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When Sally Field starred in "Norma Rae" in 1979 she was more well known as both the fresh-faced character in the TV show "The Flying Nun" and the perky college surfer gal in "Gidget". And even though she had won an Emmy for playing the challenging role of Sybil (the woman with multiple personalities) the studios weren't sure if she was right for the part of Norma Rae. But director Martin Ritt -- by then a seasoned and well-respected Hollywood director -- stood up for his casting of her and she went on to win the Academy Award.
Norma Rae Witcher is a strong willed single mother who lives with her parents in a modest Southern home and works with them in a textile factory under less than quality conditions. She is in her early 30's, sleeps around with various men and has life that is at once arduous and dull.
Norma Rae's life changes when Reuben (Ron Liebman), an educated Jewish intellectual union organizer comes to town with the intention of setting up a union in the textile plant. Right away, he pegs Norma Rae – whom he calls, " smart, loud, profane, sloppy and hardworking." – as the kind of woman he wants to lead the charge. He helps her find her bearings and make the decisions that will affect not only her life but also the lives of the whole community.
Sally Field is convincing as the single mother working in a textile factory who uses her down home smarts to help organize the union. She brings a solid character to the screen that is not only fiercely determined but down-to-earth and slightly naïve, which are all the things that make her the right person for the job. It's a testament to the quality of the script (by Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch) that Norma Rae and Reuben don't develop a sexual relationship. Instead, Norma marries a simple but loyal good old boy (Beau Bridges) and develops a father daughter type relationship with Ruben that helps her grow as a person.
The film develops the characters, the small town setting and the circumstances under which all the people live before it gets outwardly political. This authenticity lends itself well to a convincing and intelligent message about the coupling of personal values with political integrity. By the end (in the film's most famous scene) Norma has "come-of-age" when she holds the "union" placard above her head for all to see.
The film is presented in widescreen anamorphic of 2.35:1. The cinematography, by the late John Alonzo (who also shot Chinatown), is all hand held and uses very little diffuse lighting thus giving the film the look and feel of a documentary. Because of this too the colors are muted and awash in darker hues as opposed to sharp colors we are accustomed to seeing in overlit films today. There are also little contrasts in the colors, which fits the subject matter well. The transfer is very good and reveals only a slight amount of compression in the background of a couple scenes.
Available Audio Tracks are English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround), English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono), French (Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono) and there are both English and Spanish subtitles. Despite this selection variety the sound is the only really down side to the DVD. Most of it is pretty soft and must be turned up to catch the various dialogue nuances of the script. This is especially evident when you compare it to the documentary that's featured on the disc.
Other than an original theatrical trailer there is a 22-minute documentary from American Movie Classics titled "Backstory: Norma Rae". The documentary features good interviews with Sally Field, Ron Leibman, producer Tamara Asseyev and DP John Alonzo who talk a little about the film and a lot about how great it was to work with Martin Ritt. Ritt had been one of the filmmakers affected by the bad old days of the 1950's blacklist period but he remained a socially conscious filmmaker who made such hits as "Hud" and "Sounder". The documentary also goes a little into the film's production history, which due to the subject matter started had some difficulty getting started. Part of the difficulty also stemmed from the fact that it was entirely shot in location in a small Alabama town. In the documentary we learn too that the film is based on a woman who successfully organized a Textile union in North Carolina. It also notes that such actresses as Jane Fonda and Jill Clayburgh (who were nominated that year for the Oscar) turned down the role of Norma Rae. The menus use a union organizing theme on each page (a bulletin board, a flier, photographs etc.) and there are 31 chapters
This is a classic 1970's film that successfully blends a feminist component with the typical management labor struggle that have existed in factories and mills since the 19th century. It's an important subject but more than 20 years after it was made it continues to have a bad rap with mainstream audiences. Mainly because it is a feminist film, a pro-labor film as well as one that is very class conscious and takes place in a small southern town. All these things, though, make "Norma Rae" a unique Hollywood film since its kind wouldn't be made today. Last year's film "Erin Brockovich" is somewhat similar too but it doesn't quite have the straightforward, realistic feel. The DVD transfer and sound are not of the highest quality but, if you've never seen the film, it is worth a look.