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USA 1979
Directed by
Martin Ritt
113 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

Norma Rae

Scripted by Irving Ravetch and his wife, Harriet Frank Jr,. who had been collaborating with director Martin Ritt  since The Long Hot Summer  (1958), Norma Rae tells the story of the single mother of the title who works for basic wages in poor conditions in a textile mill in Alabama.  One day a union activist, Reuben (Ron Leibman), arrives to marshall the workers’ interest in unionizing.  Most are uninterested  but Norma’s life is turned around

In a role that belied her then established image as the star of lightweight sitcoms like Gidget and The Flying Nun, Field brings a feisty down-to-earthiness to the role of Norma Rae, who despite her lack of education is intelligent enough to understand that she has been presented with her one opportunity to change things for the better.  Much as it would do for Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich in 2000 it won Field the Best Actress Oscar,  Her portrayal of Norma Rae’s moral looseness (she has two kids from different fathers and when we first encounter her she is having a dalliance with a married man) is less convincing however this is only a relatively minor secondary theme and does not take away from the main drift which is her personal and political awakening.

Aside from Fields’ performance one of the film’s strongest cards is its convincing depiction of Norma Rae’s life – from the deafeningly loud factory in which she and her fellow workers toil, constantly harassed by their bosses, to her home life with her old-fashioned father (Pat Hingle) and docile mother (Barbara Baxley),to her male companions including her eventual husband (Beau Bridges), a good but unambitious man. Ritt invests the basic David and Goliath template with a sense of real life (the film was shot in Alabama and in a real textile mill).

Although somewhat overlong and occasionally lapsing into the sentimental, notably in the climactic scene when Norma Rae (Sally Field) makes her stand, literally, against the bosses to the collective affirmation of her fellow workers, and a scene in which she discovers Dylan Thomas thanks to hip New Yorker, Reuben, for the most part Norma Rae is a convincing and empathetic account of the lot of poor blue collar Southerners of the day (which was well before the work was outsourced to China and no doubt even cheaper labour and probably worse conditions).

 

 

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