1 Hr., 50 Mins.
Norma Rae September 24, 2018
Norma Rae (Sally Field), growing increasingly tired of the exploitation, no longer wants to be a cog. But while she protests working conditions regularly, she's helpless. Highers-up roll their eyes, as if they were dealing with an unreasonable diva wondering why a bottle of champagne wasn't chilled.
To hopefully ease Norma Rae’s furor, her bosses at one point promote her to the status of the “spot checker,” a position which entails she wander around the factory to make sure everyone’s on their best behavior. But that cannot put the kibosh on her anger. There’s got to be something that can be done to alleviate the pains brought on by this terribly paying, perk-shirking, unabashedly hazardous, frustratingly inescapable blue-collar work.
In Norma Rae (1979), a spry, fact-based comedy-drama, something will be done. Partially because there comes a moment where its eponymous heroine decides she sincerely can’t take it anymore; partially because, early in the movie, a charismatic union organizer named Reuben (Ron Leibman) comes to town, has a handful of crackling chance encounters with Norma Rae, and essentially makes her his right-hand man in unionizing her shop.
You might know by now that the film culminates in the installation of that union. You might also know that that breakthrough is prefaced by an iconic, oft-referenced moment in which Field climbs on top of a work table, her skin dewy with sweat and her hair rumpled, defiantly holding a sign that reads “Union.” Her co-workers and employees sit aghast for a few seconds before figuring out how exactly to respond.
The film is based on the real-life experiences of the advocate and union-organizer Crystal Lee Sutton, whose story was, in turn, detailed in a 1975 biography by the New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann.
Arguably, one of Norma Rae’s utmost accomplishments is that it doesn’t feel like an obvious page-to-screen lifting. Features based on a true story are disposed to sticking too closely to the tale they’re trying to dramatize, forgoing gradated characterizations in favor of narrative zest.
This film, by contrast, is character-driven. Norma Rae’s screenwriters, Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, are smart enough to know that feigning expertise in the subject matter might either be misleading or optimistic (or both). The movie, then, becomes more about small-town people and how they respond to their injustice-tainted lives. A lazier feature would take the topic-first route.
While watching Norma Rae, I was reminded of Mike Nichols’ Silkwood (1983), the Meryl Streep vehicle about the whistleblower Karen Silkwood. Although that film was also founded on a compelling, vaguely sinister plot, it is a great (rather than good) movie because it understands that the characters, and the way their respective neuroses mingle with others, are always going to be more interesting than even the most action-packed of a narrative.
Like Silkwood, which was built off a three-way repartee, Norma Rae is also most defined by a triumvirate. In addition to circling about its titular heroine’s rediscovery of herself, the film pokes at Norma Rae’s relationships with Reuben and a co-worker named Sonny (Beau Bridges), whom our protagonist marries midway through the feature because he takes a chance and proposes and seems decent enough. The rapports are captivating both because they’re delicately written and because the parts are fastidiously performed. (Sonny, I think, would have been a dispensable good ol’ boy if he were played by someone missing Bridges’ élan.)
Field and Leibman are especially good here. The Norma Rae part, which demands a protuberant accent and empowering monologues en masse, has the potential to demonstrate Oscar-goading vulgarity. But Field, still most associated with the surfer gal and flying nun roles of the earlier portion of her career, italicizes the humanity of the part. This is a once-unprotected woman who has suddenly been offered the opportunity to do something transcendent and accepts it. The most magniloquent of moments are organically cathartic rather than affected or gratuitously big. Leibman, heedful and appealing, imbues his performance with quotidian charm, playing wonderfully opposite his co-star.
The film doesn’t contain any surprising jolts. Tonally and narratively, it resembles the greater sum of activist-steeped docudramas. But foreseeability wasn’t on my mind very much while watching Norma Rae. How its characters lived and interacted, and how the movie reached its assortment of sub-climaxes, was what counted. A-
orma Rae, a young, single mother, is a cog in a machine. The machine is a cotton mill in the south, where the air’s stuffy and polluted and where the equipment is so loud that prematurely going deaf after years of tending to it is not uncommon. Breaks are scarce, sitting is never permitted, and benefits are nonexistent. Misery reigns. Trouble is, the employees — all living in an impoverished town in North Carolina — don’t have another option. The textile industry dominates this near-anonymous whistle-stop, and they can get away with abuse.