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Norma Rae: 35th Anniversary
In 1979 Norma Rae was released by 20th Century Fox to tremendous reviews, word of mouth, and critical acclaim. It became a huge success and went on to earn four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture. It earned Sally Field an Academy Award for her performance in the title role. Norma Rae is a genuine American classic.
Experiencing any great piece of art can be emotionally resonant and powerful. With Norma Rae, here is a film that seeks to remind us of the profound importance of the unity of people, and also the profound impact that can be felt because of the determination of a few. Sally Field delivers one of her career best performances as Norma Rae, a millworker in the South who sets herself apart from others as she's determined to make mill business owners aware of the need to make improvements to their mill working conditions and environment. Reuben (Ron Leibman), a unionizing worker from New York, soon arrives in the same small town with words about joining a union and working as a team to fight for better working conditions. The efforts gradually lead to more interest from the employees of the mill and the effort is especially recognized by Norma.
It isn't long before Norma becomes invested in the Union movement and spends almost all of her waking moments (that aren't spent working at the mill) undergoing the union organizing work to recruit others and to bring together enough individuals into a team that can stand up against the mill owners and to fight for better working conditions.
At the same time, Norma must also deal with her husband Sonny (Beau Bridges), who doesn't understand or appreciate her immense efforts in working to unionize the mill and wants her to focus more on things like "cooking and cleaning" at home. In one scene, Norma demonstrates exactly how much this idea is both so trivial and time consuming when she is working to fight for the union formation. Tensions build in their relationship and as they become colder to one another Norma begins to show some feelings for Reuben, even though these are emotions she largely tucks away because of their separate relationships, as both her and Reuben are married.
In an early scene of the film, Norma is trying to speak to her mother, who also works at the mill, and she realizes that she cannot hear anything she has said. Her mother became temporarily deaf. Norma barges into the room of the mill executives demanding that they do something to help her mother and that this shouldn't happen. She soon receives a generic response of "this sometimes happens" and Norma responds to them with the electrifying "not to MY mother!" which is one major example of the dramatic energy and dedication Sally Field brought to the role - with a performance so compelling and believable that it makes the story hold even more gravitas.
Unionization was such a massive issue and the film made it's point through this important topic. Unfortunately, unionization is no longer what it once was within the US - nor is it as successful globally. There are now many more foreign countries where workers are having to go through the same kinds of experiences in trying to fight for a union and for better working conditions. This means that the topic of unionization as discussed in this film is still quite relevant to this day.
Throughout the film, the screenplay by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank, Jr. manages to bring forth compelling characterizations and a dramatically compelling structure to the storytelling. Many real-life stories were read in order to develop the fictional Norma Rae character of the film. While there is a narrative nature to the story it is something inspired by and also based around actual events. The Norma Rae character was actually based upon a combination of several real individuals who worked to support unionization. The end result is a movie that succeeds at feeling authentic in its realization and that never seems to be simply pandering. Everything about the story seems to have been realized by the screenwriters with the upmost seriousness and care.
Martin Ritt's direction is an equally invigorated match to the written words. His style in the film seems highly observational and the film manages to feel almost like a narrative documentary at times as a result. The performances were always at the core of the direction, too. The impressive performances from the cast of the film helps to demonstrate the idea of Ritt as an actor's director; as someone who paid the upmost attention to how the performances given affected the quality of the film and could make the effort even better (or worse). So with a dramatically solid style, Ritt made sure to try and bring the best out of the whole cast of Norma Rae and it is apparent that the results desired during production were achieved.
The stark, cold, and downtrodden cinematography by John A. Alonzo aids the storytelling as well. It manages to evoke the feeling of the harsh working conditions with its overcast and muted design. The factory conditions and the struggle of forming the mill's union seems so compellingly realized through Alonzo's cinematography, which is a perfect match with the complex directing.
