Perfect, I thought when I realized “Absence of Malice,” the next movie on the syllabus for my journalism in film class, stars the exceptionally handsome Paul Newman. A month before, we had watched “The Killing Fields,” and Sam Waterston was more than I could ask for when sitting through a film for two class periods. Now, Newman was icing on the cake.
Sadly, my initial joy over watching this film died about half an hour in. Already, I knew getting to watch both of these actors in the same class was too good to be true. “The Killing Fields” was an incredible experience for me; watching “Absence of Malice” was not.
In “Absence of Malice,” Sally Field plays Meg Carter, a self-centered female journalist fighting to be seriously acknowledged in the workplace. I admit, I am not the biggest Sally Field fan, but I’m certain that her casting as Carter is not what put me off. What made me so adverse to Carter was honestly Carter herself. She’s manipulative and insensitive, and in no way did I appreciate her want of fame. She is desperate for a byline that will make her important and notable, but on her climb to that, she leaves ruin in her wake.
By the end of the film I had determined that no matter how dreamy he may be, for me Paul Newman does not redeem “Absence of Malice.” He cannot redeem it. For an hour and fifty-six minutes, I had followed this (overly-)ambitious reporter too preoccupied with her own desires to consider about the desires of anyone else. Yes, I got some wonderful views of a silver-haired Newman in shirtsleeves, but was it really worth it when I could just rewatch “The Verdict” instead? As the credits for “Absence of Malice” rolled, I decided that this verdict was no.
However, ultimately it doesn’t matter what I decide. My sentiments towards Carter are just that, mine—in no way can I let that stand for the overall assessment of Sydney Pollack’s film. To an extent, Carter was intended to be unlikable; it’s the way her character is scripted. In fact, every part of the film seems intentional: from the unique score, which sometimes even sounds like mainstream music, to its dialogue-heavy script.
Acting is another area in which “Absence of Malice” shows its deliberateness. Sally Field and Paul Newman especially play their respective parts convincingly enough that believing they actually lived through these events does not seem like much of a stretch. The film also excels aesthetically: The coloring is rich and saturated, especially during scenes that take place outside: Carter and Gallagher at the boat docks, Gallagher and Malderone at the playground and Gallagher and Quinn in the park, just to name a few.
No doubt, “Absence of Malice” is a work of art (and I’m talking about more than just Newman’s pretty baby blues). Despite my personal feelings, I recognize that this film, like all films, must be looked at objectively. Whether or not I like her does not mean that the character of Carter is not as elegantly crafted and artfully executed as every other aspect of the film.
No one can convince me that Sam Waterston and Paul Newman are not beautiful, beautiful men. But I am willing to contend that my bias against “Absence of Malice” is heavy—and like “The Killing Fields,” the film itself is great, even if this time, my experience was not.