NORMA RAE -- AMC Carrollton 6, DuPont Circle, K-B Georgetown Square.
She drinks beer while he drinks seltzer water. Her most memorable sex experience took place in the back seat of a Cadillac; his was when his Hungarian music teacher seduced him during the lesson and her weeping husband joined them afterward for a glass of tea. His idea of what to do on a free day is to play handball at the Y, see "Aida" at the Met, "eat Chinese" and play a little poker. Hers is going down to the drugstore to see if the new Cosmopolitan is in.
She is "Norma Rae," a southern textile worker in the movie by that name, and he is Reuben, a Jewish labor organizer from New York. It's a dear and corny story, played with lovable grubbiness by Sally Field and Ron Leibman, but it's not about what you think. Norma Rae is happy to marry a kind simpleton called Sonny who works at the gas station, and Reuben's heart belongs to Dorothy Finkelstein, a hot-shot Harvard labor lawyer back in New York.
What Norma Rae and Reuben are making in this film is not love but union solidarity.He has come to her town to organize the textile workers at the plant where she has been an unorganized agitator.
The non-union factory has come to represent, in recent films, an odd Eastern equivalent of the Old West, the stage where good battles evil. Perhaps brought up on Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger songs, filmmakers use the theme of unionizing to tell, with simple clarity, a saga of the individual's need to wrest his dignity from the power of evil.
The director of "Norma Rae," Martin Ritt, and the writers, Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr., have given this story an early-20th-century intensity and optimism. The idealism shown here betrays a yearning not only for the simplicity of the old class struggle, but for the intellectuals' faith in reform.
Norma Rae and Reuben both have T-shirt-and-blue-jean bodies, and one cannot imagine their ever wearing anything else, but they are not quite modern. After Reuben interests Norma Rae in her rights, he introduces her to reading Dylan Thomas, whose place in the college galaxy slipped some decades ago. This also suggests that Norma Rae's sense of justice is not enough, that she ought to be seeing "Aida" and eating Chinese, because morality and educated wordliness are linked.
One concession to modernism is that the post-1960s southern bosses have learned it is not a good idea to beat a man up when he recites his legal rights. Considering that they are classic bad guys, who would let a man die rather than go early to his break, they act with restraint. There are no scenes in this film of heads being bashed in.
And a false lead in the plot, which has New York labor leaders complaining that Norma Rae isn't a nice girl, is so dated that the hero has to laugh it off the screen. Even nostalgic filmmakers can't resurrect that one.