Sometimes a great film comes along that just amazes in almost every respect. Norma Rae is that type of incredible work of art; the sort of film that completely absorbs the viewer. The fact that the filmmaking does so from the first frame to the quiet but deeply moving end is incredible to behold and the kind of thing that makes seeing movies such a fantastic part of the cultural and social zeitgeist. When such an experience happens one knows that it has been an experience worth cherishing. A great film gives us insight into the world we live in and of what kinds of stories we like to share as part of the human experience.
Norma Rae is a film that speaks to the abilities and strengths sometimes shared in fighting for something of great worth (in this case: fighting for unions. The effort to join together to help bring in better working conditions for those in the mill and for other Blue Collar workers.) Ultimately, the message of the film is one that champions the strength of the human spirit. Norma Rae is a universally important story and this film is one that is not to be missed.
Norma Rae arrives on Blu-ray with an incredibly impressive MPEG-4 AVC encoded 1080p presentation of the film in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1 at 36 mbps. With a noteworthy film-like transfer that retains all of the original grain and that has thankfully avoided being digitally scrubbed with DNR the film looks as I imagine the presentation likely did when Norma Rae was first released as a theatrical print.
The color reproduction, depth, and overall clarity of the presentation is uniformly noteworthy. This is a downright stunning, top-notch transfer that keeps the spirit of the cinematography as intended. The presentation doesn't seem to stray from the source material or it's intended look, which makes both the encoding and the scan worthy of high praise.
The disc includes two lossless audio presentation options: English 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono and French dubbed 1.0 DTS-HD Master Audio mono. For the purpose of this review, I listened to the English lossless mix. The sound was a little bit disappointing compared to the video transfer. Certain scenes sounded a bit muffled and harsh and the entire presentation lacked a significant sound presence.
The good news is that the lossless audio boost does provide the presentation with crisper vocals and more detail than previous releases of the film. It's a bit disappointing, nonetheless, that the original audio elements were either not available in better condition or that more time was not spent to ensure the smoothest and most satisfactory of audio presentations.
The audio on this Norma Rae Blu-ray debut is something that could have been better sounding. I don't have information about the restoration process the film's audio elements may have gone through to prepare for this release but I feel it does not meet my usual audio expectations for classic cinema. The Norma Rae lossless audio is entirely average and it seems to be a merely acceptable aspect of the release.
Much to my surprise, the only included supplement on this Blu-ray release is a 25 minute long featurette entitled Hollywood Backstory: Norma Rae. This film should have a more features-extensive release with in-depth behind the scenes and making of materials.
It's a reasonably good quality bonus feature as it is and that features archival interviews with Sally Field, Martin Ritt, and others who worked on the film and who were connected to the production. It shares a reasonable amount of background detail on what went into making the film and getting it produced in the first place.
It was interesting to learn that most major studios had taken a pass on the project before it eventually arrived at Fox. Perhaps even more fascinating is the fact that most of the other nominees for Best Actress the year Sally Field won for Norma Rae were offered the part.
The feature is actually a few minutes longer than what is advertised on the case (for some reason the box art lists this as being a 20 minute feature. Granted, some film clips are shown. Perhaps it was noted as such because of this aspect of the documentary.) For any fan of Norma Rae, this is certainly a special worth checking out.
Norma Rae is an amazing film that demonstrates the sheer power of storytelling in film. It's an excellent effort by director Martin Ritt and it has an incredible performance from Sally Field which solidifies the film's reputation as a classic. For both long-time fans and newcomers, I heartily recommend the film.
As to the technical merits, Fox has provided an impressive Blu-ray transfer that is surely going to satisfy fans of this important masterpiece. The audio quality is a bit lacking and there isn't much in the supplemental department, but the strength of the film and it's picture quality presentation makes this a worthwhile release.
Neil Lumbard is a lifelong fan of cinema. He aspires to make movies and has written two screenplays on spec. He loves writing, and currently does in Texas.