Saturday, June 18, 2005

Stanley Kauffmann

“[Ritt's] best strength is, as always, his work with actors. He is an experienced actor himself and it shows: remember Carol Burnett in Pete 'n' Tillie, Jon Voight in Conrack, Cicely Tyson in Sounder. Here Ron Leibman … gives his least self-centered performance, with the fullest concentration on the authentic moment….

“But the picture stands of falls with the performance of Norma Rae. It stands. Cheers--cheers from the heart--for Sally Field. I've never before found her even particularly engaging: a pooch-jawed girl who traded on scrawny sexiness and half-baked coy humor. Ritt saw more; confided in her; built her confidence; helped her, not to change but to find more of her self (I would guess) than she knew she had. We watch this sassy but dispirited, dissatisfied but resigned, beer-swilling, backseat-bumping Norma Rae move to a realization that what had been nagging and depressing her was the buried knowledge that she was better than her life. We watch her move to live her life better.

“Many, many moments make us cry, but one will surely be remembered best…. ["UNION" sign]”

Stanley Kauffmann
The New Republic, March 17, 1979
[NR whole rev.—also, fill in above (“union”)]

Stephen Farber

“Yet the film will be remembered for something beside its subject matter. It will also earn a place in film history as the movie that made Sally Field a star [fill in ellipse:]…. Norma Rae is the first feature that she has to carry all by herself. She does it triumphantly. As a poor but defiant working girl who becomes a leader in the union battles, Field etches a rich, vibrant portrait. There are scene in this movie that are going to be studied in acting classes years from now--like Norman's fiery protest in the factory, or a heart-rending scene in which she drags her children out of bed and tries to explain to them why she's been arrested. But it isn't acting alone that makes a star. Field has an instant, unbreakable rapport with the audience; she's funny, sexy, passionate, absolutely spellbinding.

“…. Norma Rae does at times resort to simplification and idealization of its characters….

“…. In the later scenes between Norma and Reuben, Sally Field is eloquent in expressing her aching, half-conscious love for Reuben. But we don't know what Reuben is feeling…. There's a touch of condescension that creeps into Reuben's dealings with Norma. This couldn't have been intended; it's a failure in [Ron Leibman's] performance.

“Despite this miscalculation, Norma Rae deserves praise for its force and compassion. And Sally Field's performance will be hard to top when 1979's acting awards are handed out.”

Stephen Farber
New West, March 12, 1979

David Denby

“. . . . Norma Rae . . . has been formed by women's-movement perceptions without being burdened by women's-movement rhetoric. A lifetime factory worker and the mother of two children (one illegitimate), Norma Rae is an openly sexual woman who is also instinctively rebellious. She's a very large personality, and when she takes political action without turning into a saint or a boring great lady, she becomes a modern movie heroine (pint-size but full of spit), which is what American movies need more than anything else at the moment….

“Casting Sally Field in a serious dramatic role was commercially shrewd and dramatically sound. With her wiry little body, Moreau-like down-turned mouth, and rumpled manner, she has always been easy to like; a relaxed, plain-speaking, funny woman, she's not glamorous and haughty like an old-fashioned star or clenced and hyper-conscious in the new Glenda Jackson-Jane Fonda style. She seemed to be enjoying herself in her frivolous pictures with Burt Reynolds, but obviously she needed to break away from him and the car-chase, male-showoff genre he works in (known in the industry as "tits-and-tire pictures"). Not yet an inventive actress, she relies too much on humorous grouchiness and slumping shoulders, and she stiffens up a bit in quiet, serious moments. But this is still a funny, tremendously affecting performance, with moments of startling anger and power.

“…. In the opening scene, Norma Rae is angry but helpless. She tells a company doctor that her elderly mother has been deafened by the incessant racket of the plant machinery, and when the man says that it's nothing, it will go away, Field's face crumples and she lets out a high-pitched wail of complaint. Her Norma Rae definitely isn't ladylike: She's hot and sweaty most of the time, and she can't keep her hair in place or her shirt dry; she works too much and has to put up with a couple of kids and a father jealous of her boyfriends (her husband is dead). A permanently sullen and exhausted expression has settled on her face, partly because she doesn't have much self-respect, and that bothers her more than anything else. As we can see, men have always pushed her around and she's been foolish enough (or masochistic enough) to let them get away with it. Isn't that the way a good ol' girl is supposed to behave?

“A street-smart New York Jew named Reuben Warshovsky (Leibman) bullies her into self-respect. He awakens her--not sexually (she doesn't need that), but morally, spiritually. "You'll be a mensh," he tells her, turning her into a union organizer….

