From our files: A conversation with Paul Newman
The Monitor spoke with the late actor and director in 1981 about selecting roles, plots that challenge an audience, and journalism.
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Ironically, the movie might have been more "cautionary" and more effective if it had gone about its own business more singlemindedly. "Absence of Malice" is an unusually thoughtful film, by current standards, requiring a fair amount of brain-power just to follow its convoluted plot, much less mediate on its meanings. But besides raising a few hackles and raking a bit of muck, it wants to be a glossy Hollywood entertainment, too. Inordinate time and energy are diverted into the love angle, which is goopy despite tasteful treatment by the filmmakers.Skip to next paragraph
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Too little care is spent on the reporter character: You wonder how anyone who means so well could do everything so badly, and how she wangled herself into a big-time newsroom in the first place. And then there's poor Melinda Dillon, dragged into the plot solely to suffer a tragic fate, in a potential devastating segment that seems rather academic under the solid but uninspired guidance of director Sydney Pollack.
Still in all, despite its considerable flaws, "Absence of Malice" is a movie to be grateful for at a time when few films offer anything in the way of social relevance or inner integrity. Newman is proud of the picture's cerebral slant, stating that its challenging story line and refusal to give easy answers were entirely conscious choices. Will audiences approach the picture with the necessary concentration, though, or have too many childish movies dulled the appetite for hard issues and ambiguous conclusions?
"We'll see," says Newman with a smile. "Nobody can second-guess an audience, and I wouldn't have the arrogance to try. It's true audiences get seduced by easy movies they don't have to put anything into. And it's true the viewer has to work in this film. But somewhere along the line, there has to be a screaming protest against all the junk. Somewhere out there, there must be people who are fed up with baby food, and want to work a little. They want something a bit more challenging. They can handle it, if it's interesting and good."
What does Newman look for when he's considering a script? "Who knows?" is the laconic reply. "I wish I could pin it down, but I've never been able to."
Then he thinks for a moment, and waxes a bit more philosophical, pointing out that "there are only a few plots in the world, anyway. All that changes are the characters you can play, because a few new ones are added by technology from time to time - astronauts, for example, or certain kinds of doctors that didn't exist a few years ago. For the rest, it's just a question of presenting a basically familiar story in some new way. What I look for is a new envelope to put the same old letter in."