(Before I start, I’m just noticing that they skipped 1978, and thus one of my favorite all-time films, Fox An Unmarried Woman. But I’m also noticing that it appears to be out of print, given Amazon’s astronomically high price for a few used copies, and so I’ll cut the Fox Collection a break.)
I first saw Norma Rae back we got our first VCR, a top-loading Syvania, back in Christmas of 1982. Back then there was only one video rental place in town (where we got the VCR), but it was all the way in Vineland – too distance-prohibitive for regular film rentals. So it was with great enthusiasm they one opened right in our own hamlet of Millville. And that’s when, starting in April, we rented movies like they were going out of style (which they would, some twenty years later).
My parents got Norma Rae to watch when our aunt and uncle came over for dinner. Perhaps a odd choice for a fun night at the movies, but you have to remember that we were early on the VCR bandwagon, so seeing any movie, uncut, whenever you wanted and with no commercials, was a hell of a novelty. It would have been a success, too, were it not for a major technical glitch. Our TV was a bit on the old side, and it didn’t completely mesh with the new VCR. So we had to constantly adjust the set’s vertical hold; in other words, every two minutes or so the picture would annoyingly flip up, like an unsprocketed film frame, requiring us to monkey around in the back to fix it.
But no matter – a film rental was still a big deal, and when I saw it alone the next day, I found it quite interesting. I had only the scarcest understanding of labor unions, but I got enough to follow the story. And eve better, it whetted my appetite for the subject. In high school I even did a paper on Samuel Gompers and the AFL/CIO, and perhaps it even sowed the seeds for my current support of fair labor representation, collective bargaining and socialism in general. And to think it all started with the Flying Nun.
And now, having seen it some 35 years later, I can see it through more mature eyes, and my review is pretty simple: it’s a wonderful film. I know, it’s probably in bad form for a critic to use such simple superlatives, but it’s the most apt word I know for a movie that it’s all the notes just right. It’s got a top-notch screenplay, literate and complex without compromising its rural-American authenticity. It’s keeps up just the right tone – melancholy and stark without being cheerless. And it features characters that you not only like very much but also want to succeed at any cost. Norma’s protagonists are sharp and smart without being cynical – a far cry from any hipper-than-thou progressives you’d find in today’s movies. These folk are real, as really as the backroads where they live and the mills where they work.
But Norma Rae is really two films. The first is the labor union story – about how a representative comes down to an unnamed Southern town, and tries to convince the workers at a textile mill that they are getting the royal screw from their employers and need representation pronto. That’s the part I got when I was twelve, but the other part – the love story – I completely missed. No, it’s not the love story between Norma and her husband, Sonny, but rather the unrequited love story between her and the Jewish union rep from New York, Reuben. Both sides work perfectly in concert to deliver a potent polemic without neglecting the human element, for it’s people who drive causes in the first place.
Norma is, after all, a single Southern woman, with kids from two different dads, one deceased. But she’s unapologetic with her romances, including one, ill-fated, with a married man (she does call it off), until she meets Sonny (Beau Bridges) and marries him, more out of convenience, as he is also a single parent. But it’s her work that causes her the greatest duress these days – the local textile mill, where she toils with the weaving machines, and where both her parents are worked down to the bone. She pays little mind to a NY union rep, Reuben, who attempts to unionize the shop.
That all changes when she gradually gets enough of the harrowing working conditions, long hours and little pay. After her mother develops hearing problems, and her father ails from a heart condition (he ultimately dies after his foreman ignores his heart attack), she joins the cause. Soon Norma and Reuben, although from different worlds, devlop a close friendship, but it takes a toil on her own friendships with the others, not to mention her marriage to Sonny, who doesn’t truly understand what she’s fighting for. Things come to a head when Norma is harassed by the bosses, and then stands atop a table, holding high a cardboard sign with “Union” written in big letters. One by one each machine goes silent – indicative that enough people support her to vote in favor of unionization. Norma makes peace with her children – admitting to them her checkered past before her detractors do – and says goodbye to Reuben with a handshake, even though he will be “in her head” for a long time.
As I mentioned earlier, it really is this relationship that drives the movie. It’s a classic city mouse/country mouse formula, but what aches so much about their unrequited love is that, under other circumstances, they’d be a perfect fit – she’s just as intellectually curious as he is. But they’re separated not just by geography but by class. Their final handshake has all the pathos of The Way We Were’s finale: if things had just gone differently, if only, if only…. A film now would ratchet up that sexual tension so it hammers us, but Norma keeps it effectually subtle, and in the process makes it even more sexual.
And this all really brings us back to Sally Field’s Oscar-winning, Oscar-deserving performance in the title role. It’s more than just a heroic female role – she rides a very tricky balance here between being a political mouthpiece, delivering speechworthy sentiment and delightfully handcrafted dialogue, and putting forth a realistic portrait of an actual rural woman. This is something so difficult that very few actresses pull it off (look at Julia Robert’s overpraised performance in Erin Brocovich, performing every scene like she were gaming for a Oscar, which she actually received).
And if Fields character is a feminist, then she’s an authentic, risky, feminist, or at least risky for its time. I’m referring specifically to her promiscuity, a doubled-standarded aspect of feminism still controversial to this day. But for her it’s just a matter of course, almost as if the rest of urban America hasn’t caught up with her proto-liberation. Sure, women are subservient, in the Bible-belt culture of patriarchism, but (wink-wink) we know how it really goes.
“It Goes Like It Goes” (how’s that for a segue?) is the perfect theme song for Norma – it encapsulates the sadness, the pathos – the struggle of decades of generations in a labor-oppressed backland with its mournful orchestration. But the song’s main lyric, “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better, and maybe what’s bad gets gone,” belies that, nd signals a hope for the future – a future embodied by Norma, who sacrificed her life, her marriage, her love – for that future. That’s why her conversation with her kids at the end is just as significant a coda as that vote.
Bits and pieces: I love the way that the film shows machines in operation – it’s not just window dressing for the polemic. And though most of the heavies are one-note, I still believe them, stiff collars and wide ties and all. And this is a film that really shows us the climate – It’s summer, goddamned it, and everyone has underarm sweat stains (including Norma) and soaked shirts.
In short, I love this film. And it’s a true affection, too, not just respect. Funny, I think if there were no technical glitches, my aunt and uncle would’ve enjoyed this film, like I do now. Like Roger Ebert said, any good movie should be enjoyable because you’re watching quality cinema. Rog… I agree.
And BTW, this comes at the peak of 1978-82, my favorite era in American cinema. I wish I could go back.
Oh, and I forgot…. Ron Luebman was ROBBED of an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor as Rueben. He is magnificent – just as good as Field.
See it, see it, see it!