Absence of Malice: Paul Newman’s Yellow Pocket Polo for a Picnic at Sea

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)


Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher, wholesale liquor distributor

Miami, Fall 1980

Film: Absence of Malice
Release Date: December 18, 1981
Director: Sydney Pollack
Costume Designer: Bernie Pollack


Ethan Hawke’s recently released HBO Max docuseries The Last Movie Stars chronicling Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward’s iconic marriage inspired me to respond to a few earlier requests analyzing the blue-eyed actor’s warm-weather everyman style in Absence of Malice, Sydney Pollack’s 1981 exploration of journalistic integrity.

Newman stars as Michael Gallagher, a Miami liquor wholesaler surprised to find himself the subject of a front-page Miami Standard newspaper story written by reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field), suggesting his potential involvement in the presumed murder of a local union official. He directly confronts Megan and her bosses to understand the basis for their claims, beginning a relationship with the reporter that ranges from contentious to flirtatious. Finally, Michael takes Megan up on her offer to listen to his side of the story, thus ostensibly ensuring that her reporting is as accurate and comprehensive a possible.

Michael: How long you got for lunch?
Megan: Long as I want!
Michael: Good job…

Megan slyly invites a photographer—the “weird” and conspicuous Walker (William Kerwin)—to follow them, but this part of the plan is foiled when Michael surprises her by inviting her to lunch on his yacht, the 1934-built “Rum Runner” so named in tribute to his bootlegger father.

What’d He Wear?

Michael Gallagher cycles through an everyman’s wardrobe of sport shirts, knitwear, the occasional suit, and then-fashionable outerwear like his khaki Derby jacket and safari jacket. The movie is set in the weeks leading up to Christmas, but December in Miami can feel like summer anywhere else, so Michael often wears no more than a shirt and trousers to keep cool while either laboring in his warehouse or at sea.

For his seagoing picnic with Megan, Michael wears a pale-yellow shirt made from a soft mid-weight jersey-knit cotton or cotton/synthetic blend. Styled like a traditional polo shirt, Michael’s short-sleeved shirt has a structured point collar and a three-button placket that he wears totally open down to mid-chest. The patch pocket over the left breast has a pointed flap that closes through a single mixed brown plastic button that matches the three on the placket. Michael’s shirt is additionally detailed with a straight shoulder yoke.

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

Michael’s blue denim bootcut jeans appear to be his usual Levi’s, with an orange tab—rather than the familiar red tab—that the brand used to denote non-basic cuts like bellbottoms and bootcuts from the 1960s through the ’90s. Levi’s currently offers the zip-fly 517™ Bootcut variety in a medium stonewash that would be an effectively modern update of Newman’s screen-worn denim.

Michael’s untucked shirt hem covers his waistband, but we can assume he holds his jeans up with one of his brown leather belts that close through brass-finished single-prong buckles of varying sizes.

Paul Newman and Sally Field in Absence of Malice (1981)

When lunching alone outside the warehouse, Michael had been dressed for work in his everyday cowboy boots, constructed with tan napped leather uppers worn to a dusty patina. After his plans change to include taking Megan out on his boat, Michael wisely swaps out his boots for a pair of off-white canvas sneakers, presumably with the non-slip siped soles that Paul A. Sperry developed in the 1930s for the Top-Siders intended to be worn on wet decks.

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

A change of plans calls for a change of shoes.

Evident by the record-breaking amount his Rolex Daytona yielded at auction, Paul Newman is one of the most prolific “watch guys” in Hollywood history, with his collection of interesting wristwatches well-chronicled both on- and off-screen.

Newman’s stainless steel watch in Absence of Malice boasts the signature octagonal bezel with lugs at each corner that characterized the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak from the time of its introduction in 1972… though, while indeed a Royal Oak, it’s not an Audemars Piguet. What?

Later in the ’70s, Bulova paid tribute to AP’s design by developing its own Royal Oak-style watch. The Bulova ref. 4420101 maintained Swiss designer Gérald Genta’s recognizable “diving helmet”-inspired 35mm case design, with both automatic and quartz movements available. You can read the history of the AP Royal Oak at Wrist Advisor and the Bulova homage at Analog:Shift.

Newman’s screen-worn watch appears to be the Bulova home that would fit the affluent Michael Gallagher’s practical sensibilities. His all-stainless watch has a dark blue waffle-textured dial with silver non-numeric hour markers and a darkened date window at the 3:00 position. Though most Royal Oak watches have a crown at the 3:00 position, Gallagher’s watch appears to have it at 4:00 as well as a five-piece link bracelet that differs from the standard Bulova integrated bracelet.

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

What to Imbibe

Michael serves Megan a can of his preferred Budweiser beer before lunch, though he pairs the meal with a chilled Barton & Guestier Pontet-Latour white Bordeaux.

Sally Field and Paul Newman in Absence of Malice (1981)

The Barton & Guestier (B&G) wine house was founded in 1725 when Irish merchant Thomas Barton arrived in Bordeaux. His grandson Hugh partnered with French trader Daniel Guestier in 1802 to officially form B&G, whose wines were growing an impressive international audience with orders from no less than then-President Thomas Jefferson.

Nearly two centuries later, B&G received even more executive branch attention when former President Richard Nixon visited its Château Magnol vineyard in 1981… the same year that Paul Newman and Sally Field split a bottle in Absence of Malice.

How to Get the Look

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

Paul Newman as Michael Gallagher in Absence of Malice (1981)

Michael Gallagher tends to dress for casual comfort during Miami’s warm winters, keeping it simple for a nautical lunchtime date—is it a date?—in a plain yellow polo and jeans that flatters Paul Newman’s athletic physique, with the smartly contextual swap of his cowboy boots for seagoing sneakers.

  • Light-yellow jersey-knit polo shirt with three-button placket and flapped breast pocket
  • Blue denim Levi’s bootcut jeans
  • Off-white canvas deck sneakers
  • Bulova “Royal Oak” ref. 4420101 stainless steel watch with 35mm case, octagonal bezel, round dark blue textured dial (with non-numeric hour markers and 3:00 date window), and steel five-piece link bracelet

Do Yourself a Favor and…

Check out the movie.

The Quote

One of those up-front ladies, huh?

One comment

  1. MarkG

    A great actor in one of his best roles. I’m told Newman took the role because a journalist chose to twist a statement Newman made about FORT APACHE, THE BRONX and make it look as though Newman was making a racist film. Fake news, if you will.
    Anyway, Newman is dressed just right for his character and the setting. That wonderful wine is a nice touch – my friends in the liquor trade always know the best products out there. I don’t know if it was scripted or devised by the actors but for a while we share Megan’s fear that Gallagher is planning a terrible nautical accident for her. Thanks for your nod to this great film, Luckystrike.

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