Monday, April 7, 2014

NORMA RAE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1979) Fox Home Video

“United we stand. Divided we fall.” So states a very old union slogan, feeding into virtually every known cliché about solidarity bringing prosperity; thus, proliferating the ‘us’ versus ‘them’ struggle for workplace equality, presumably only achieved with an external governing body’s intervention, left un-nurtured by the status quo. A lot of smoke, but definitely some fire there - exactly the philosophy that made the prospect of joining a ‘union’ so fashionable for a time during the mid-to late 1970’s; a real ‘worker’s movement’ without all the political stigma and communist rhetoric afflicting earlier attempts to organize. Indeed, the call to join was deeply felt by one Crystal Lee Jordan, a textile mill worker who lost her job, endured death threats and was even thrown in jail for championing the cause of unionization; a very tough cookie, indeed; her story retold in a headline-grabbing article appearing in the New York Times. On the other side of the country, in Hollywood, co-producers, Tamara Asseyev and Alexandra Rose were immediately fascinated by Jordan’s lone voice defying the unethical practices of the J. P. Stevens & Co. cotton mills; then, the largest textile manufacturing apparatus in the United States.
In transforming Crystal Lee Jordan’s story into Norma Rae (1979) the producers were immediately faced with Jordan’s decision to keep her name out of the motion picture. But the producers were confronted by an even greater resistance of a very different kind right in their own backyard. It seems telling a story about ‘unions’ lacked the tabloid-grabbing salaciousness or sex appeal necessary to get any major studio or – for that matter – star to commit to the project. In retrospect, the casting of spirited Sally Field to play this equally feisty female crusader seems obvious. But in 1979, Field’s film-making résumé amounted to little more than a string of nondescript cameos, playing ‘the girl’ in disposable entertainments like The Way West (1967) and Stay Hungry (1976). Worse, Field had made an indelible impression as the saccharine-coated pop star of two memorable – if short-lived – and decidedly cornball – television series; Gidget (1965-66) and The Flying Nun (1967-70). These had severely typecast Field’s image.  
Hence, when director Martin Ritt’s secretary suggested Field might be a viable candidate to star in Norma Rae, Ritt’s first reaction was ‘Sally who?’ Thankfully, a reprieve was afoot, particularly after Ritt screened Sybil (1976); a TV mini-series in which Field had bravely eschewed her squeaky-clean image to convincingly play a mentally disturbed young woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder. Sybil won Field an Emmy, but oddly enough, did little to advance her career. It did, however, win over Marty Ritt, who thereafter began petitioning 2oth Century-Fox to accept Field as the star of Norma Rae. At the same time, Fox was still counting the formidable box office receipts from Star Wars (1977); an unqualified smash hit, giving studio chief, Alan Ladd Jr. the impetus to green-light Norma Rae on one condition; the principals involved all took a pay cut and the movie was made on a comparatively minuscule budget of $4.5 million. Ladd’s limited faith in the project would be well rewarded when Norma Rae earned back more than $22 million.
Once again, Martin Ritt, whose movies could always be counted upon to carry a weight of social conscience with dignity and the power of his own convictions, entrusted Norma Rae’s script development to the husband/wife team of Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Ritt, who had been blacklisted in Hollywood during the McCarthy witch hunts, knew something of Crystal Lee Jordan’s plight and could sincerely empathize. Moreover, he seemed to have that Midas touch with social dramas. Still, Norma Rae was considered a long shot at best, just a movie likely to go unnoticed or worse – perform poorly at the box office and quickly fade from the public’s consciousness. Determined to achieve a visual verisimilitude, Martin Ritt was committed to filming Norma Rae in a real textile mill. Regrettably, many in the Deep South were currently owned and operated by J.P. Stevens; the very company excoriated for its business practices by Crystal Lee Jordan in the New York Times article. Hence, Ritt was forced into a compromise; eventually settling on an already unionized textile mill in Opelike, Alabama as his setting for the movie. 

