Sunday, May 20, 2018

Norma Rae

SPOILER ALERT! The plot will be discussed.
This 1979 film is an appropriate follow-up to last week’s North Country as it too deals with female empowerment in the workplace. Here, the story (also based on a true one) takes place in a small southern American town in 1978, and the industry is textile manufacturing. Although the plot revolves around the attempt to unionize employees, the focus is on a man and a woman who forge a nonsexual bond that enhances both of their lives.
The movie opens to the sweet sound of Jennifer Warnes voice singing the Oscar-winning song “It Goes Like it Goes,” about blessing the hands of the working man as we see pictures of Norma Rae (Sally Field in her first Oscar winning role) as she grows up. But all of this nurturing has occurred within the boundaries of this insulated, poverty-constricting environment. That melodic music is harshly contrasted with the next scene inside the mill where the sound of the manufacturing machinery is deafening.  This counterpoint seems to imply that the voices of the workers are drowned out by toiling under punishing circumstances, and they are rendered unable to hear the voice of another who argues against their way of life. In fact, Norma’s mother, Leona (Barbara Baxley) can’t hear her own daughter speak during a break (yes, the whole family works here, because it is the only industry in the area, and, thus, the company has all of the power over their lives in the absence of choice). And, Norma’s voice is ignored when she complains to the company doctor that the hearing loss will eventually become permanent. In this scene, we do see that Norma is already defiant against unfair treatment as she says to her mother, “They don’t care about you.”
During that work break, as Norma talks with a fellow employee, we immediately get a feel for how the meager income existence has not left much opportunity for enjoyment here. The friend’s only excitement was jarring a large amount of fruit on the weekend. Norma uses humor to cope with her situation. When asked what she did, Norma says, “I soaked my feet.” But, her friend noticed that Norma was with a man with a nice car, and Norma readily admits that she spent time with him at the motel. But, her sleeping around can, at least in part, be understood as wanting to escape the dreary drudgery of the work week. When her father, Vernon (Pat Hingle), worried about her going out to meet men, asks where she is going as she prepares to leave the house, she sarcastically says she is going to buy underwear, some Kotex, and then she’ll be so worn out by all the excitement, she’ll have to come home. We do witness that she cares about her two children as she limits how much “junk” they watch on TV, and instructs them to finish their homework.

There is a switch to the other main character, Reuben Warshowskey, (Ron Leibman, who was robbed of at least an Oscar nomination for his powerful performance). His last name implies that he goes to “war” to help workers and “show” them the need to unionize. Although we learn that he has a great deal of experience as a union recruiter, he is a foreigner to these parts, and is suspect as an outsider. He goes to the door of one of the locals saying he’d like to board with a mill worker. The home owner asks him what kind of name is Warshowskey. There is the suggestion of anti-Semitism, which Reuben deflects when he says that his name is the kind you have to spell out. The scene shows the cultural barrier he must deal with. That negativity toward his Jewish background becomes overt when Reuben inquirers at Norma’s house. Her father, with Norma observing the encounter, is hostile toward union people, telling Reuben they are, “communists, crooks and Jews.” Vernon, like many others, has been indoctrinated to demonize anyone who will challenge the entrenched familiarity of the status quo.

Norma meets Reuben at the town’s motel lobby, where she is waiting for a man for a sexual encounter, and he is looking for a room, since he has been rejected at each home at which he stopped. Although these two are from very different worlds, they share a few similar experiences. Norma tells Reuben to make sure they spray his room for roaches, and he says with a smile, “I am very familiar with roaches.” There are unsavory places in all parts of the country. There is no smile on Norma’s face after having sex, and she tells the fellow that it’s the last time, the situation not making her feel good about herself, given that he is married, and the gossip can get ugly. Her reaction shows how she wants more for herself, but that she gets involved in this type of activity implies that she doesn’t have high enough self-esteem to expect to be in a good relationship. His reaction is demeaning, comparing her to a prostitute, having been paid with a steak dinner and pralines, and she is there to make him feel good, not her. We have the sexual double standard in full force here, as well as later in the film. He says she is a hick, with dirt under her fingernails, and he is outraged that she would have the nerve to dump him. His superior attitude makes him think he has the right to be abusive, and he then hits her as punishment for her even considering that she, a poor woman, is as good as he is. Reuben hears the commotion from his room and offers Norma some ice to put on her bleeding nose. She takes responsibility for her actions by metaphorically saying, “If you lie down with dogs, you get fleas.” By placing these two scenes sequentially we see contrasting ways that men treat women. The local male has an unevolved, closed minded attitude toward Norma, while Reuben, from a metropolitan area, where there is a free flow of ideas to question accepted beliefs, treats her with nonjudgmental kindness.

