Judge Patrick Naugle speaks for the common man.
One girl will take on the system.
Norma Rae (Sally Field, The Amazing Spider-Man) and her family slave away at the local textile mill, a factory that supports Norma's rural town with brutal working conditions and terrible pay. Norma's mother (Barbara Baxley, East of Eden) has begun suffering from hearing loss due to the sound levels inside the mill, and her aging father, Vernon (Pat Hingle, Batman), is under scrutiny because of his diminished output on the factory line. Enter Rueben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman, Friends), a labor union representative who has come to unionize the town's mill. At first Rueben's union ideas are shunned, but as conditions at the mill seem to worsen, people in the town—including a determined Norma Rae—begin to rally around the idea of better a better working life. As Norma Rae's love life blossoms with a new husband (Beau Bridges, Rocketman) and her activism takes off—much to the ire of her boss (Noble Willingham, City Slickers)—she must decide how important a factory union is for both her family and the town.
I'm the last person who needs to tell you that Hollywood loves to glamorize everything. So many Hollywood productions take place in the hub of the wealth and privilege that it seems that's the rule, not the exception. Even when the studios stretch to make a movie about 'everyday folks', there's often a veneer over the story and characters that doesn't feel authentic. Hollywood has done a great job of taking everyday struggles and watering them down into easy-to-swallow pills that run hollow. While I enjoy escapism as much as the next guy, I also like to be reminded that there are people out there dealing with the same issues I am. I have the feeling a lot of moviegoers feel that way.
Director Martin Ritt's Norma Rae is one of the best films I've seen, showing but never wallowing in the tedium and tenacity of the working man. Unlike a lot of movies about blue collar workers, Norma Rae doesn't attempt to sugarcoat the story or characters. I was struck by the idea that I was observing real people dealing with real issues, not actors playing their parts. Although I knew there were famous faces on the screen—Field, Pat Hingle, and Ritt regular Noble Willingham—they were able to disappear into their characters and story. The sign of a movie that has done its job well.
Sally Field won an Oscar for her role as the title character, a woman who has made many mistakes in her life but is still smarter than most of the people in her rural town. Sally Field has the daunting task of making Norma Rae tough, vulnerable, likable, and intriguing. She succeeds. Norma Rae (based on the real life union activist Crystal Lee Sutton) is a woman you can't help but like. Field deftly balances toughness and empathy, especially when Norma is slapped around by a former lover. Equally as good and important is Ron Liebman as Reuben Warshowsky, the Jewish union organizer working in tandem with Norma. Reuben and Norma strike up a friendship and working relationship that feels genuine; in most Hollywood films, the twosome would actually realize they are in love and ride off into the sunset together. This never happens; instead Norma is saddled with the mediocre Sonny Webster (played by a sleepy eyed Beau Bridges), who loves Norma but can't wrap his head around why she's sacrificing so much for seemingly so little. The film unfolds as it should according to the characters and situations, not because of screenplay conventions.
Norma Rae is about bigger issues, but at its heart it's a simple story about people looking for a better life in America. That's what makes Norma Rae such a focused and fascinating movie. There aren't a lot of subplots, and what extra stories exist are only there to serve Norma's focus to bring the labor union to the dilapidated factory her family has worked at for decades. While the ending is a foregone conclusion (and sort of spoiled on the cover of the Blu-ray), how Norma Rae gets there is by showing simple, salt-of-the-earth folks working hard to achieve the American dream. That their dream has remained elusive for decades is the driving force behind Norma's quest.
Norma Rae (Blu-ray) is presented in 2.39:1/1080p HD widescreen, Fox's work on this transfer is quite good, especially considering its age. Though there's some grain to be found in the picture, it feels natural to the filming process and not because the transfer wasn't cleaned up. The image is generally sharp with solid color levels. The DTS-HD 1.0 Master Audio mix works very well. Though front heavy and doesn't feature any surrounds, it's a good representation of the original mono track. Also included are English, French, Spanish, Dutch, Japanese, and Italian subtitles.
Bonus features include a short half-hour featurette on the making of the film ("Hollywood Backstory: Norma Rae") and a theatrical trailer for the movie.
Norma Rae is a simple movie, told directly, with characters that resonate with viewers. Even thirty five years later, the film still possesses a quiet power that brings audiences to their feet.
Dignity and drama in the most mundane of workplaces. Not guilty.
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