The manufacturing of textiles was, and to some extent remains, one of the most arduous, mind-numbing and physically debilitating careers pressed to the human condition. But in 1979, its working conditions were positively primitive; resulting in workers’ chronic loss of hearing, lung infections and even death. Ritt and Norma Rae’s cinematographer John A. Alonzo were determined every bead of sweat should show on the screen; Alonzo managing to capture the oppressive atmosphere inside the mills; something Sally Field would later confide she found stifling to one’s sense of hope and purpose. “I spent two weeks there,” Field admitted, “I can’t imagine spending a lifetime in that environment.”
Indeed, the fictional Norma Rae’s life ran an uncanny parallel to Crystal Lee Jordan; a young, single mother of two, wasting her youth, threading the mechanized looms inside the fictional O.P. Henley Textile Mill, and frittering away her all too brief respites from that crippling work environment on paralytic drunkenness and a string of casual liaisons with married men inside the local motel. Norma Rae’s greatest strength is her character; unpolished and unrefined to be sure, but resilient nonetheless – defiant, even in her unquenchable thirst to kick and claw her way to a better life. This opportunity presents itself with the arrival of Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman); a union representative, eager to corral the workers and establish a new Local. It isn’t going to be easy. Despite having the law on his side, the mill is off limits; overseen by a roughneck breed of authority figures who keep the fences chain-linked during hours of operation, and, their employees closed-lipped under threats of intimidation and/or outright dismissal.
And then, of course, there is the lingering stigma of the union itself; viewed by the locals of this somewhat uncivilized, and undeniably racist backwater as something of a subversive organization run by money-hungry Jews and communists.  Even Norma’s father, Vernon (Pat Hindle) cannot help but disregard Reuben, ordering him off his property merely for making an inquiry as to the whereabouts of the nearest motel. Norma is rather sympathetic, meeting Reuben a second time – quite by accident – inside the lobby of the motel where she is waiting for George Benson (James Luisi); the latest in a string of disposable married lovers. After their in flagrante delicto, Norma makes it clear she has decided to stop seeing George again. He calls her out as a whore and backhands her across the face, causing her nose to bleed.
Reuben hears the conflict through the paper-thin walls and offers Norma an ice pack to sooth her wound. She accepts and a friendship is struck; Reuben spouting union rhetoric peppered with words of encouragement that begin Norma thinking. After all, she has witnessed firsthand what life in the mills has done to her own mother, Leona (Barbara Baxley), made prematurely - if temporarily - deaf by prolonged exposure to the stifling noise. And working conditions are harsh beyond the scope of most people’s understanding; un-air-conditioned and cramped, with airborne debris and other easily inhaled toxins impacting the worker’s health and welfare.  A union might improve things. Yes, indeed. It just might.
At the crux of Norma Rae is an understated, yet thoroughly complex lover’s triangle; between Norma (Sally Field), Reuben and Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges); the man who will come to care for Norma in ways Reuben can only suggest. Indeed, Reuben – with his upper middleclass Jewish/cosmopolitan New York upbringing (and a sweetheart waiting for him back in Manhattan) represents the man Norma aspires to woo.  He’s fiery – just like her – yet kind and understanding at his core. Moreover, he could rescue Norma from this small-minded community. One problem; Norma is a hick herself. On the flip-side is Sonny; Norma’s intellectual equal. Sonny lacks Reuben’s motivation, but he makes up for it with personal integrity. Friction arising from Norma’s sudden proactivity (helping Reuben type and mimeograph his union pamphlets and becoming his mouthpiece inside the mill – putting a familiar and trusted face on the union’s message of solidarity). But Norma’s commitment to the union is never enough to ruin her marriage to Sonny, perhaps because his genuine love for her never wavers. It merely becomes frustrated from time to time.
Things reach a critical breaking point after Norma’s father suffers a fatal heart attack inside the mill. Reuben’s union bosses arrive at his motel room to discover Norma asleep on his bed from exhaustion and overwork, suggesting to Reuben her past is a hindrance to his efforts thus far. Reuben comes to Norma’s defense, outlining the numerable sacrifices she has made to help him in his work. The next afternoon, Norma defies her bosses by copying down a letter of intimidation posted by management on the staff bulletin board. Ordered to vacate the plant at once, Norma instead defies her employers, scrawling the word ‘union’ on a cardboard placard and raising it high overhead to inspire her coworkers to rebel.  One by one they signify their support by shutting down the cotton looms, the resultant silence that permeates the mill more deafening than the roar from its machines.