She enters his room (his world?) where she sees a picture of his girlfriend. The woman, Dorothy Finkelstein, is a Harvard graduate, Jewish, and a hotshot union lawyer.  Thus, the outside world offers a woman the opportunity to actualize her talents. He has a lot of books in the room, unlike many of the people in the area, who have been brought up to only use their bodies for labor, but not to exercise their minds. Norma, who has been so cut off from the truth of what lies beyond her surroundings, admits to never having met a Jew. Bigotry grows in ignorance, and she says that she was told that Jews have horns, suggesting the analogy to the devil. After meeting Reuben she concedes that falsehood, and says that he is just like them. Outwardly yes, but he points out to her that being a Jew makes him different. She asks what makes that so. His response is “History.” He is already expanding her perspective.
Reuben hands out flyers in front of the cotton mill at the beginning of the work day to persuade the workers to join the Textile Workers Union of America. Norma takes one of the sheets of paper, and now she starts to help him. She says that he used too many big words, thus showing that he has to better understand the people there for him to win them over. Inside the factory, a worker tells Norma that a supervisor wants to talk to her. Norma, so used to come-ons from other men, says that she already turned the supervisor down for dinner. The messenger says maybe the other man wants to make it breakfast, implying the desire to sleep with her. As in North Country, we have sexual harassment very much in existence here, where all the power resides with men. The supervisor tells Norma (and informs the audience) that she has already been outspoken concerning changes in the workplace. He says that she has the “biggest mouth,” asking for more work breaks, additional time for smoking breaks, Kotex machines, etc. To shut her up, he says she’s promoted to the position of spot-checker, and she gets a $1.50 an hour raise. She lives with her parents and wants to be more independent in order to take care of her children, so she takes the position. But, she knows it won’t earn her any friends, having to report on how fast the workers perform their tasks. She must even push her own father to pick up the pace of his duties.
Reuben and Norma continue getting to know about each other and their worlds in humorous and serious ways when they meet at a local baseball game. He can’t even eat one of the local hot dogs, pointing out it isn’t anything like one from Nathan’s of New York, and she says that the local hot dogs contain a lot of different food colorings and a great deal of stuff he doesn’t want to know about. Ellis Harper (John Calvin) confronts Norma saying she looks fine, basically making a sexual overture, Norma is a bit embarrassed as we can see by the way she shoots a sideways glance at Reuben. She says that maybe he should show up to see his son. He says he can’t do that and leaves. She tells Reuban that Ellis got her pregnant with her son, and he hasn’t been good for anything since. Despite admitting to her mistake with Ellis, she shows that she exercised some control over the situation when asked by Reuben if she married Ellis. She says, “He didn’t bother. I didn’t bother.” Reuben shares the story of his first sexual encounter which was with his piano teacher. The husband came home, cried, and Reuben felt badly, and the three shared some tea. His sophisticated New York experience is quite different, and amusing in contrast. But it is also significant that he relates a story about how a woman was looking for sexual satisfaction, subverting the typical double standard belief that it is only the male who needs to seek sexual gratification. Norma comments that what must Reuben think of her, always being hassled by some man when they meet. He tells her, “I think you’re too smart for what’s happening to you.” His statement shows that he acknowledges Norma’s intelligence, provides her with validation of her worth, and offers urging for her to escape her situation.
At work, Norma encounters Sonny Webster (Beau Bridges), who acts strangely, jumping from one task to another so Norma can’t track his activities, and clownishly diving into a bin filled with cotton. He later shows up at Norma’s house and apologizes for his actions. He says that he was just served his divorce papers, and it triggered his unorthodox behavior. The two knew each other as children, showing the smallness of small towns, and he invites her out for a drink to make up for what happened earlier. At the bar, Sonny admits that he had a gun and thought about using it against his wife and her boyfriend, but says he couldn’t do that. He admits that his wife was a good person, but somehow she changed. Norma admits to being different now, too, which probably refers to not only what has happened in her past, but also Reuben’s effect on what she wants to do with her life. She hears a song playing that was what she heard when she found out that her husband, the father of her daughter, was killed in a bar fight. The lives of these afflicted people are fraught with sadness. Norma sees Reuben and invites him to join them. This little action shows the resistance to outsiders as Sonny doesn’t want the intrusion. But, it also shows how Norma is more open to inviting someone, and something, new into her life. Sonny is polite though, but says to Reuben that there better be more than just himself to fight the rich guys, who have all of the power. Reuben has only had club soda, so he becomes the designated driver when the other two become drunk. When he has to pull over because Norma is ill, it is Reuben who sticks with her as she becomes sick, again showing how he is there for her.
Norma gets the silent treatment from her friends at work because she has joined the ranks of the supervisors. The only word one says to her is “Fink.” She quits the new job, and realizes that was management’s purpose all along. They wanted to cause ill will toward Norma on behalf of the other workers, and wanted to show her that she couldn’t have it both ways, because being a supervisor means sacrificing congeniality with the other workers. When she returns to working the machines, she is again accepted by her fellow employees.
Sonny proposes to Norma in a very unromantic manner. Because their lives are under such economic strains, Sonny feels the need to compose his proposal in practical terms. He says that he can fix anything electrical, started a new job at a gas station, and will turn over his paycheck. They have brought their children on their date to show what they are getting into together. Norma says it’s been a long time between offers, as if this is a business deal. But, she does ask him to kiss her, although it is to seal the deal, and says if the kiss works, then everything else will be okay. They are married at a tiny ceremony with no frills. Sonny, in a toast to Norma, says he hopes he “can keep up with her.” Just like Reuben, he knows what a force of nature Norma can be, and he accepts it, and doesn’t make it his goal, like other men in the region, to try and break her will.

