Thursday, November 15, 2012

Sally Field in Norma Rae

I imagine how Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh and Marsha Mason all must have been like "DAMN!" when Sally Field took home the Oscar over them for a role that they all passed on. Sally Field basically swept all the awards for her performance as the textile worker Norma Rae, who's fighting for a union in Martin Ritt's Best Picture nominated film, Norma Rae. I don't really think that her win came as a surprise for anyone, save for Bette Midler maybe, who still seems to be somewhat pissed by this particular loss of hers. Although Sally may not have won by a landslide, I think she pretty much had it in the Oscar in the bag.

One of the reasons for having an advantage over others was that Sally Field was starring in an important, controversial movie that received a Best Picture nomination. And I have to agree with The Academy here: Norma Rae is a profound, upsetting and uplifting piece of work, which is a beautiful story of a woman's development as well as a political movie. It deserved all the nominations and was worthy of the Oscar for Best Original Song for the moving theme of "It Goes Like It Goes". I was also wondering whether or not the other actors deserved nominations for their respective performances. On the one hand, I'm not sure since 1979 was a strong year in Best Supporting Actor.

On the other hand, Norma Rae is The Sally Field Show and therefore she overshadows every other actor in the movie, no matter how beautifully they support her (this is not criticism in any way, it's more of an observation about the movie itself). If there's an actress to whom a one-woman-show is suitable, it's Sally Field who always dominates the screen with her non-apologetical, almost shameless emotionality. She approaches her characters emotionally rather than intellectuall, which made her the perfect choice for complicated women, like M'Lynn from Steel Magnolias, Maggie Wyczenski on ER (Abby's bipolar mother) or her latest role, Mary Todd Lincoln. And that's also why I think her work in Places in the Heart didn't work on every level. Her persona is just not fit for being toned down, she's way too vivid and colorful to play ordinary, repressed women.

Of all the possible choices for Norma's part, I don't have difficulties imagining Jane Fonda or Marsha Mason as Norma since I believe that both of them would have done an excellent job portraying the soul of a revolutionary (for Jane, it wouldn't have been a real challange) and yet I'm glad that even Jane turned down the part (mind you, this rarely happens to me). Sally Field made Norma Rae her own in such a way that she herself also disappeared completely into her. There are no boundaries anymore between the character and the actress. She applies The Method in the most in the most unusual and exciting way, fabulously adjusting herself to the character and vice versa.

I've seen people being turned off by Sally's very first scene where her character is yelling to the doctor about how her mother became deaf and although it indeed feels like being kicked in the butt right away, I felt that was necessary for the introduction to the character. Norma is not a person who likes beating around the bush, she's the kind of person who's wearing her heart on her sleeve and doesn't hold back anything. However, I felt that, unlike Bette Midler, Sally tried not to completely get carried away by the part because overacting could easily work with The Rose, but it could have ruined Norma's character completely. I was delighted by the fact that Field figured out that Norma was a raw and emotional person, not a wreck. Sally exceptionally balanced subtlety with over-the-top screaming and all of that served the character.

Also, what totally amazes me about this performance is that Norma Rae is not far as baity as it sounds, it's just a damn difficult part to pull off and yet Sally succeeded brilliantly. First of all, Sally's Southern accent is just impeccable and so believable that I actually looked up where she was born after I finished the film (she's a California girl, actually). It really is an authentic portrayal of a Southern working-class woman without any pity or feeling of superiority from the actor's part. Sally portrays Norma with the maximum amount of compassion and understanding.

And this is probably the greatest achievement of Sally, which was most definitely the reason why she won the Oscar: this passion about her character is almost contagious. Not only do we sympathise with her as her audience, but we also get to see her values, we get into her head and she revolutionises our way of thinking about the issue of the movie. I suppose Martin Ritt was aware of the fact that the movie's success and effect was all due to Sally and I guess choosing the actress who gave the world The Flying Nun was risky (even though she'd given an acclaimed performance in Sybil). However, Sally, in my opinion, did more than communicating "the message", she made us all decide what we think about the importance of an issue. And this kind of a move can be so refreshing among Hollywood movies when everything is all prepared for us and we don't even have to think. Sally touches both your heart and your brain as Norma.

Also, the way she develops this character is nothing short of extraordinary: she portrays Norma's awakening so brilliantly. She points out that Norma may not be the most educated or intelligent, but her courage and passion sets the screen on fire (to say the least). As I said, her passion is contagious. Norma is actually in many ways like Kimberly Wells from The China Syndrome: she gradually becomes aware of the world surrounding her and it's in every way an uplifting journey for the viewer as well. Sally didn't choose to be as subtle as Jane, I don't think one can hold that against her since subtlety simply doesn't fit the character.

Sally is seriously so fantastic in this movie and her acting works on so many levels that I can't even choose her greatest scene. If you're looking for a subtle one, her conversation with her children is the one that stands out the most: the quiet tenderness that seems strange from that character at first becomes so effective and heartbreaking in just two seconds and Sally conveys so many emotions in the that quietness. However, if you're looking for a big scene that went down in film history, the big riot in the factory has to be the standout. She's loud, unapologetic and totally brilliant and makes you associate the word "union" with her forever.

Quite simply, Sally Field is perfect as Norma Rae. She developed this character with great care and expertise and you just constanly feel how much compassion she has for this woman. Every single scene, every single monologue of hers is exceptionally done by her, making it especially difficult not to fall in love with her and the character. A deeply affecting, wonderful, unforgettable performance, the true highlight of a great actress' career.

What do you think? :) 


mrripley said...

great review & ron leibman did deserve a supporting actor nom,i love sally and think she was the best of a weak 84 bunch.

Anonymous said...

I sort of felt a Sally Field victory coming, though I'm sure it will be at least a somewhat tough decision between her and your beloved Jane.

I'm not very well acquainted with Sally Field, but she is always so damn lovable.

dinasztie said...

mrripley: Thanks. She's not my favorite there.

Derek: It is a tough decision. But I've already got my ranking. I'll post it today.

Louis Morgan said...

Well this certainly will be a close one I think.