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Norma Rae (Sally Field) is a single mum with a reputation for sleeping around, but at the Henley Textile Mills she is just another exploited worker enduring appalling conditions, just like her father (Pat Hingle) and grandfather before her. That is until Reuben (Ron Leibman), an earnest New York labor organiser awakens the dormant anger within her when he comes to the Alabama backwater determined to improve conditions by bringing the workers under the union umbrella. The mill-hands are at first suspicious, but Norma Rae soon sees management for the slave drivers they are and joins Reuben in his cause, much to the consternation of new husband Sonny (Beau Bridges) who expected Norma Rae to become a respectable small town mouse...and not one who roars.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Sally Field looked set for a mediocre career. She was cute and perky with a button nose and a sexy figure and she was so right for Gidget, a featherweight 1965-66 TV series about a cheeky California teen. It was almost a backward step playing Sister Bertrille in The Flying Nun for three years before her breakthrough came in the last of many modest TV movies. As Sybil (1977), Field won an Emmy for portraying a girl with multiple personalities. People now knew that she could act but new boyfriend Burt Reynolds could offer nothing more substantial than sidekick roles in films like Smokey And The Bandit and Hooper. She was hardly "hot" property, but she was cooling by the minute when Martin Ritt was casting around for Norma Rae, the true story of a textile worker who discovers her independence when she becomes active in the unionisation of an Alabama mill. Jane Fonda turned it down; Jill Clayburgh, Diane Keaton, Faye Dunaway and Marsha Mason followed before the script finally landed on Sally Field's doorstep. Reynolds read it and told Sally she would win an Oscar if she did it...and the rest, as they say, is history.

The film begins with a soothing ballad (It Goes Like It Goes) that evokes a bucolic mood before it shifts abruptly to the noise and hubbub of the mill-room floor; lines and lines of whirring machines like so many rows of battery hens heaving and chugging while throngs of sweaty workers endure another day of toil and time-clock. Reuben appears at the wire fence handing out union leaflets urging the downtrodden to join. Norma Rae's dad is unimpressed: "You're all communists, agitators, crooks or Jews; sometimes all four rolled together." But when Reuben is told of the pittance the old man is earning, he retorts, "sir, you are underpaid, overworked and they are shafting you right up to your tonsils." Norma Rae gets interested. She has already been tagged as "the biggest mouth in the mill" by her bosses, who don't seem to realise that the days of slavery in the South are over. "Give us longer breaks; give us more smoking time; give us a Kotex pad machine," she demands. To shut her up they offer her a token promotion, but the ploy wins her no friends and so she returns in a huff to those relentless machines with the seeds of revolt set to sprout. In many respects, the film was a groundbreaker which bridged religious barriers between Christians and Jews; urged black and white to unite for a common cause and championed women with the courage to take a political stance while the husband is left to cope with domestic concerns.

Not the least of its virtues is its refusal to succumb to the Hollywood cliché...which I won't spoil, except to say that the deepening relationship between activist and acolyte develops not as you might expect. This part of the story is handled with a subtle sexual tension; Reuben dabs at her injured nose and goes skinny-dipping with Norma Rae on a sweltering day; he has a girl back home; she has a jealous husband. We await the inevitable but Ritt is full of surprises. The tough-talking script is literate and is not without humor. When the management strong-arms Norma Rae for her militancy and she is bundled off to the slammer, Reuben is not there for false sympathy when she is released in tears. "I know the first time you're in is bad," he says. "It comes with the job. I saw a pregnant woman on a picket line get hit in the stomach with a club. I saw a boy of 16 shot in the back. I saw a guy blown to hell and back when he tried to start his car...you just got your feet wet on this one."

This is all part of Norma Rae's getting of wisdom. Field gave her all in that scene, by the way. Kicking and thrashing in an effort to free herself from the grip of her captors, she broke a rib on one of them. Funky, feisty, sassy and stubborn, Sally does indeed have a field day and she richly deserved her Oscar but Leibman's precision support was cruelly overlooked. He never had a better role, but at least he had this one. There are a few imperfections. When Norma Rae's dad has a final day on the job, the reactions of his wife (Barbara Baxley in a sadly underwritten role) and daughter are oddly muted and while Ritt fills his frames with great hard-yakka faces he is loath to allow them much character. Norma Rae, of course, has a triumphant stand-alone moment that is as moving and as memorable as any victory over any oppressor.

And, so moved, the Oscar-winning song (sung by Jennifer Warnes) begins a spine-tingling refrain: "It goes like it goes and the river flows, and time keeps rollin' on. And maybe what's good gets a little bit better, and maybe what's bad gets gone." Well, in hindsight, there's a solemn irony to all this sentiment and breast-beating. After the people had "won" at the real-life J. P. Stevens mill it took ten years to finalise a union contract. Labor costs have since driven many western textile mills out of business...except those that moved to exploit cheap labor off-shore.

Published February 3, 2005

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(US, 1979)

CAST: Sally Field, Ron Leibman, Beau Bridges

DIRECTOR: Martin Ritt

SCRIPT: Irving Ravetch, Harriet Frank jnr

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes

PRESENTATION: 16 x 9; 2.0. English


DVD DISTRIBUTOR: 20th Century Fox Entertainment

DVD RELEASE: February 9, 2005

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