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Norma Rae

The Importance of Being Earnest might have been a better title for Martin Ritt's feel-good social drama Norma Rae. This 1979 hit, full of self-righteous indignation, wears its socially conscious message about downtrodden textile workers like a badge. Sally ("You like me, you really like me") Field stars as Norma Rae, a small-town girl with a habit of falling for and into bed with one wrong man after another. Norma lives with her aging parents and her two small children in a backwater southern town where the textile mill owns the town and the townspeople. With few other choices for employment, the factory's health-threatening working conditions, low wages, and long hours are "run of the mill" for the locals. Enter union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) from New York — in town to whip the workers into a frenzy and convince them to unionize. Of course Warchowsky is shunned at first — he's from the big city, he's Jewish, and he's educated. But he's persistent and eloquent, dropping such bon mots as "When they spoke, they spoke in one voice and they were heard." Norma is both inspired and turned on by Warchowsky (although married to good ol' boy Beau Bridges), and she's soon ready to sign up with the union and take on the factory bosses. Norma strives to convince the other workers that they are getting a raw deal and helps them believe they have the power to bring about change. In the process, Norma comes to understand her own personal strength as well as the power of the individual. Norma Rae earned Field an Academy Award for Best Actress, helping move her away from the goody-two-shoes image created by her television shows The Flying Nun and Gidget, and towards a more serious movie-acting career. In 1979 Norma Rae was considered serious, contemporary social drama; but nowadays the film veers from flaccid to overly dramatic, with ardent performances that border on parody. Field — with her ever-changing southern accent — is tireless in her effort to convince us she really, really, really can act, while Leibman thinks he is in a John Garfield film. Ritt holds too many unimportant scenes too long while giving short shrift to characters that deserve better development. The overall effort is one of plodding overstatement. "Things move slow around here," drawls Norma to Warshowsky. No kidding. Fox's Norma Rae DVD comes in anamorphic widescreen (2.35:1) with audio in Dolby 2.0 Surround. A 20-minute featurette entitled "Backstory: Norma Rae" basically serves as a tribute to Ritt and includes interviews with Field and Leibman. Keep-case.
—Kerry Fall

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