A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Norma Rae (Martin Ritt, 1979)

If Norma Rae were made today (which it wouldn't be), it would have to end with the owners closing the textile mill after the pro-union vote and shipping the jobs to Sri Lanka. Only two years after the movie was released, Ronald Reagan fired the striking air traffic controllers, giving impetus to the anti-union movement that persists to this day. Which is not just to say that Norma Rae is dated -- it was a bit that way at the time -- but that it persists in the memory largely because of Sally Field's breakthrough performance. It won her her first Oscar, and a well-deserved one: She carries the movie as few actresses have done before or since, freeing her from the trap that the TV series Gidget (1965-66) and The Flying Nun (1967-70) had caught her in. She had proved herself with the 1976 TV miniseries Sybil, for which she won an Emmy, but nothing demonstrated her ability to hold an audience in her grasp like Norma Rae. The screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. also earned an Oscar nomination, but it's scattered and sketchy, only touching lightly on the many elements of union organizing in the South -- racism, political chicanery, violence -- which are probably more important to understand than what the film focuses on: the grit and determination of one young textile worker and one stereotypically lefty Jewish organizer (Ron Leibman). Field has spoken of the difficulty faced by an actress even after she has won two Oscars -- her second was for Places in the Heart (Robert Benton, 1984) -- in finding challenging roles, and the career of Hilary Swank is a solid confirmation of that.