Friday 1 February 2013

Movie Review: Norma Rae (1979)

The film that catapulted Sally Field from forgettable TV actress to major Hollywood star, Norma Rae is a gritty story of unions rising from the ashes of worker abuse.

In a small Alabama town circa 1978, the local textile factory is the only major employer. Workers suffer inhumane conditions, machinery cramped together, deafening sound levels, unbearable heat, and minimal breaks, all to earn meagre wages. Norma Rae (Field) works at the factory, as do her parents Vernon and Leona (Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley). Norma is also not far from being the town whore, already with two kids, no husband, and regular out-of-town businessmen seeking her services at the local motel. Vernon has long lost the battle to control his daughter's behaviour, but he continues to treat her like a child as she easily slips around his attempts to intervene in her private life.

Union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) arrives in town, the latest in a long line of well-meaning labour activists attempting to introduce unions to the textile industry. Reuben's progress in raising union awareness among the workers is excruciatingly slow, but he identifies Norma as the firebrand who can kick-start his campaign. Meanwhile, Norma falls in love and marries fellow worker Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), and her private life settles down. Eventually Reuben recruits Norma, but her dedication to the union cause results in long hours spent away from Sonny, resentment among some co-workers, and a looming battle with the plant's management.

Norma Rae features one of the most dramatic moments of 1970s cinema, Norma shutting down her machine, climbing onto it, and holding a hand-scrawled "UNION" sign on a piece of cardboard, waiting for her co-workers to join in her silent protest. It's the spine-tingling climax to the struggle for worker rights, and director Martin Ritt nails the lonely intensity of a single voice screaming without uttering a sound, a simple action drowning out not just words but an entire factory filled with deafening machinery.

Sally Field arrives as a big-screen presence, portraying Norma Rae as independent, determined, single-minded, the definition of feisty, but deeply flawed and with warts visible to all. Field embraces all of Norma, and her less heroic attributes are what contributes to her true heroism. Norma sleeps around, gets drunk, singularly ignores her husband who adores the ground she walks on, and gets dangerously close to an unhealthy obsession with the union cause and an infatuation with Reuben.

Her failings are what allow her to succeed, since she is no better than, and in many cases quite worse, than her co-workers, simply differentiated by passion and energy. Norma embracing the union cause can never become an imposition, since her humanity makes her just another member of the workforce, a case of leadership emerging from within the ranks, and Field finding the sweet spot where cute and likeable intersects with real and fiery.

Ron Leibman also shines, finding in Reuben Warshowsky the lonely struggle for dignity in the face of an entrenched order. Reuben is Jewish, urban and leftist, as outside as an outsider gets in small town Alabama, but this does not slow him down in the spirited pursuit of what he believes in. Reuben is fully aware that change will come only when he finds his Norma to spread the message inside the factory, but he is equally cognizant that he is the spark that has to light the first fire, which can only come from an outside culture. Leibman brings humour, self-depreciation, endless conviction and mounting melancholy to Reuben, a man forced to live in a succession of motel rooms and far away from those his loves.

Ritt's cameras repeatedly capture the cacophony inside a textile factory, workers shouting to be heard, machines clattering incessantly, steam flooding in to create suffocating humidity. Even the managers in their tiny, barren offices are prisoners of the concrete walls that tightly contain the factory noise. The workers are expected to work as hard as the machines, robotically repeating the same movements in the service of production with no regard for physical well-being. It's an environment where livelihoods are earned and lives lost in equal measures, a zero sum game where working facilitates a life not worth living.

To the credit of screenwriters Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch, the factory managers are not over-demonized. Rather, they are portrayed as men of their times, playing by the hard rules that required minimal worker respect and maximum profits, always toeing the line to remain barely on the right side of legal. Norma Rae is all the more real for avoiding the temptation to portray management as resorting to violence, threats, or brutish intimidation. Because ultimately, the struggle against insidious and prevailing normalcy is the hardest of all.

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