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75th: Absence of Melinda

Two time Oscar nominee Melinda Dillon turns 75 today. Since we don't like any major actresses to totally fade from public consciousness when they stop working, let's look back. Though her last working year was 2007 her most recent high profile gig goes back much further to a SAG nomination as part of the ensemble of Magnolia (1999, pictured left) in which she played wife and mother to Phillip Baker Hall and Melora Walters. 

Though she'd been working for a decade before it in small parts (TV guest gigs and improvisational comedy) her first real claim-to-fame came as "Memphis Sue" Woody Guthrie's wife in the Best Picture nominated bio Bound for Glory (1976). She received a Golden Globe nomination for "Best Acting Debut" (a now long defunct category) even though it wasn't her debut. Dillon's breakout led to bigger parts and two well-regarded Oscar nominations though curiously the Globes, who had first honored her, skipped her both times when her major hits rolled around. Her first Oscar nod made actually history: as the wide-eyed young mother in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1976) she was and will forever remain the first actor to ever receive a nomination for a Steven Spielberg film (it wasn't until The Color Purple when anyone else followed). Later she was nominated as a particularly fragile soul and key character at the heart of a war in Absence of Malice (1981) between journalist Sally Field and businessman Paul Newman (also Oscar-nominated).

Melinda Dillon as "Teresa" in Absence of Malice (1981)

Though Dillon's heyday preceded the birth of my own film/actress obessions I remember getting the sense that she was a critical darling, the kind of actress with a devout if not populist following. By the time I was watching movies regularly and passionately though the roles were all mom roles sometimes with lots of screentime as in A Christmas Story (1983) and Harry and the Hendersons (1987) and sometimes on the peripheries as in those very blonde family flashbacks in Prince of Tides (1991) or "Merna" in To Wong Foo: Thanks for Everything Julie Newmar (1995).

If you're familiar with her work what's your favorite of her performances? If she could be coaxed out of her retirement what would you have her do?

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Reader Comments (12)

It's so good of you to spotlight an actress who has fallen out of the spotlight in recent years. Great to see she's still with us at 75.Thanks to annual showings of A Christmas Story, she will surely never leave the cultural consciousness.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick T

She was devastating in "Absence of Malice."

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSan FranCinema

I love her in "Staying Together", a 1989 film directed by Lee Grant. Dillon is terrific as the small town mother of Dermot Mulroney and Sean Astin. And her lovely version of "While We're Young" offers a perfect demonstration of how a great actress doesn't really need a conventionally "good" singing voice to make a song memorably affecting.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterKen

She really made the most of her limited screen time in Absence of Malice, but I tend to remember her from Prince of Tides.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTravis

I think the only things I've seen her in are Close Encounters and The Prince of Tides. I think she's excellent in Close Encounters. I need to see The Prince of Tides again, but I remember her being good in what was, if I remember rightly, quite a small role.

But yes, Close Encounters - fantastic performance. Thanks for spotlighting her.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEdward L.

I remember her very fondly. She's got two very-well deserved Oscar nominations and lost to great actresses. I'm sure she's enjoying her retirement.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Thanks so much for your wonderful post on Melinda Dillon. I have always loved this actress (although I have not seen Absence of Malice. I absolutely loved her small part in Magnolia-which is one of my all time favorite films.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDonny A

She is a wonderful actress and a unique presence with her slightly off-kilter voice and gangly physicality. Yes she was a well respected actress at her peak although always considered a character actress. Her work in Absence of Malice is sensational, surely the best thing in that somewhat messy picture but my favorite performance of hers is and always will be in A Christmas Story. Her chemistry with Darren McGavin is priceless.

It would be great if Wes Anderson or the Coen brothers could entice her back before the cameras.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I think her last scene with Baker Hall in Magnolia, as she talks to her husband so patiently and respectfully about what Claudia accuses him of having done. The moment she realizes he's lied about it for all these years, then gets mad and leaves saying "You should know better" is one of the best pieces of acting ever. I would actually like to see the whole scene without any cuts (the scene is probably cut four times to shift to another storyline). The women in that movie (except for Fellicity Huffman) really deliver strangely bold performances. I can't think of anyone who could play that character the way Melora Walters did. I true depiction of someone who is mentally damaged by abuse and copes with her bottomless pain by self-medicating. Julianne Moore also delivers an original creation by playing all the scenes on an 8, 9 or 10 level of intensity due to her histrionic personality disorder. April Grace as the interviewer really brought Tom Cruise to her level in their scene. He acts well because he is trying to match her. She should be a high-profile actress. Then, Melina Dillon in her outstanding work. We know exactly who that woman is (despite the little amount of screen time she is given) and the way she rushes to see her daughter is so heartbreaking.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMr. Goodbar

Great to remember this actress. I thought she was great in Magnolia ("You should know better!" is a line reading that still sticks in my head), and she richly deserved her two Oscar nominations. I thought she also deserved a nomination for A Christmas Story. She nailed that "kid's eye view" of a Midwestern mom from that era, but was also hilarious and had great chemistry with Darren McGavin (as joel noted above). He should've been nominated, too.

October 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSteve

Didn't Melinda Dillon originate the "Sandy Dennis role" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? That's how I remember it. If she had gotten the movie role she would probably have had an Oscar instead of Sandy Dennis. Personally I think Melinda Dillon is less distinctive but more versatile than Sandy. Don't hate me.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterDave in Alamitos Beach

Dave -- why hate you? I would agree with that assessment.

Joel - is she stylized enough for Wes? I think this is why he needs Anjelica back in his troupe though Tilda is a great addition.

October 14, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

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