Lessons from Wilford Brimley’s Best Performance

Actor Wilford Brimley passed away last week at the age of 85. Obituaries hailed the “mustachioed” actor’s roles in Cocoon, The Natural and The Thing but passed over what may have been his most convincing performance. 

In the 1981 film Absence of Malice, Miami union boss Joey Diaz has been murdered but the authorities have no suspects. Prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) targets liquor distributor Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), son of a deceased gangster. Rosen leaks a fake story that Gallagher is under investigation in the Diaz case.

Reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) consults Davidek, the newspaper’s attorney, played by John Harkins. “As a matter of law, the truth is irrelevant,” he explains. “We have no knowledge the story is false, therefore we’re absent malice. We’ve been both reasonable and prudent, therefore we’re not negligent. We can say what we like about him. He can’t do us harm. Democracy is served.”

The leaked story causes Gallagher considerable harm, but he pulls off some tricks of his own. Through anonymous donation to the Committee for a Better Miami, Gallagher makes it appear that the district attorney is taking bribes. That brings in U.S. Attorney James A. Wells, wonderfully played by Wilford Brimley. Wells asks Rosen to make his case, and he asks Gallagher why he made the donations anonymously. “Because I wanted them to be anonymous,” Gallagher calmly explains. Rosen says the payments were bribes and Gallagher responds, “Prove it.” The innocent Gallagher is duly cleared, but the damage is done.

“We can’t have people go around leaking stuff for their own reasons,” Wells says. “It ain’t legal, and worse than that, by God, it ain’t right.” Wells suggest that the district attorney resign then asks Rosen what he plans do after government service. Rosen says he’s not going anywhere. Wells replies, “You got thirty days.” 

Off the screen, politicians, bureaucrats corrupt prosecutors seldom suffer any consequences for their actions. Still, few movies dramatize public corruption in such convincing style, and Absence of Malice does not neglect the media. Megan Carter reveals that Gallagher’s friend Teresa Peron, a Catholic, had an abortion. Peron then commits suicide and a distressed Carter seeks out Gallagher. “Couldn’t you see what it meant to her?” Gallagher says. “Didn’t you like her?” 

It’s a powerful scene, surely one of Paul Newman’s best. For that reason and many others, Absence of Malice is still worth a look.

K. Lloyd Billingsley is a Policy Fellow at the Independent Institute and a columnist at American Greatness.
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