Let me take you back to January 15-21, 1982. On that week temperatures across the U.S. hit 100-year record lows, NBA star Dwyane Wade and musician Joanna Newsom were born, Ozzy Osborne bit the head off of a bat on stage in Des Moines, Iowa, Little Me opened on Broadway, and Absence of Malice was the #1 movie in America.
We kid about Netflix crafting entertainment through a fancy algorithm while Absence of Malice was made 37 years ago. It is a complete entanglement of prestige cinema: part newspaper investigation, part gangster film, pairing a classic star in Paul Newman with recent Oscar winner Sally Field, directed by Hollywood stalwart Sydney Pollack. There’s intrigue, there’s a dangerous romance, there are procedural aspects. It is a big, polished piece of entertainment.
While Absence of Malice may not have held up in the cultural conversation as these many parts may have been designed to, this is precisely the type of film we are thinking about when calling one of today’s crowd pleasing, Oscar-baity prestige pictures feeling something like a classic form the previous era of cinema.
In the film, Field plays a tough newspaper reporter who catches wind of a connection between the seemingly clean son of a known mobster and a missing union leader. Unaware that her source has intentionally misled her to put pressure on Michael Gallagher [Newman], she becomes entangled in conspiracy and a potential romance.
The film was nominated for three Academy Awards, which must have helped its pre-ceremony box office. It was Paul Newman’s fifth Best Actor nomination, though his first since 1969, so this may have been seen as a comeback for the star -- though he never really went away during the 70s with work in popular films like The Sting, The Towering Inferno, and Slap Shot. Former newspaper editor Kurt Luedtke’s nominated script [he would win a few years later for Out of Africa] brings insider knowledge and terminology of the journalism profession.
Frankly, much of Absence of Malice is pretty dull. It might be too specific to journalistic lingo while also being a pretty cheesy [and insanely unprofessional] romance. Also, unlike most journalism films, this isn’t about the intellectual heroism of the profession, but actually a pretty bleak look at the repercussions of when the news gets it wrong -- this may be a timely theme, but creates for a strange tone. The film is saved, however, by a fantastic conclusion, a 20-minute scene with all the principal characters locked together in a room to deliberate the legal implications of what the plot has covered. Wilford Brimley of all people shows up as the scene’s moderator in a fantastic supporting turn. With all these ingredients together, I can see both how it ended up at the top of the box office and a possible influence on other films while also not surviving as a classic in its own right.
The most interesting thing about Absence of Malice’s success is unquestionably its journey to the #1 film in America. According to Box Office Mojo records, Absence of Malice took 9 whole weeks before landing at #1, a feat that makes it #2 for all films it has data for [A Fish Called Wanda was in theaters for 10 weeks before being tops]. This phenomenon was much more likely to happen in the 1980s when fewer released films allowed for longer runs and the most distributed films topped out at little more than a thousand screens. That isn’t to say it is completely unthinkable today, as the most recent film to hit #1 after 5 weeks in the theaters happened in 2015 with The Revenant, a film that had a very slow and gradual release schedule before going mass after a slew of award nominations. January is actually a pretty popular month for this to happen, as well, with 16 of the top 26 films on the list opening at the end of the year before hitting #1 during the doldrums of the notorious dumping ground month.