Reuben speaks to a small gathering of potential union members at an African American church. Blacks in this country know about oppression and are more willing to aid a cause to fight imposed injustice. Reuben’s speech emphasizes the power of people in large numbers, noting that over eight hundred union workers of various beliefs and ethnic backgrounds showed up at his grandfather’s funeral in New York. He comes from someplace else, to bring them alternatives that do not exist in their socially insulated community. Though the workers at the funeral came from different backgrounds, they had fought together and “they were one. That’s what union is.” He notes that the textile industry is the only one that was not unionized in the United States. A lucrative business that has no checks on its economic power means “they are free to exploit you, to cheat you, to lie to you, and to take away what is rightfully yours - your health, a decent wage, and a fit place to work.” It does not seem like a great deal to ask.

Norma witnesses, and is inspired by, Reuben’s inspection of the mill, which is in compliance with a court order that insures that his union notice has been posted inside the building. He has to show strength as he is escorted by intimidating burly management goons who call him by an ethnic slur, and place his notice so high up that, as Reuben says, “Wilt Chamberlain on stilts” could not read it. He threatens them with calling his lawyers to issue a contempt order if they do not comply with the law. He gets them to place the post at eye level. They have also placed obstacles in front of the other bulletin board, and appear to be ready to physically intimidate Reuben until a large African American worker, sympathetic to the union organizer, appears and quietly protects Reuben. Reuben is the outsider, who threatens the company’s way of life by simply providing the workers with information so that they can make an informed choice about their livelihood.

Reuben is the catalyst that ignites Norma’s fiery potential to make a difference. She signs up to help unionize the mill. She goes to the head of her white church, Reverend Hubbard (Vernon Weddle). She wants to use the church for a union meeting that will have blacks as well as whites in attendance. The Reverend does not see that his church should get involved in a secular issue, and says, “This is a house of God.” Norma’s smart reply is, “I’m waitin’ to see whether it is or isn’t.” She is all in in her new found purpose and is willing to leave the church if Hubbard does not comply. For her, and the minister of the black church, God’s house should be open to fighting against unfairness and economic slavery. Reverend Hubbard, however, allows his institution to religiously give a stamp of approval to the entrenched system that segregates the races and keeps the population impoverished. He says to her, “We’re gonna miss your voice in the choir, Norma.” Her witty, defiant reply is, “You’re gonna hear it raised up someplace else.” She is declaring that her female voice will no longer be stifled by white men in power.

Instead of the church, Norma offers her house for the meeting. She does not try to hide this fact, but instead courageously tells her neighbor, one of the mill’s supervisors, what is going on, and humorously says that the he can see what’s going on through recently cleaned windows. Norma is throwing down the gauntlet, and is ready for battle. Sonny, afraid of what the community will do, says she is going too far inviting black men into their home. Norma’s wit again shines, pointing out the false fears that maintain an oppressive system, when she says black men haven’t caused her any trouble. Only white men have done that. Reuben allows the workers to speak now so that they become empowered by giving voice to their concerns. One woman says that she isn’t allowed a break when her menstrual cramps are very bad. One black worker sums up their predicament when he says that their work should not be a “jail sentence.”

