under-appreciated classic. I love this film, and the way Paul Newman manipulates the press. It is the perfect revenge picture... without anyone being killed.

kent said...

As a Deputy D.A. I usually don't care for "Lawyer" movies. Even good ones like "The Verdict" are hard to take when you know how far from the reality of a courtroom they are willing to stray for dramatic effect.

Absence of Malice is an exception. In addition to all of the praise Ken heaped on it, it also happens to be dead-on as to the law. For all of those reasons, it has long been a favorite of mine.

kent said...

For another great film about journalistic ethics, see UNDER FIRE with Nick Nolte, Joanna Cassidy and Gene Hackman.

Michael E. said...

This was a good movie, and I enjoyed it for the most part. But it has a major flaw for me that I could never get over. Sally Field's character, as you said, was "unethical, inexperienced, and irresponsible" and her eagerness to get a hot story is what put Newman in the prosecutor's crosshairs. That's all very plausible. But what undermined the plot's credibility was the insistence--in the way she was portayed and in the way her editor talked to and about her--that she was some kind of ace reporter, the star of the staff. I guess because she was the female lead, and because she had to have some redeeming part of her soul for Newman to be attracted to her, we couldn't have her accurately portrayed as a naive and incompetent reporter who got played by her sources because they pegged her as a clueless pawn. That being said, the Newman revenge was very satisfying and I agree with everything said about Wilford B.

Anonymous said...

I watched this in the cinema when it first came out. I was only 12, but I still remember it well. I always try to watch it when it's on tv every few years, but I always end up missing a good chunk of it. One day I will rent it and see if my memories ring true or if my immature mind made up a lot as it tried desperately to understand the depth of this great film way back then.

Stacey