Saturday, April 5, 2014

Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt)

If Norma Rae had been a sleeper or "undiscovered gem" I'd probably have seen it long ago, but it's an Oscar-winner and I can't deny sometimes turning my nose up at such films.  My loss.  I finally saw Martin Ritt's rousing and intelligent drama last night via Fox's new Blu-ray, which sports a very film-like image.  Sally Field deservedly won her first Academy Award for Best Actress in the title role, a small town North Carolina factory worker who bravely works with a New York labor organizer (an excellent Ron Leibman) to unionize the textile mill where she and most of her fellow townspeople have slaved away for generations, under terrible conditions.

Inspired by the story of textile worker Cheryl Lee Sutton, Ritt's film is one of the great progressive films to somehow escape from Hollywood into the's strongly pro-worker, pro-women, and advocates for cooperation and camaraderie amongst people of different racial, ethnic, religious, social, and geographic backgrounds.  Like James Bridges' The China Syndrome, also released in 1979, it is an impassioned cry against injustices perpetrated by a powerful, established foe--in this case, management and big business.  Both films have strong female protagonists (Jane Fonda in China Syndrome) who become more radicalized and learn to fight as the films progress.  With the Reagan era just around the corner, it's a minor miracle that these uncompromising, undeniably left-leaning, cinematic indictments of the establishment were even greenlit.

I can't say I was ever a big fan of Field's, but then with one role--Norma Rae, in this case--I was completely won over. She's thoroughly convincing as a single mother from the Deep South, with minimal education, an active (and unfairly maligned) sex life, a rebellious streak, toughness, and a willingness and desire to step outside her comfort zone in order to better herself and her loved ones, i.e. trusting and teaming up with a Northern Jew in order to bring a union to the factory.

I never felt like Field was acting here or having to try very hard to affect a working-class brio; it seems to come naturally to her and I felt that this "organic" quality extended to the rest of the film.  Ritt and screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch do a fine a job of not beating their message over viewers' heads.  I think of it as a more of a massage, in comparison to others in the same canon such as Erin Brockovich, which I admittedly haven't seen in years, but which I recall as being much louder and less subtle.

Norma Rae is a smart, well-crafted piece, which doesn't resort to cheap tricks or get overly or falsely sentimental; these are things I can't always put exactly into words, but I know them when I see them and they are anathema to me.  As an example of the film's admirable restraint in this regard, composer David Shire is one of the best in his field, but his music is used sparingly here; to the film's credit, its most dramatic and moving moments play in a more documentary-like fashion, with very little non-diegetic sounds such as a dramatic score. In fact, the sound you will probably most remember after watching Norma Rae is that of the extremely loud factory machinery, which the characters are constantly competing with to be heard.  It's a nice analogy for the overall narrative, if you like that sort of thing.

The fine supporting cast includes the aforementioned Leibman, who should have gotten some Supporting Actor nominations for his work here.  Leibman has many fine moments in the film, none more so than his moving, chivalrous farewell scene with Field, which confounds not only audience expectations, but also Norma Rae's.

As Norma Rae's dim, but decent new husband, Beau Bridges has less screen time than Leibman, though he is, as always, a welcome presence.  I got a kick out of the scene where he bemoans Norma Rae holding a union meeting in their home, particularly because there are black men attending, all while wearing a t-shirt with a faded Woodstock logo...this dichotomy is apt for his character, who is looser and more liberal than most folks in their staunchly Baptist town, but who will not cross all the lines that Norma Rae is willing to.

Sharp-eyed viewers will note that Field's onscreen time with Beau, was sandwiched by love interest roles with brother Jeff in Bob Rafelson's Stay Hungry and Robert Mulligan's Kiss Me Goodbye. Almost romantic rivals in Norma Rae, Leibman and Bridges earlier played best pals in Douglas Schwartz's 1973 buddy road movie Your Three Minutes Are Up!.

There's no shortage of top '70s character talent filling out the rest of the cast, a number of whom are sadly no longer with us: Pat Hingle, Barbara Baxley, Gail Strickland, Bob Minor, Frank McRae, Morgan Paull, Noble Willingham, Gregory Walcott, James Luisi, John Calvin, and Grace Zabriskie (who would play a factory worker again a few years later in An Officer and a Gentleman), among others.  You might not recognize all of them by name, but you will know their faces.

Sutton apparently was not happy with the film at the time of its release, which is unfortunate because I think it's a beautiful tribute to her fighting spirit.  In a tragic example of history seeming to repeat itself, years later, she had to fight with her health insurance company in order to get coverage for the brain cancer that would eventually kill her, losing precious time to start her medical treatments.

