I’m off this week, which means I’m way busier than usual. Watching movies, listening to music, reading books. That’s what I call busy!
Oh yeah, and cleaning house. After enough of that, I need a break.
So I’ve been staying real busy.
Day before yesterday brought back-to-back, first time viewings of The Assassination of Richard Nixon (2004, Niels Mueller directing, Sean Penn’s show all the way, 95 minutes that felt much longer), followed by Norma Rae (1979, Martin Ritt directing, Sally Field’s show all the way, 110 minutes that made time stand absolutely still).
Penn nailed his performance. There was never a moment when I wasn’t saying to myself, “boy that guy can really act.” Of course, he didn’t get inside the killer with sociopathic tendencies he was playing (a gentleman named Sam Bicke, based on one Sam Byck, who actually did try to assassinate Nixon by hijacking a plane and crashing it into the White House), because, well, Sam, however his last name is spelled, was a killer with sociopathic tendencies.
It’s not really a place the Method can take you, try as actors, writers, et al, will.
Or, to put it another way, it’s not a place the Method can take you unless you’re not planning to come back (a place only Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire has ever been willing to go in front of a movie camera when playing anyone dangerous…her exact quote was “it tipped me over into madness,” which in real world terms meant she was hauled off her next movie set in a strait-jacket).
One thing I know about Sean Penn. He’s always planning to come back.
I bring this up because I wonder how much time our “culture” has actually spent trying to get inside the heads of the violently deranged.
More time, I’ll wager, than we’ve spent celebrating any textile mill workers, even those occasional heroes in the fight for basic labor rights.
I’ll grant you there are a lot of pitfalls to doing anything really good–as opposed to “worthy”–with a story like Norma Rae. Martin Ritt had worked magic with everything from The Spy Who Came In From the Cold to Hombre, to Sounder, so, with a fine cast assembled, he probably could have been trusted to at least keep the thing on track.
But I had my reasons for staying away from it all these years.
The union-is-coming-to-save-us narrative (which I rightly suspected was at the heart of the thing) was hardly uncomplicated for somebody like me, who lost a mother to brown lung acquired during a twenty-year stint in an unprotected textile mill not unlike the one in Norma Rae and nonetheless had about the same use for unions as my father, who once spent an off-season from the carny circuit working in an auto plant where the union was firmly enough established to threaten square pegs (my dad’s natural born state) with the very same tactics used by employers in places where the square pegs were union organizers like the one played by Ron Leibman in Norma Rae.
I figured it was just going to be a pure shot of Hollywood-style two-hanky adrenalin then, and I’d need to have my bullet-proof heart-valve safely installed whenever I did get around to watching it.
My real qualm, though, was being none too sure about what Sally Field could do with a southerner (the record of southerners playing southerners in Hollywood is deeply mixed…that of non-southerners not named Vivien Leigh playing southerners is considerably worse). Mind you, everybody in the south likes Sally Field as much as everybody everywhere likes her and, back in the days when Norma Rae was being cast, shot and released, she was sort of an adopted daughter. Anyone in this part of the world would have been very surprised indeed to learn how hard she (and Martin Ritt, to his everlasting credit) had to fight for the right for her to carry even a small budget movie because nobody in Hollywood considered her a big enough star.
Apparently those people had never heard of Smokey and the Bandit!
I’m sure none of them had ever heard of Heroes, her first chance at a serious part on the big-screen, which might well have changed how the world felt about her and both of her co-stars (Henry Winkler and Harrison Ford) if the behind-the-camera talent had been on the order of Martin Ritt and his crew.
So it wasn’t like I had anything but fond feelings for Sally Field, before or after they handed her an Oscar. Loved her in Smokey and the Bandit. Loved her more in Heroes.
I had no doubt she had probably been just fine in Norma Rae, even if they did give her an Oscar for it.
And “just fine” wasn’t going to be good enough for a movie that was going to kick me in the heart valves if it was anything but completely incompetent, which, given that Martin Ritt directed it, I knew it wouldn’t be.
It wasn’t going to be good enough if she was only as good as she was playing a southerner (at least I think that’s what she was playing) in Forrest Gump, which I’ve never quite seen, but have seen enough of to know I don’t exactly need to see the rest.
It wasn’t going to be good enough even if she was only as good as she was playing Mary Todd Lincoln, where she was very good indeed.
If somebody wants to kick me in the heart, take me inside the world my mother married my father to escape, then no “performance” was ever going be quite good enough to earn the right. And knowing that was the main reason I couldn’t ever quite get around to either watching Norma Rae or entirely putting aside the idea that I needed to watch it.
So one day this week I was fingering my stack of unwatched movies and I suddenly decided it would make a perfect followup to the pluperfect professionalism of Sean-Penn’s-show-all-the-way in The Assassination of Richard Nixon.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I put my bullet-proof-heart-valve-vest straight on. Set my tissue box to hand (okay, I have what we call “sinuses” which means not just any old sinuses but sinuses that “act up,” so I generally have my tissue box to hand anyway but I don’t always double-check before popping in a DVD if you know what I mean).
I fully prepared myself, therefore, to accept the thing for what it was bound to be.
And it turned out to be exactly what it was bound to be and exactly what I was prepared for it to be.
All of it.
Except for Sally Field playing a southerner.
So-Cal-acting-class-Flying Nun-Gidget-Enquirer-bait (well, when she was dating Burt anyway) Sally Field.
Making time stand still.
(Alabama’s Opelika Cotton Mill, where Norma Rae was filmed in 1978, circa 1908: Library of Congress. Mill abandoned, 2004.)
(Above and below: Cannon Mill in Concord, NC, about a generation before my mother started working in the one in Kannapolis: Library of Congress: Cannon Mill sold to Fieldcrest, 1984; sold to Pillowtex, 1997; bankrupt, 2003. Cannon brand now licensed and headquartered in Hong Kong.)
or pretty much any other frame in a movie that would just be a movie (and no doubt quite a good movie) except for the improbable thing she made of it.
Life as somebody in a particular time and place might have lived it.
Not necessarily as my mother lived it (though I wish I’d given myself a chance to ask her). Probably not quite as Crystal Lee Sutton (nee Pulley), the inspiration for Norma Rae, lived it. Certainly not “movie life” as we are accustomed to having it delivered to us, from Citizen Kane on down, in a neat, small package we can carry around in our pockets.
But life just the same. Life with enough force to live outside of the movie celebrating it or, as it turned out, the Overlords bent on crushing it.
Good thing. Because, in the real world, crush it they did.
If Field’s Norma Rae Webster had been who and what the logic of even the most supreme craft dictated she should be, the movie and the performance would be well-made curios now. The unionization the film celebrated was a heartbeat away from having its own heart ripped out. Adjusted for inflation, the nation’s handful of remaining textile workers (since amalgamated into a larger union) now make about what Crystal Lee Sutton was making the day she decided not to take it any more. Whether they make it in somewhat better working conditions is probably in the eye of the beholder. Let’s say I have my doubts.
Because wherever they are weaving and folding the bulk of the towels these days, I’m guessing you can still get a brown lung in there.
But, once upon a time, Sally Field went beyond craft. So Norma Rae ended up being something more than a finely wrought tract or “story” or even “narrative,” something that might actually survive the well-planned economic blight and not-entirely-unplanned cultural collapse that were nesting inside the very events the film depicted to a tee.
A hundred years from now (go ahead and laugh if you think it will be longer) when whoever is picking over our bones decides they really want to know “Just what the Hell was an ‘American’ anyway?” they could do a whole lot worse than to start with what So-Cal Sally Field did here when she stripped herself away and made time stand still.