Blu-ray Review: Norma Rae

By , Contributor
Thirty-five years ago, Sally Field delivered her first Oscar-winning performance. The film was Norma Rae, directed by Martin Ritt and written by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch. Now available on Blu-ray for the first time, the film is every bit as engrossing, entertaining, and inspiring as it was upon its first release. The plot concerns a textiles union organizer who visits a North Carolina sweatshop in the late '70s. Based loosely on the story of Crystal Lee Sutton (1940-2009) as told in Henry Leifermann's book Crystal Lee, A Woman of Inheritance, Norma Rae has become an iconic story of self-empowerment.

Regardless of one's opinion of labor unions in general, it's hard to deny the raw power of the story (though in retrospect the irony is thick when considering the role of unionization in the decline of the U.S. textiles industry). When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) arrives in town to drum up support for unionization at the town textile mill, no one wants anything to do with him. But Reuben is tenacious. He keeps handing out his fliers, but it's Norma Rae (Field) who catches his attention as someone who could help him convince the skeptics. She's known as the town slut, lives with her overprotective father and her three fatherless children, and is growing increasinly frustrated with the conditions at the mill.

If there's anything to carp about, Norma Rae stacks the deck so heavily in favor of Reuben's mission that the mill managers are basically cardboard, generic "bad guys." They're the oppressors and we're given no reason to do anything but hiss them mercilessly while fully supporting the downtrodden workers. But the movie is a so likeable, with Field so convincing as a woman waking up to the possibility of changing her own reality, it's nearly impossible to resist. Though underused, Beau Bridges delivers a loopily endearing performance as Norma's unlikely new romantic partner.

Norma Rae looks every bit as gritty and naturalistic as it should on 20th Century Fox's Blu-ray. John A. Alonzo's cinematography is mostly dim and shadowy, resulting in a documentary style that is entirely by design. Audio is offered in DTS-HD MA mono and, while admittedly a bit thin, it sounds fine. For a 1979 film with very straightforward sound design, it would be hard to ask for much more. It's worth a mention that the English subtitles are particularly rife with truncated lines of dialogue for some reason.

Extras are light. The Blu-ray includes a 25-minute featurette from 2001 called "Hollywood Backstory: Norma Rae. Presented in standard definition, it's a decent (though too brief) overview of the making of the film. Emphasis is placed on Field's low status as an actress at the time of her casting, something younger viewers are likely to be surprised by. There's also the film's theatrical trailer.

Sally Field's performance absolutely makes Norma Rae worth watching, but Ron Liebman is equally effective. Martin Ritt wound up crafting a rabble-rousing triumph that remains relevant, though not so much from a political point of view. While perhaps idealistically sound, did the work of folks like Reuben ultimately do anything beneficial for the U.S. economy? Look at the state of the textiles industry today. But as a carpe diem tale, Norma Rae still pushes the right buttons.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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