Actress Melinda Dillon passed away on January 9 at the age of 83. She was best known for her role in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” which earned her an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress. Dillon received her second Academy Award nomination for the 1981 drama “Absence of Malice,” about the harm fake news can inflict on people.
Down in Miami, union boss Joey Diaz has been murdered but police have no suspects. Prosecutor Elliot Rosen (Bob Balaban) is looking for somebody to frame. His target of choice is liquor distributor Michael Gallagher, played by Paul Newman.
Rosen leaks a fake story that Gallagher, son of a deceased bootlegger, is under investigation in the Diaz case. Reporter Megan Carter, played by Sally Field, picks up the story and consults Davidek, the paper’s attorney, played by John Harkins. As he explains, “As a matter of law, the truth is irrelevant. 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.”
Carter discovers that at the time Diaz was killed, Gallagher had taken his Catholic friend Teresa Peron, played by Dillon, to Atlanta for an abortion. When that becomes public, Peron first tries to pick up all the newspapers, then she kills herself. When Megan Carter gets the news, she dares to approach Gallagher, who explodes.
“What the hell are you doing here? Details? Is that what you want? They found her naked in a tub. She didn’t even want to make a mess! No water, just naked. Are you interested?”
Gallagher leaves Carter in a disheveled heap, but she returns.
“Couldn’t you see what it meant to her?” Gallagher says. “Didn’t you like her?”
The guilt-stricken reporter then exposes Rosen as the source of the leak. The grieving Gallagher, his business and reputation in ruins, makes a plan.
He tells district attorney Quinn he will find out what he can about Diaz if Quinn will publicly drop the investigation. At the same time, Gallagher makes anonymous donations to Quinn’s campaign for mayor. Rosen thinks it’s a bribe and leaks the story to Carter who goes with it.
Enter James A. Wells, assistant U.S. attorney general, wonderfully played by Wilford Brimley.
“You call what’s going on around here a leak?” Wells says. “Boy, the last time there was a leak like this, Noah built hisself a boat.”
Rosen thinks he has a case, and Wells asks him to make it. Rosen shows Gallagher the checks to the Committee for a Better Miami, which backs Quinn. Gallagher said he sent them “because they do good work.” Rosen asks Gallagher why he made the donations anonymously.
“Because I wanted them to be anonymous,” Gallagher explains.
Rosen can’t prove that Gallagher intended to bribe Quinn. Gallagher is duly cleared, but the damage is done, and Teresa Peron is dead. Carter testifies that Rosen leaked the story.
“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 asks Rosen what he plans to do after government service. Rosen says he’s not going anywhere, but Wells tells him, “you got 30 days.” In other words, “you’re fired.” For the alert viewer, the parallels jump off the screen.
As the late Jerry Lee Lewis might have said, a whole lot of leaking has been going on. Consider, for example, the Russia hoax, where fake stories became the basis for FISA warrants and such. Trump fired Comey but key players in the FBI kept their jobs. They include FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith who falsified an email to say that Carter Page was not a CIA asset when in fact he was.
The judge in the case was James Boasberg of the U.S. District Court in Washington. Boasberg was also the presiding judge of the FISA court that approved warrants to spy on Page. Clinesmith suffered no criminal penalty and the D.C. bar even restored his law license. As this charade confirms, the deep state does not imitate cinematic art.
For a dramatization of fake news, it’s hard to top “Absence of Malice.” Newman’s performance drew an Academy Award nomination for best actor, but he lost to Henry Fonda in “On Golden Pond.” Let the viewers judge. Melinda Dillon lost to Maureen Stapleton for her role in Warren Beatty’s “Reds,” which was three-plus hours of leftist hagiography. If anybody thought politics was involved, it would be hard to blame them.
Paul Newman died in 2008, and Wilford Brimley departed in 2020. Now Dillon, who also appeared with Newman in “Slap Shot,” has left the set and the stage.
Long before “Close Encounters,” “A Christmas Story” and many other films, Dillon played “Honey,” in the original 1962 production of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf.” Not bad for an actress born in Hope, Arkansas, and raised in Cullman, Alabama. Safe to say, Melinda Dillon made it on talent alone.