Absence of Malice (1981): Sydney Pollack’s Melodrama about Power of the Press Starring Paul Newman and Sally Field

Paul Newman and Sally Field star in Absence of Malice, Sydney Pollack’s controversial drama about the power of the press, written by former journalist Kurt Luedtke and dealing with reporters’ dangerous zeal and single-mindedness.

Some American films have portrayed journalists as cutthroat competitors (“The Front Page,” in its various versions), whereas others have stressed their roles as heroic sleuths (“All the President’s Men”). Absence of Malice attempts but doesn’t succeed to depict an accurate picture of the profession’s conflicts and dilemmas.

Field plays an over-eager reporter who takes shortcuts around journalistic ethics and prints a story that injures an innocent businessman (played by Paul Newman). The film disregards the fact that most newspapers have established some safeguards to prevent such injustices. It’s too late when Field says in the end, “The profession is worthy if well practiced;” by that time, she has lost credibility as a character and the audiences as viewers.

Newman soothes the fears of his friend Melinda Dillon, a teacher in a Catholic school, who has admitted to a reporter she has had an abortion. Field’s reporter causes damage to Teresa, behaving abominably, both professionally and personally “I am used to dealing with girlfriend,” she says early one, patronizingly, whereupon she proceeds to extract a painfully intimate confession from Teresa. She then threatens to print it and shows no patience for Teresa’s plea that this story will ruin her.

As Michael Gallagher, Newman is at his best in a role he has played throughout his career: The macho, alienated loner (he played similar roles in Hud, The Hustler, Fort Apache, the Bronx). Interestingly enough, Newman’s role was originally slated for Al Pacino. Here, as the innocent son of a known criminal, Newman excels in the role of the wronged businessman who gets his final revenge, but his acting did not get sufficient recognition Controversy over the film’s issues diverted attention from his performance.

Absence of Malice made newspapers appear more careless than they actually are. Others criticized the movie’s attack on female reporters through the clumsy, seductive, and manipulative conduct of Field.

Receiving a second Supporting Oscar nomination, Melinda Dillon is particularly moving in the unforgettable scenes just before she commits suicide, when she scampers across the lawns near her house, pathetically tries to snatch up the morning papers that will publicize her abortion.

The film is well acted by the leads as well as supporting ensemble, which includes Bob Balaban, Luther Adler, Josef Sommer, John Harkins, Don Hood, and Wilford Brimley.

Oscar Nominations
Actor: Paul Newman

Supporting Actress: Melinda Dillon

Screenplay (Original): Kurt Luedtke


Oscar Awards: None


Oscar Context:


The winner of the 1981 Best Actor Oscar was Henry Fonda for the melodrama “On Golden Pond.”  Maureen Stapleton won the Supporting Actress Oscar for Warren Beatty’s epic “Reds.”

The Original Screenplay Oscar went to Colin Welland for the British film “Chariots of Fire,” which also won Best Picture.


Released by Columbia
Produced and directed by Sydney Pollack
Screenplay: Kurt Luedtke
Camera: Owen Roizman
Editing: Sheldon Kahn
Music: Dave Grusin
Production design: Terence Marsh
Costume design: Bernie Pollack