Reuben says the small turnouts mean he is not getting the word out. Here is where Norma becomes his mentor. She tells him that if the workers don’t come to him, he must go to them. They hit the countryside, changing ties, whittling sticks, and generally meeting the members of the area. She can relate to the people, and knows about what the moms bake, and whose kids have the measles. Reuben here is the “fish out of water,” as Norma calls him, and at one point falls down in the mud on a local property. The next scene is a meaningful one. Reuben swims in a creek as Norma tries to clean up his clothes. It is very hot and she decides to jump in, too. They are both naked, but sexuality is not an issue with these two. So, there is no gender discrimination involved. They are two equals, stripped of all societal constructs that have been created to use as leverage against each other. He says that on a day like this one back home he would work out, go to an opera, and eat Chinese food. He says that she would like it in New York, as he realizes that she is open to new things. For her part, she tells him it’s safe in the water, and it’s only minnows swimming up against him. She does observe that he has a “skinny build.” She says that Sonny works out with weights, but Reuben says he tried that and dropped one on his foot. She says that he doesn’t have to work out because he has a head on his shoulders and knows how to use it. In a way the watery scene symbolizes how Norma and Reuben are reborn, she into his way of life, and he into hers.

She later comes across a book of Dylan Thomas poems in his room, and asks why should she “bother” to read it if it’s difficult to understand. Reuben says “maybe he has something to say to you,” which is what outside knowledge can bring to expand circumscribed ignorance. She says she will give the book a try, and he says don’t read it while eating because he doesn’t want food on his book. His Jewish influence on her is evident when she comically says, “Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.”

Another memorable scene occurs when Norma is up late, telling Sonny that she has to make a hundred phone calls to try to sign up people to join the union. He spits out sour milk because she hasn’t gone shopping, and complains about the lack of clean laundry and the eating of TV dinners. Norma jumps up and runs around throwing clothes in the sink with dish soap, tossing a roast in a water filled pot, ironing clothes, and saying “You want” this and “You got” that. She even says that if he wants to make love she can lift up her nightie and have sex while she irons. By acting this way she satirizes all of the numerous chores traditionally assigned to a wife, and shows how she will not fit into that outdated role by giving up her union activities; so, those wifely activities will be compromised. To Sonny’s credit, he gets it, laughs, and kisses her.
The viciousness of the company meanwhile is in full force. They reduce the workers’ days to three a week, but the days are long with less weekly pay. Norma’s dad is not looking well to her, and when he asks for a break at work because he needs to lie down, he’s told to hang in there until his break. In a powerful shot, his arm stiffens up and he drops dead of a heart attack right into one of the bins. Norma is even more committed to the union cause now. However, the film does not show all union officials in a good light. A couple of them come to Reuben’s room while he is at the printer’s, and Norma complains about the lack of supplies and support at the national level. When Reuben returns, the two big shots want to cave into local prejudices concerning the double sexual standard. They say the fact that Norma has an illegitimate child, has a history of sleeping around, and allegedly made a porn movie (a bit of fake news) means she is hurting their cause. Outraged, Reuben tosses them out, showing how he will not be compromised by those with unenlightened beliefs.

The company now tries to stir up racial trouble by posting a statement on the bulletin board that says that the blacks want to take over the union and boss the white workers around. An interracial fight breaks out, and after Norma informs Reuben of what’s happening he tells her he needs her to record what the bulletin says. She courageously defies the supervisors, but at the loss of her job, as her boss says she was using the company’s phone for private use. She stands up in the middle of the mill holding a sign that says “Union” on it. The other workers show their support by turning off their machines, stopping production. Norma is hauled off, kicking and screaming, and booked for disorderly conduct. She calls Reuben, who bails her out. She cries on the way back home but Reuben tells her of much worse stories of those who tried to unionize companies. He talks of a pregnant woman hit in the stomach with a club, a sixteen-year-old boy shot in the back, and a guy who whose car blew up when he started it. His words remind us of how hard it was to earn the rights many workers now take for granted.
At home, Sonny questions Reuben why Norma called him and not her husband. Reuben says she knew he could make bail. Sonny echoes what he said about his first wife, that Norma has changed. But, Reuben, announcing Norma’s liberation, says that Norma stood up on that table, defied what was trying to keep her down, and is a free woman. Either Sonny can accept that or not. Later in their bed, Sonny asks if Norma ever slept with Reuben. She says no, but he’s in her head. Perhaps that joining can be more profound than a physical one. Sonny seems to accept that, but shows his commitment to Norma, and accepts her freedom, by saying that he will stick with her in sickness, bad times, and old age, and nobody else is in his head.
The workers vote to join the union. Reuben’s work there is done, and is ready to move on. He and Norma say their goodbyes, and express their gratitude for what each has given to each other. But, fittingly, they do not give each other a farewell hug or kiss. They shake hands, showing that their coming together was one of mutual respect and admiration, separate from any connections to their genders. The movie ends as it began with Jennifer Warnes singing. The lines from the song are ones that we can all join in on, with one voice: “Maybe what’s good gets a little bit better/And maybe what’s bad, gets gone.”

The next film is Coming Home.

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