Friday, August 2, 2013

Classic Film Reviews: Norma Rae

By Liz Balderston

The HBO Bryant Park Summer Film Festival presented by Bank of America is excited to announce that this week’s film will be the ground-breaking “Norma Rae”. “Norma Rae” tells the story of a bold, brazen young woman fighting for workers’ rights. The title character is based on the life and achievements Crystal Lee Sutton, a textile worker and activist in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina where the battle for the workers union took place against a J.P Stevens Textile mill. Sutton’s fight was originally portrayed in New York Times reporter Henry P. Leiferman’s book Crystal Lee: A Woman of Inheritance, which in turn inspired the film.

Norma Rae, played by Sally Field, is a young mother of two and minimum-wage worker in a cotton mill. The factory in which she works has taken too much of a toll on the health of her family for her to continue to ignore the mill’s abhorrent working conditions. After hearing a speech by New York union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman), Norma Rae is persuaded to join the effort to unionize the mill. Although she is fighting for the benefit of her community and family, Norma Rae’s dissension leads to tension at home; her husband Sonny (Beau Bridges) tells her that she is not spending enough time at with her family and believes she is having an affair with Reuben. Despite the pressure brought to bear by management, Norma Rae successfully orchestrates a shutdown of the mill. One by one, the other workers stop their mill machines, and eventually, the entire room becomes silent, resulting in victory for the union and capitulation to its demands.

“Norma Rae” has received the highest praise a movie can garner: Field won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival for her portrayal of the character and an additional Oscar went to David Shire and Norman Gimbel for the film's theme song, "It Goes Like It Goes.” The movie was also nominated for six other Academy Awards. In 2011, Norma Rae was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant". The Registry said that the film "is less a polemical pro-union statement than a treatise about maturation, personal willpower, fairness and the empowerment of women."

The end of Summer is creeping up, so don’t miss an opportunity to enjoy a movie on the Lawn with some Hester Street Fair treats! The Lawn will open at 5 pm, and the movie will start around 9 pm, so grab a blanket, and we’ll see you there!

Norma Rae (1979)
Film: 'Norma Rae,' Mill-Town Story: Unionism in the South

New York Times
Published: March 2, 1979

BECAUSE so much of today's American labor movement seems to be too big and complicated to be easily understood, too rich to have time for the impoverished, and so powerful that its interests are as vested as those of any industry, stories about the early days of trade unionism have become expressions of a deep-seated, romantic longing. When the issues dividing labor and management can be clearly drawn, there is nothing quite as satisfying as collective effort to fight oppression. Workers are children of nature, born without sin. Bosses are devils. In such times faith can flourish. Salvation is not an abstract concept — it's a three-year contract.

These are sentiments that Martin Ritt, the director, and Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. (Mrs. Ravetch), his screenwriters, understand and fervently evoke in their often stirring new film, "Norma Rae." The movie, which opens today at Loews State 1 and other theaters, also provides Sally Field with the plum role of her career, an opportunity to demonstrate once and for all that she is an actress of dramatic intelligence and force, someone who no longer need be referred to in terms of her television credits.

As Norma Rae, a small-town Southern mill worker, a widow with one legitimate child and another born out of wedlock, a resilient young woman of no great education but a lot of common sense, Miss Field gives a performance that is as firm and funny as the set of her glass jaw — and just as full of risk. It's a role loaded with the kind of sentimental temptations that might side-track a lesser performer. Miss Field, though, has found its tough truth and stuck to it. The performance, which gives dimension to the film, may well be the one that those of other actresses are measured against this year.

"Norma Rae" does not take place in the dim dark past of trade unionism. It is set in today's rural South, where the idea of collective bargaining is considered roughly on a par with membership in a Communist cell. After all — though the movie doesn't stress this — the highly publicized industrial boom in the post-World War II South was largely the result of the cheaper (nonunion) wages that lured manufacturers away from the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states.

"Norma Rae" is about the efforts of one young New Yorker, a glib, fast-talking Jewish organizer named Reuben Marshasky (Ron Leibman) to bring justice to the tiny town where Norma Rae, her father (Pat Hingle), her mother (Barbara Baxley), her husband-to-be, Sonny (Beau Bridges), and virtually everyone else are dependent upon the cotton mill, the town's only industry.

The film's principal appeal, though, is not the manner in which this uphill struggle is fought and won, but in the way that Mr. Ritt, his writers and his cast reveal the natural resources of the characters — their grit, their emotional reserves and their complex feelings for one another. The politics of the film are worthy but they are never as surprising as the people, especially Norma Rae, whose personality is defined in her often comic, sometimes brutal, sometimes touching encounters with ex-husbands, lovers, children, parents, strangers.

The film, which was shot in Alabama, places its characters in a recognizable social contest that neither parodies nor patronizes them. In short, swift, effective scenes "Norma Rae" dramatizes the limits imposed on imaginations by both poverty and tradition. Norma Rae's father is as wary of the union as any stockholder. Her mother, on the edge of deafness because of the noise in the weaving room where she works, is apathetic. At the first opportunity Sonny leaves the mill and takes a job in a service station. Without the efforts of Reuben Marshasky and this one particular woman, life would have gone on as before.

"Norma Rae" is not without blemish. Mr. Ritt and the Ravetches, who've been collaborating on films since "Hud" and "The Long Hot Summer," persist in equating the awakened social conscience with literature not always of the highest order. It's an endearing but dopey conceit that I associate first with the work of Clifford Odets. When Norma Rae is having her consciousness raised, it's signaled by the report that she's reading Dylan Thomas — offscreen. The platonic affair between Norma Rae and Reuben, played by Mr. Leibman in the television-breezy manner of his "Kaz" role, is given more time than her rocky, equally interesting relationship with her husband, a role that Mr. Bridges invests with more heft than seems to have been written into the script.

There's also an unintentionally hilarious scene in which we see some local codgers sitting around a general store whittling, but they whittle with a ferocity that seems less down-home than Saturday Night Live.

These are small objections. "Norma Rae" is a seriously concerned contemporary drama, illuminated by some very good performances and one, Miss Field's, that is spectacular.

"Norma Rae," which has been rated PG ("parental guidance suggested"), contains some muted violence and mildly vulgar language.

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