Reviewed by Colin Jacobson

Title: Norma Rae (1979)
Studio Line: Warner

In an Oscar - winning performance, Sally Field is unforgettable as Norma Rae, the Southern millworker who revolutionizes a small town and discovers a power in herself she never knew she had. Under the guidance of a New York unionizer (Ron Leibman) and with increasing courage and determination, Norma Rae organizes her fellow factory workers to fight for better conditions and wages. Based on a tue story, Norma Rae is the mesmerizing tale of a modern day heroine. Beau Bridges co-stars.

Director: Martin Ritt
Cast: Sally Field, Beau Bridges, Ron Leibman, Pat Hingle
Academy Awards: Won for Best Actoress-Sally Field; Best Song-"It Goes Like It Goes." Nominated for Best Picture; Best Screenplay. 1980.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English Dolby Surround & Digital Mono, French Digital Mono; subtitles English, Spanish; single sided - dual layered; 32 chapters; rated PG; 118 min.; $24.99; street date 4/17/01.
Supplements: 20 Minute "Backstory: Norma Rae"; Original Theatrical Trailer.
Purchase: DVD

Picture/Sound/Extras: C+/C/C+

History recognizes 1979’s Norma Rae as the picture that allowed Sally Field to escape the cheese-flick jungle in which she’d resided. From her early years as The Flying Nun and Gidget to the many flimsy films she made as Burt Reynolds’ girlfriend in the Seventies, no one took her seriously. A mid-Seventies appearance in a TV movie as psychologically-challenged Sybil started the change in her possibilities, but it wasn’t until after Norma Rae that she really made the shift.

History doesn’t record if this was a good or a bad thing. Frankly, I’ve never been too wild about Field, with her chipmunk cheeks and perpetually perky manner. Too much of her tone struck me as obnoxious and cutesy, and I’d be hard pressed to find a film of hers that I genuinely liked.

That said, I must acknowledge that Norma Rae is a pretty solid piece of work on a number of levels. The film tells the story of a single mother - the eponymous character played by Field - and the small Southern factory town in which she lives. Truth be told, the mill is a fairly atrocious place to work, but generations have toiled there and there seems to be no end in sight for the abuses they suffer.

The potential for change emerges when union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town. He plans to break down the barriers and get the workers the rights they deserve, but he’s met with resistance from both sides. Management obviously doesn’t want him to meddle with their business, and the workers resent the presence of a Northern Jew who seems to do little more than stir up trouble.

However, Reuben eventually gets through to Norma Rae, and she becomes his biggest ally. In fact, she appears to take over much of the endeavor herself, and her prominent role in the exercise leads to much trouble. The movie follows her journey from ordinary factory worker to union leader and shows all her stops along the way.

Norma Rae lives and dies with its performances, as the framework for the film rests firmly upon the strength of its actors. As a production, it’s a modest work that needs little embellishment from the director and sticks with plain language and settings from the script. As such, the performers had to make it work, and though I remain ambivalent toward Field, I must say that she came across as fairly compelling in the role.

On the negative side, I never felt that her Southern accent worked tremendously well. As is the case with many actors, she leaned a little too heavy toward the cornpone side of the street, but this tendency didn’t seem egregious; I never felt that Field was a candidate for Hee-Haw.

However, I do think her breasts deserved their own screen credit. In many ways, Norma Rae reminded me of 2000’s Erin Brockovich, and the prominent talents of their lead actresses offers one of the similarities. (Thrust out your rack, win an Oscar - why has Pamela Anderson failed to capitalize on this trend?)

Field doesn’t go for Julia Roberts’ cleavage route, but the film packs her into an endless series of tight T-shirts that show off her average-sized-but-still-assertive chest. Frankly, it became darned distracting, watching Field shake her bazooms here and there. Still, she actually looked sexier than I ever imagined - even her late-Seventies hairdo has held up pretty well - so I won’t complain too much about her excessively-prominent knockers.

In regard to the rest of her performance, I felt that Field could be a bit too strident at times. She tried so hard to make Norma Rae a Strong Forceful Woman that she could become over-the-top; it became something of a diva turn in which it seemed like we were mainly just supposed to be impressed by her Acting. Nonetheless, she provided an acceptably varied performance that did bring the character to life well. Did she deserve the Oscar? I don’t know, but I won’t quibble too much with her work.

Frankly, if I had to choose an Oscar-recipient from the cast, I’d go with Leibman. He offers a very strong and self-assured turn as union organizer Warshowsky. It’s something of a thankless role since he ultimately has to play second banana to Norma Rae - third banana if we factor in her breasts - but Leibman is tough and compelling. Though the script occasionally forces him into the New York Jew box, he manages to keep from degenerating into stereotype, and Reuben becomes much more individualistic and personable than he could have been.

