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.