In addition to composer Shire, notable tech credits belong to editor Sidney Levin (Nashville, Mean Streets, and several other Ritt titles) and d.p. John A. Alonzo (Chinatown, Scarface, Harold and Maude) who shot the film in the surprising (to me, anyway), but ultimately apt 'scope ratio; the extra wide 2.35:1 framing is ideal for the machinery and worker-filled factory floors where so much of the film is staged. The aforementioned Blu-ray does a superb job of recreating the original look of this film for home consumption.  There is no unsightly grain reduction or over-brightening.  It was an ideal way to get acquainted with this exceptional film.

Field has often been ridiculed because of her "You like me!" speech when accepting the Oscar for Best Actress for Places in the Heart.  That said, I think her acceptance speech for Norma Rae, like her performance in the film, is right on...she is genuinely appreciative of everyone who helped her earn that award, and it's quite moving as far as these types of speeches go.


Tiffany Perez-King said...

NM - Thanks for your great post on Norma Rae and Martin Ritt. Its a wonderful movie in many ways and you really zero in on what is great about it. Lots of praise worthy elements. You also bring up some great points about that great and disappearing tradition of true progressive thinking and ideology in film (and elsewhere i guess).
I think Martin Ritt's films had a sweet, basic humanism to them that my family and i really connected with. I saw many of his films with my working class mom and dad and i remember that they seemed to really like them.
His films had a wonderful, decent flavor to them. I have seen many from this period of the 70s and 80s and the shared the mileu of the South, and class awareness and a real point of view. I saw BackRoads (his follow-up to Norma Rae) at a seedy 2nd run movie house in the run down part of Miami at the Circle Theater. Part of a double feature for $1.50 It's lightweight sort of It Happened One Night with Southern, 'Down on Their Luck' Characters. It's deff a weird little Hollywood thing with a studly leading man performance from Tommy Lee Jones opposite Field as a Hooker - but not the Gritty Norma Rae kind, more like the kind in a movie Norma Rae would watch - but it's deff worth a peek. As a Floridian we love Cross Creek (even though it's a little boring) cause it's about a Florida Saint - and Murphy's Romance with James Garner (and Field again) - has a neat scene where Murphy/Garner walks out of a Slasher flick and has a nice monoluoge about how that's not what he goes to the movies for - i imagine that must have been Ritt's thinking too.

Tiffany Perez-King said...

Post Part II: Some of my faves of Ritt's films are Conrack (based on the novel The Water is Wide , part of the trilogy of author Pat Conroy's life that includes The Great Santini & The Lords of Discipline - two movies I like - that deal powerfully with race, class and again, The South, as Conrack does, Conrack may be the leats widely seen of those three. And of course Sounder, which i think many consider a classic. I certainly do. My favorite of his films is The Front. That movie is full of so much great stuff that it hurts - and you know what? Watch it and then watch Annie Hall - Annie Hall is one of the greatest flicks ever made in my op, but i think it borrows a bit of style from The Front - it's deff the film he did after, where The Woodman's style changed noticibly. Maybe it wasn't just Gordy Wilis - maybe it was this too, i think there's evidence in The Front's cutting and framing to justify saying - this flick influenced Annie Hall.
If you grew up watching films and television in the 70s you were dealing with work made by people who had seen first hand what can happen when people lose the best parts of thier humanity - and they never let us forget it. Even the slightest entertainments had the rush of a kind responsible spirit - I think you can trace the work of progressives like Ritt or Humanists like Paul Mazursky or liberals like Norman Lear to creating a tapestry of work that really wove questions of morality into what were uncompromising entertainments. You can still feel the rush of that era's power of communication , even if you can't trace it to modern work.
I think an exception and example of how much of that kind of thinking permeated the minds of kids like us - it wasn't just what our families told us - it was what was reflected and questioned in TV and Film. The low-key stuff Ritt did? The only other filmmaker who's in that wheel house is ,,, maybe John Sayles? But Ritt - in making Hollywood movies I think has pulled off a greater trick. I think of Martin Ritt as one of those guys with a healthy , well thought-out, chip on his shoulder towards some better way of behaving - but without any sort of condescension. I think his movies are very fine and i really appreciate the 360 approach to Norma Rae in your write up. Sad to say i've never seen Spy Who Came in from the Cold or even HUD (i know. sorry) my experience with Ritt is straight from the (2nd run) movie house (which really is where so many of his characters would prob wind up watching a film). I haven't seen his later work which strike me as maybe work for hire - not sure how much of his later material he developed originally - but i have always liked his approach to his characters.
Thanks again for a wonderful piece.

Ned Merrill said...

Thanks, as usual BT, for the most entertaining reflections and memories as they relate to the topic at hand, in this case NORMA RAE, Martin Ritt, and Sally Field. I really do need to see CONRACK and THE FRONT.