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You can't really blame people who work in the movie industry, especiallybig-money stars and directors, for mistrusting the media. Unsubstantiatedgossip has long been a staple of entertainment coverage. But a lot ofprincipled newspaper reporters took offense at Sydney Pollack's Absenceof Malice (1981), and what they considered to be a reverse smear campaign byPollack, and the film's notoriously press-weary star, Paul Newman. Never mindthat first-time screenwriter Kurt Luedtke was inspired by the case of aWashington Post correspondent who won a Pulitzer Prize for whatturned out to be a fabricated story (she had to return the prize, ofcourse). It also didn't matter that Luedtke was a former reporter forThe Detroit Free Press. This one ruffled a few mediafeathers.
Newman stars as Michael Gallagher, a Miami-based beer distributor whosedeceased father was a powerful mob figure. Gallagher's dad always protectedhim from the inner workings of the crime world, so he's grown up as a straight arrow, his only connection to the past being his still-crooked UncleSantos (Luther Adler). Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban), a scheming federalinvestigator, wrongly believes that Gallagher knows the story behind thedisappearance of an important labor leader and will do anything to nailGallagher.
One day, while talking to a newspaper reporter named Megan Carter (SallyField), Rosen leaves his office and just "happens" to place Gallagher'sfolder on his desk. Carter takes a peek and winds up writing a story that implicates Gallagher in the crime. But Gallagher has an alibi - he was in Atlanta at the time, where he washelping a close friend (Melinda Dillon) arrange an abortion. When Cartertries to fix things by writing a too-blunt retraction of her original story,a tragedy occurs. This leads to a complicated ruse by Gallagher that turnsthe tables on the reporter and newspaper who besmirched his goodname.
In a nutshell, a lot of real-life reporters (and some audience members)weren't buying that a woman in Carter's position would quickly rifle througha file when no one was looking, then write a semi-imagined story based onwhat she saw. Luedtke's argument was that this particular reporter did justthat, but that doesn't mean every reporter on earth would do the same thing.Besides, he said, 'I don't walk out of a "bad cop" movie saying what I havebeen told is that the police are bad people."
In an interview at the time of the film's release, Newman made it abundantlyclear how he feels about the media: "I would say that 90% of what peopleread about me in the newspapers is untrue. Ninety percent is garbage.(Reporters) are expected to come up with something sensational every nightof the week to keep their readers' noses buried in the pages, and, well, youtell me. If nothing's happening, what do you do? Well, in their case, theymake it up."
But that barrage came later. First, there was a press conference/luncheonfeaturing Newman, Field, Pollack, and others at New York City_s Tavern onthe Green restaurant. What started out as a glowing ember of discontentamong reporters turned into a raging fire by the time Newman and Field weredone answering questions. When a reporter from the sensationalist tabloidThe New York Post introduced herself to Field, the actress responded,"Wouldn't you rather say you're from someplace else?," despite the fact thatthe actress recently participated in a perfectly cordial interview withthe paper. Then, when Newman was introduced to the Post's DianaMaychick, he bluntly snapped, "I hate your paper."
Newman's trademark blue eyes didn't work their charm this time. In anarticle in The Village Voice, Arthur Bell, who was at the luncheon,described the overriding vibe: "Over veal and carrots, (Newman) played theguru with all the philosophically correct answers, and his performancedidn't sit too well. Are we supposed to write attractive copy about one ofthe most bankable movie stars in the world when he obviously doesn't like usand is using the press to make him more bankable for his nextproject?"
The answer to that one was obviously "no," since many writers tore intoNewman, and what they considered to be the lopsided screenplay, with avengeance. Nevertheless, this is an interesting picture that asksincreasingly important questions about the consequencesof shoddy news reporting. Perhaps the Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter,Lucinda Franks - she got to keep her prize - put it best in The ColumbiaJournalism Review when she wrote that B>Absence of Malice isunbelievable not because Fields' reporter and her editor are unethical, butbecause they're so stupid.
You be the judge, but be prepared to back your position up with facts. Andtry to find a corroborating source.
Directed by: Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Kurt Luedtke
Producer: Sydney PollackCinematography: Owen Roizman
Editing: Sheldon Kahn
Music: Dave Grusin
Production Design: Terence Marsh
Set Decoration: John Franco, Jr.
Costume Design: Bernie Pollack
Principal Cast: Paul Newman (Michael Gallagher), Sally Field (Megan Carter),Bob Balaban (Elliot Rosen), Melinda Dillon (Teresa Perrone), Luther Adler(Santos Malderone), Barry Primus (Bob Waddell), Wilford Brimley (James A.Wells).
C-117m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Paul Tatara