Sunday, March 02, 2014

It Goes Like It Goes

"Bless the child of the workin' man
She knows too soon who she is
And bless the hands of a workin' man
He knows his soul is his."

David Shire and Norman Gimbel
"It Goes Like It Goes"

Everyone knows that iconic scene when Sally Field (as Norma Rae) holds up the sign that says "UNION" for everyone in the plant to see — and, one by one, the machines are shut off.

The movie was inspired by a real person, Crystal Lee Sutton, in North Carolina. That scene with the sign really happened, too.

Apparently, the filmmakers felt no need to alter the facts. Well, Sutton's name was different, and so was the name of the union organizer who recruited her.

No question about it. "Norma Rae" was an inspiring story. The American Film Institute ranked it 16th among the inspirational movies and Norma Rae 15th among movies' heroic characters.

It was a career changer for Field. She originally made her name on TV programs, then made mostly lightweight movies during her transition to the big screen (the exception was probably her performance in a made–for–TV production about a woman with multiple personalities).

She might have gone on making endless "Smokey and the Bandit" movies and struggling to shake the yoke of typecasting if not for being cast as Norma Rae. The role established Field as a legitimate dramatic actress — she won the Oscar for Best Actress. She went on to win another Best Actress Oscar five years later, then was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Mary Lincoln in "Lincoln."

Her work in "Norma Rae" was powerful, made even more powerful, perhaps, because it seemed so unexpected coming from the girl who had been TV's Gidget and the Flying Nun.

But it has often been pointed out to me that truth really is stranger than fiction.

"Forget it! I'm stayin' right where I am. It's gonna take you and the police department and the fire department and the National Guard to get me outta here!"

Norma Rae (Sally Field)

The movie also won an Oscar for Best Song — "It Goes Like It Goes" — which I have long thought was one of the best movie songs to be honored with an Oscar.

It was a fine tribute to those who have fought to improve conditions for America's workers. By and large, I felt good about the casting, too. Ron Leibman, as union organizer Reuben, was the kind of guy I would want on my side in any conflict.

It was hard not to like Reuben. He was nothing if not sincere, especially when it came time to say goodbye to Norma Rae.

"Under the circumstances, best wishes hardly seem enough," he told her. "Thanks are in order. Thank you for your companionship, for your stamina, your horse sense and 101 laughs. I also enjoyed looking at your shining hair and your shining face."

They made a great on–screen team, but I don't think they've been in any other movies together. That's a pity.

Leibman didn't get an Oscar nomination, which was a shame, but perhaps there simply was no other way. It's hard to imagine which nominee he might have replaced in either the very crowded Best Actor field or the nearly as packed Best Supporting Actor field.

I was less impressed with Beau Bridges as Norma Rae's husband, whose most significant on–screen time came when he complained about Norma Rae's absence from the home. While I was less than blown away by Bridges' performance, I have to say that his character showed the all–too–human (albeit frequently less than admirable) trait of jealousy when he assumed that his wife's involvement in the unionizing of her shop was because she was attracted to Reuben.

Perhaps that said everything that really needed to be said about him. It was, after all, during the time that the events that were re–created in the movie actually happened that the real Norma Rae and her husband divorced. Bridges came off as being rather selfish, although that might have been inevitable, given that the movie portrayed Norma Rae as being on a mission. Maybe she was, but it was easy to see where her work on behalf of the union created issues in her home life.

Of course, the story was told mostly from Norma Rae's point of view — hence the title.

And, typically, the story of activism is self–sacrifice.

Even when she died, Sutton's story was one of taking a back seat to others. Because of the deaths of more prominent folks — actor Patrick Swayze and former Carter press secretary Jody Powell — around the same time in September 2009, word of Sutton's death was withheld for a few days.

But her story lives on in "Norma Rae."