Norma Rae

Norma Rae 01Freedom can be understood in many ways, but anyone who ever worked a factory job before the advent of unions understands freedom as the right to be treated as a human being, rather than as a machine part that can be worked to death and then thrown away.  Martin Ritt’s 1979 movie, Norma Rae, shows the difficult road to obtain that freedom.

The following review discusses the entire movie, including the ending, so if you don’t want the movie spoiled for you, I suggest you see it first.

Norma Rae (Sally Field) is a woman in her twenties who works at a textile factory in a small southern town, the only real job available to local workers.  She has been married once and has one child from her ex-husband and another she earned in the back seat of a car with another local boy.  Struggling under minimum wages, she lives with her mother (Barbara Baxley) and father (Pat Hingle), who also work in the factory.  Her only recreation seems to be meeting a traveling salesman for sex whenever he passes through town.  Although all of the workers at the extremely loud factory are upset about their working conditions, Norma Rae is the only one who complains to her bosses.

Norma Rae 02A union organizer, Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town representing the Textile Workers Union of America to try to organize the workers, but is met with animosity.  Most of the workers fear for their jobs in a town where their jobs are the only jobs to be had.  Norma Rae makes friends with Reuben as he settles in for a long battle.  At a bar, she meets a local man she had known as a child, Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges) and they go out for a beer.  They meet Reuben at the bar and he gives them a ride home because they are too drunk to drive. 

Norma Rae 03Sonny takes Norma Rae out to the lake with her two children and his own daughter from his previous marriage and he proposes to her.  Shortly afterward, they are married and settle into their own home.  The plant manager gives her a promotion and a raise to a job where she spot checks the work of the other workers, but she loses her friends because of it, so she goes back to her regular job on the floor.

When her father dies of a heart attack because his manager won’t let him take a break when he feels breathless, Norma Rae joins Reuben in his fight to establish a union.  She heckles and badgers her neighbors and works tireless hours with Reuben trying to convert people and get enough votes for the union to go through.  The plant managers try a number of tactics to break up the union organizers and one of them is to plant a letter on the bulletin board accusing black workers of running the union effort.  This leads to several beatings of African American workers.  Furious, Reuben asks Norma Rae to get the text of the message.  She tries memorizing it, but that fails and Reuben tells her that she must simply write it down.  She replies that she will be fired, but Reuben assures her the union will stick up for her.

Norma Rae 04She stands at the bulletin board writing down the message when she is confronted by management.  They bring her into the manager’s office and fire her.  She insists on writing down the names of all the managers present and they try to force her to leave.  As they escort her across the factory floor, she turns on them, defiantly proclaiming that they will have to get the sheriff to throw her out.  Standing up on a table, she writes the word “union” on a cardboard sign and turns in a circle showing it to the other workers.  One by one, they shut down their machines in support of her effort.

The sheriff arrives and takes her to jail.  Her one phone call is to Reuben who bails her out and takes her home.  She wakes each of the three children and sits with them on the sofa, explaining what she’s done and reciting her mistakes in life, showing them pictures of their fathers and telling that in spite of all of her mistakes, she has done the right thing in standing up for the union, that her freedom and their future is the most important thing of all.

Her example inspires more people to join the union and when the vote is taken, they narrowly win certification.  Before leaving town, Reuben asks her what she will do now and her answer is simple and concise:  “live.”

Based loosely on a 1975 book, Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance by New York Times reporter Henry P. Leifermann, the script by Harriet Frank, Jr. and Irving Ravetch fictionalizes the real Crystal Lee Sutton into Norma Rae Webster, placing the story in a different town, and creating characters different from the real ones in the original book.

Martin’s Ritt’s direction is terrific and one of the reasons Norma Rae is such a good film.  His use of the hand-held camera keeps the movie immediate and kinetic.  The other reason it is a terrific movie is the performance of Sally Fields as Norma Rae.  At the time, she was just beginning to overcome her early type casting as the joyful, innocent girl in the television show The Flying Nun.  Just prior to filming Norma Rae, she had won an Emmy Award for one of the best television dramas ever, Sybil, in which she played a girl with multiple personalities.  Part of what makes her performance so appealing is that she keeps it so down to earth.  Not once during the entire movie is she unbelievable as this uncomplicated, emotional Southern girl who must stand up for her rights.  It is such a good performance that she won the Academy Award for Best Actress.  It changed her life and broke her out of the mold she had been set in.

The supporting cast is excellent, including a terrific performance as by Ron Leibman as Reuben.  He was kind of shafted in the credits and advertising.  Beau Bridges was a bigger name and even though he has a much smaller role, he was given billing over Leibman.  Both Pat Hingle and Barbara Baxley are terrific, too, as are the children in their smaller roles.

This movie is very powerful and it holds a just place in film history.  It should be seen by everyone, but especially those who are unsure what unions are and how they came to be.  It is an excellent film.

Young Victoria

theyoungvictoria-2This review contains spoilers (as if history didn’t contain enough).

In 1836, when Princess Victoria of Kent (Emily Blunt), the heir apparent to the throne of England, first meets Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (Rupert Friend), she is in a very delicate situation, both politically and personally.