Norma is carted off to jail, but sprung by Reuben. Sonny attempts to intervene and the men have their say against each other. In what is perhaps the most affecting scene in the movie, Norma awakens her children in the dead of night for some true confessions. She tells her son and daughter that they do not come from the same father, sharing yellowed family snapshots with both of them. She also confesses to having been active with a good many more lovers, explaining that the situation she currently finds herself in will likely get very ugly; in effect, preparing the family and, to a lesser degree, Sonny for all of the allegations yet to follow. As they prepare for bed, Sonny confides in Norma. His love for her remains unchanged. She is genuinely moved and the two embrace.
Ultimately, the decision to unionize is secured by a narrow margin of 425 votes to 373; the employees’ victory made bittersweet for Norma – who has already lost her job and has been briefly jailed for her resistance efforts – but moreover, because now she must say goodbye to Reuben. She will likely never see him again. He quietly suggests that until this very moment his activism was only superficially rewarding on a purely professional level, but that she has managed to put a very genuine, human face on his cause and this, has changed everything for him. One can sense a more complex and painful exchange transpiring between Norma and Reuben – the breadth of their farewell left unsaid as Reuben gets into his car and drives away; their journey together – and the life they might have shared if she had not married Sonny – come to an end.
Norma Rae remains a very powerful pro-labor indictment against ‘big boss’ management. Moreover, it is an emotionally uplifting experience, expertly crafted by Martin Ritt and skillfully given the essential spark of life by Sally Field, who won virtually every major award as ‘Best Actress’ of the year, receiving a very humbling (and virtually unheard of) half-hour standing ovation when the film was screened at Cannes. Norma Rae was also instrumental in giving real-life activist, Crystal Lee Jordan, a brand new career, as well as motivating the J.P. Stevens cotton company to rethink their employee relations, particularly after the movie’s overwhelmingly positive press had a very negative impact on their company’s reputation and bottom line. Sally Field is undeniably the heart of the picture. At first not entirely certain the part was right for her, Field assimilated into her environment, placing all her confidence and trust in director Martin Ritt; the two creating an iconic portrait of determination. Ron Liebman and Beau Bridges both provide more than adequate support – particularly Liebman, who delivers hellfire and brimstone as an encouraging, if stern, motivator.
Norma Rae has never looked stellar on home video, and, in making the leap to hi-def the movie still does not entirely live up to its potential; John A Alonzo’s gritty handheld cinematography remaining problematic on Blu-ray. For starters, color fidelity seems to have veered toward a green/gray palette. The film is intentionally unglamorous, but scenes at night or inside the motel and factory have adopted a queerly bilious green hue. Contrast seems a tad too low. The sequence where Reuben drives an inebriated Norma and Sonny home in his truck at night is so underexposed one cannot even see their faces, or for that matter, much of anything else. Adjusting contrast levels on one’s television doesn’t help either, but rather simply bleaches out the image. 
Flesh tones lean toward a ruddy orange hue. Norma Rae was shot quick and dirty. This isn’t a film to admire for its high key lighting or glossy patina. But film grain occasionally looks digitally harsh. The 2oth Century-Fox logo that opens the movie is atrociously rendered, as example - gritty and dirty. None of the aforementioned criticisms add up to a deal breaker, in my opinion. But they do impact our overall enjoyment of the piece.           
Norma Rae’s lossless DTS mono is fairly competent, though obvious in its midrange distortions. Exchanges of dialogue within the obnoxiously noisy factory setting are very strident. Jennifer Warnes soulful/doleful ballad – ‘It Goes Like it Goes’ – that serves as bookends to the movie, sounds crisp and clean, as does most of the dialogue featured elsewhere throughout. Extras are limited to a 24 min. episode of Hollywood Back Story with vintage interviews from Sally Field and other cast members and crew, plus the movie’s original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: Norma Rae is potent drama. The Blu-ray doesn’t live up to expectations, but it isn’t awful either. Recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)


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