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Like a lot of her family before her, Norma Rae works at the local textile mill, where the pay is hardly commensurate with the long hours and lousy working conditions. But after hearing a rousing speech by labor activist Reuben, Norma is inspired to rally her fellow workers behind the cause of unionism. Her decision rankles her family, especially her fiancé, Sonny, and provokes no shortage of contempt from her employers.Written by
The Film Stereotyped an Industry, But Broke the Stereotype of an Actress
Although based on real events and a real person, "Norma Rae's" tale of corporate greed versus oppressed workers has been fictionalized for reasons of privacy. However, fictionalized or not, "Norma Rae's" power and influence continue since the U.S. textile industry has forever been branded in the minds of Americans as an outmoded industrial complex, whose windowless mills are filled with the deafening noise of hand-tended machines that are layered with cotton fibers and whose workers breathe in and permanently damage their lungs with stale air that is filled with cotton dust. Although those conditions certainly did exist, they no longer occur in that industry today. However, despite the modernization of textile manufacturing in the U.S. over the past couple decades, the image of the noisy, dusty mill that is depicted in the film remains as the general perception of a textile operation. Unfortunately, while modern textile mills are free of cotton dust and the noise levels have been reduced to the low hum of computers, textile workers like Norma Rae and the others portrayed in this film have also been replaced with robotics, lasers, and a few highly skilled technicians to monitor the computerized operations. While the unionization depicted in the film successfully raised wages and increased benefits, eventually those higher costs led to efforts to cut expenses through mechanization.
However, despite the demonizing of an industry, the film retains its power, and the story of Norma Rae's personal growth as a woman is probably even more memorable than the efforts to unionize one Southern textile mill. Sally Field inhabits the role of an unwed Southern mill worker with two children, and, as the film progresses, she slowly evolves from an aimless girl, who is used and abused by men, whether they be lovers or employers, into a mature woman who finds a depth and strength that helps her take control of her life and find the confidence to lead. Television viewers who only knew Field as the Flying Nun were surprised at her range and depth, although those who had taken the time to watch the television movie "Sybil" already suspected the breadth of her talent.
While Sally Field finally shed her Gidget and Flying Nun image with this film and certainly is the emotional core of the movie, she is well supported by a cast of pros, especially the two most important men in her life. Unfortunately, because Field is so outstanding, viewers will likely need a second viewing to appreciate just how good both Ron Leibman and Beau Bridges are in "Norma Rae." Ron Leibman as the assertive union organizer from New York is the man who awakens Norma's intellect and propels her into uncharted territory as a woman. Meanwhile, Beau Bridges as Norma Rae's gentle, understanding husband stands by his woman despite his not completely comprehending or appreciating the changes that are underway in his wife's character.
"Norma Rae" is an outstanding film, well directed by Martin Ritt, beautifully written by Frank and Ravetch, and performed with heart by Field, Leibman, and Bridges. Although the movie has probably stained the image of the U.S. textile industry for good, "Norma Rae" also established Sally Field as an actress of the first order and remains an engrossing human story of a woman's growth into maturity and her discovery of previously unrealized potential within herself.
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