“[review copy incomplete] What stays with the viewer is the image of the rueful angry woman. Sally Field has one scene that should become famous. When Norma Rae's new husband … complains that her political activities are taking her away from her housework and that he's not getting enough food or enough love, Sally Field traverses the kitchen in a continuous movement of weary disgust, dropping some food into a pot and the laundry into a sink, and after grimly taking her station at the ironing board, she invites her husband to raise her nightie and make love. This is the married woman's primal scene, done as bitter farce, and it brings the house down. Ritt may be an old-time liberal, but he certainly knows when a new mood has ripened.”

David Denby
New York, March 12, 1979

Andrew Sarris

“But there is nothing '30s or '40s about the eponymous heroine of Norma Rae played with '60s and '70s carnality by Sally Field. She is magnificent as the warm-hearted easy lay who discovers dignity and honor and a world of mind in her platonic association with Ron Leibman's perceptive Pygmalion. Here, the Magdalen of motel sex is transformed before our eyes into the Madonna of trade unionism. Yet we are made to feel also that the same warmth and passion that went into the sex has gone into the idealism. Norma Rae does not "reform"; she simply finds a more satisfying outlet for her emotional energy. Throughout the fiom, she is "country" and "family" in the best Southern sense. She is as spunky and as funny as Jean Arthur and Ginger Rogers in the vintage working girl movies, but she is much earthier than the censors of earlier eras would ever allow.

“There is an oddly nervous chemistry in the Field-Liebman scenes, but they never explode embarrassingly. At the most dangerous moments the qualities of tact and restraint and eventual respect come into play both with regard to the characters and to the performers…. As for Sally Field, she seems to have taken a giant step toward stardom, though I am beginning to wonder if any actress can achieve stardom in today's volatile atmosphere….

“…. Realist critics may complain as much as they want about the sentimentally contrived ending here. The fact remains that Norma Rae is one of the few current movies brave enough to suggest that the vast majority of mankind and womankind have to sweat to make a living.”

Andrew Sarris
Village Voice, March 5 ?, 1979

Stephen Schiff

“…. Almost effortlessly, the film creates a captivating modern heroine: Sally Field's Norma Rae, a spunky North Carolina textile worker who switches from bed-hopping to labor organizing under the indluence of … Reuben Warshovsky (Ron Leibman). Norma Rae is no working-class martyr. She's a tough, emotional, believable woman, one who gripes and sweats and makes the best of things, and if she's a little smarter and a little more energetic than the people around her, she doesn't appear to know it….

“Ritt has always had a way with actors--or, more specifically, with faces. He's a skilled tearjerker, but you can't resent his methods: stripping his actors--and expecially his actresses--of affectation, of extraneous movement, of everything but the basic human hopes and anxieties, he trains his camera on their faces and waits for the emotion to spill over. By the end of Sounder, Cicely Tyson's slightest quaver seems unaccountably moving. And so it is here, with Sally Field. Probably everybody knows by now that Sally Field is a fine actress. If you couldn't be sure from her breezy performances in Stay Hungry and the Burt Reynolds movies, then certainly her scary Jekyll-and-Hyde protrayal of Sybil on TV was proof enough. Field is capable of moving from radiance to repellence just by turning all the lines in her face downward and slumping her shoulders. And somewhere between those extremes is an inimitable look of feisty determination: when she crimps that wide, expressive mouth, steels her shoulders and, hugging the ground, scuttles at top speed around the room, she has the intensity of a whirling dervish. Field is a funky, rather unkempt-looking actress, but that makes her all the more convincing as a down-home girl, and her ferocity and passion in Norma Rae are so entrancing that it's not nearly as difficult as it should be to believe she could organize a whole mill almost singlehandedly.

“Unfortunately, the film isn't told from Norma Rae's point of view. Instead, Ritt and the Ravetches are represented onscreen by Reuben, and there's more than a touch of liberal condescension there…. [Schiff explains that the Jewish Reuben was a fabrication who, in real life, may have encountered serious trouble in the South.]

“…. When, with dubious ease, the workers vote in the union, Ritt focuses on one craggy, Dorothea Lange-like face as it trembles and blinks, as tears of joy spring to the eyes and a cry of exultation to the lips. Ritt must think he's Frank Capra or King Vido, whipping us into a populist frenzy. We identify with the Little Guy, all right, but the story begins to seems a fantasy; it's as hard to swallow as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town….”

Stephen Schiff
Boston Phoenix, March 13, 1979

David Ansen

“Sally Field is an energetic and attractive performer; Martin Ritt … is a nobly intentioned director; Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. are old-pro screenwriters with a healthy dose of social commitment, and all their hearts are clearly in the right place. Why, then, is Norma Rae such a drag?

“Field is Norma Rae, a lovable, loose-living ball of fire….

“Field comes off best under the circumstances--she has real spirit--but Leibman, too eager to be liked, hits all the stereotypes on the head… What "Norma Rae" really tells us is that Hollywood is still capable of making condescending paeans to the "little people" with all the phoniness of yesteryear.

David Ansen
Newsweek, but when?