In the end, Norma Rae offers a fairly involving tale of a battle against corporate oppression. Little about the movie seemed especially amazing, but as a whole, the film appeared consistently well-made and interesting. I don’t think Norma Rae is a great movie, but it’s held up well over the years and aptly functions within its genre.

The DVD:

Norma Rae appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although not a terrible picture, the movie showed a range of problems that made it look very erratic.

Sharpness generally seemed quite good, as the majority of the film appeared nicely crisp and well-defined. A small amount of softness cropped up on a few occasions, but this seemed minor and didn’t really interfere with the image. Most of the movie came across as accurate and detailed. No jagged edges appeared, but moiré effects created some concerns at times. The print itself seemed to be fairly clean. I noticed some speckles at times, but otherwise the film lacked many defects.

Colors came across as acceptably accurate and clear, but they seemed somewhat subdued for the most part. However, given the setting and general worn-down tone of the movie, these hues were appropriate for the material and they made sense. Less acceptable, however, were all of the problems that greeted any low-light sequences. Whenever the movie entered scenes that were even slightly dark, the image went downhill in a hurry. Dimly-lit shots often became almost unwatchable. Both interiors and night-time scenes appeared largely impenetrable as characters vanished into the murky setting.

When enough light appeared, Norma Rae presented a very nice picture. It could often look quite good, and the brighter scenes came across as well-defined and pleasing. However, when the lights dimmed to any degree, the image turned into a bleary mess. Enough of the film looked good to merit a “C+” rating, but the lack of clarity found in the low-light shots was a real problem that caused some serious concerns.

The Dolby Surround 2.0 soundtrack of Norma Rae also suffered from some problems. The soundfield came from the original monaural mix - which also appears on the DVD - and doesn’t try too hard to reinvent the wheel. As with most soundtracks taken from mono sources, I usually heard audio that didn’t expand the horizons too much. Music and most effects seemed pretty well anchored the front spectrum, and these elements usually came across as slightly-broader mono.

However, some notable exceptions existed that made Norma Rae’s soundtrack a surprisingly involving affair at times. Within the mill, the roar of the machinery could become quite active, and those aspects presented a nicely engaging atmosphere. A few other scenes - such as at a ballgame or a bar - also created a relatively rich and active ambiance. I didn’t think that the mix was anything genuinely special, but the soundfield provided greater activity than I expected.

Less exciting, unfortunately, was the often-weak quality of the audio. Dialogue suffered from the most problems, and that could be a serious concern for a word-driven drama like Norma Rae. At best, speech sounded thin and reedy, and at worst, it could become extremely edgy and fairly unintelligible. Dialogue was generally problematic, but whenever lines were shouted, the problems grew worse. Admittedly, most of the speech seemed acceptably clear, but when the dialogue got rough, it was a mess.

Effects and music seemed more consistent but remained lackluster. Both elements lacked the distortion and overt flaws of the dialogue as they appeared acceptably clean and accurate. However, the mix displayed a lot of mid-range and very little prominence at either the high or low ends. It’s a thick and lifeless track that was redeemed only by the nicely engaging soundfield that appeared at times. As such, the mix earned an overall grade of a “C”; quality would have been about a “D+” for the era, but I’d give the soundfield a “B-“ for the time.

Norma Rae tosses in some minor supplements plus one modestly significant extra. The latter is called Backstory: Norma Rae. A 23-minute and 40-second documentary, this piece originally aired on cable’s American Movie Classics channel. Although it could have been longer, I found the program to offer a solid look at the creation of Norma Rae. We find a nice mix of film clips, shots from the set, and contemporary interviews with a variety of participants, including actors Field and Leibman. We learn about the project’s genesis and also hear of the challenges faced by Field; it was tough for her to get the role and then get into the role, and the show aptly takes us through her journey. Ultimately, it’s a modest but compelling look at the film.

In addition, Norma Rae presents a slew of ads. We get the original theatrical trailer for NR itself, plus in the “Fox Flix” section there are additional promos. We find trailers for 9 to 5, For the Boys, Nine Months, The Truth About Cats and Dogs, and Working Girl.

As a film, Norma Rae offers a fairly entertaining and well-made look at a poor woman’s struggle to change lives. Though the movie occasionally veers toward excessive drama, as a whole it works well, especially due to some solid acting. The DVD is more of a mixed bag, however, as picture and sound are both extremely erratic. Ultimately they end up as mediocre, as do the supplements, which are meager except for a fairly nice documentary. Still, Norma Rae would make for a good rental, and fans will probably want to give it a longer look.

Equipment: Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.
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