Her mother, the Duchess of Kent (Miranda Richardson) is heavily under the influence of her brother, King Leopold I of Belgium (Thomas Kretschmann), who devoutly wishes an alliance with Britain to keep Belgium safe from France, and Sir John Conroy (Mark Strong), the comptroller of her household, who wants King William IV (Jim Broadbent) to die while Victoria is still a minor so that the Duchess will be appointed Regent and he can rule England from behind the scenes.

Victoria herself is in rebellion against both of these constraints, siding instead with King William. She resents the control that Conroy exerts over her mother and she resents the domestic restraints that they both hold on her.  While she is ill, Conroy even attempts to force her to sign an agreement for a Regency, but she bats the document away.  Conroy treats her quite brutally, once grabbing her physically and throwing her on a sofa.  When her mother stands by and allows this to happen, she warns her mother that she will never forget it.

King Leopold decides that the best way to keep England friendly is to have his nephew, Prince Albert, become very friendly with Victoria, perhaps even marry her, so he sends Albert to England for a visit. Trained to know all of her favorite music, reading, and opera, Albert tries to forge a friendship, but Victoria sees right away what he’s up to.  Changing tacks, he decides to be honest and disagree with her when their opinions differ.  Immediately, Victoria notices and decides to give him a little slack.  The more they talk, the fonder they grow, gradually falling in love, until, at last, Albert must return to Germany.

When King William dies, Victoria has come of age and she makes a few quick decisions. Although she allows her mother separate apartments at Buckingham Palace (built by William, Victoria was the first regal tenant), but she banishes Conroy.  Making friends with Lord Melbourne, she takes him as an advisor.  Although she desires to improve the living conditions of the poor, Melbourne steers her away from that and arranges her household as he wants it.  When Melbourne falls from power, Queen Victoria refuses to change her appointments to suit the new Prime Minister and the government falls.  There is a huge reaction in the public against her, there are riots outside the palace, and in one instance, a window is broken by a flying object.

Confused and needing help from a friend, she calls on Prince Albert to come to her, not just as an advisor, but as a husband and they are finally able to consummate their simmering love. Just when things would appear to be quite well, Albert makes the mistake of making a decision without consulting her and Victoria reacts strongly, feeling that, like Conroy, he was attempting to rule England behind her back and they have a vicious quarrel.  At a public appearance, a gunman appears and tries to assassinate Victoria, but Albert takes the bullet for her, thus proving his real love.

The two then form a true partnership and rule England successfully for another 20 years when typhoid takes Albert. Alone, Queen Victoria then ruled England alone until she was over 80 years old, supervising England’s management (not always successfully) of the Industrial Revolution and leaving a false impression of extreme prudishness.

This film is beautifully made. The art direction, photography, costumes, locations, acting, directing, music, and photography are all first rate.  Much credit must be given to director Jean-Marc Vallée for imposing strict control over the length of the film and the editing.  Some period dramas like this run amok by running two or three hours in length, but the timing of this film feels just right.  The script by Julian Fellowes maintains as much historical accuracy as possible, while still bending reality to make it a pretty good movie.  It is focussed, as it should be, on the love story, but the love story is underpinned everywhere by the politics and Fellowes did a fantastic job of merging the two worlds.  Much credit should also go to Sandy Powell for her Academy Award winning costumes.

Emily Blunt is simply stunning as Victoria. She shows such a range of acting that I found myself completely won over within the first few minutes of the film.  Rupert Friend was a wonderful casting decision as Albert because he brings both restraint and passion to the performance.  The chemistry between these two is really terrific and one completely believes not just the love, but the political realities of both of them.

You don’t need a PhD in History to understand this moving love story that involves two kingdoms, ministers, lords and ladies. It is passionate, well-made, well-timed and beautiful to watch.  I highly recommend the movie!

Capote

Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-Capote

Bennett Miller’s film Capote is a well-crafted, thoughtful look at the process by which Truman Capote sculpted his novel In Cold Blood. The restrained control of color, minimal sets and costumes, and stark cinematography make this film so good that it should be studied in film schools as a masterful use of time and funding.

At the heart of the film, though, is a great performance by Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the diminutive novelist who followed his instincts to a small Kansas town to investigate the murder of the Clutters, a family of four, execution style, in their own home. The way he insinuated himself into their landscape was nothing less than audacious, especially for a flamboyant New York homosexual. Hoffman won the Academy Award as Best Actor for this beautiful, studied performance. He portrays Truman Capote as the consummate artist searching for the heart of the story and finding it in the person of the primary killer, Perry Smith, portrayed with restrained power by Clifton Collins, Jr. The relationship that develops between this unlikely pair is pinned on the fact that both of them had difficult childhoods.

Capote lies repeatedly to Perry to get the answers he needs. The heart of In Cold Blood resides with Perry’s unpredictable rampage that turned a robbery gone wrong into a heartless mass killing. The novelist takes his time to slowly lead Perry to tell the story until time runs out and he must manipulate the killer into telling how everything went down that night at the farmhouse.

A number of subordinate performances are also of extremely high quality, including Catherine Keener as Capote’s research assistant and brilliant novelist in her own right Harper Lee (To Kill A Mockingbird) and Chris Cooper as the officer in charge of the investigation.

I urge anyone interested in either filmmaking or the art of the novel to see this movie. It is truly brilliant.