Saturday, November 7, 2015

1979: Sally Field for Norma Rae

Sally Field plays the title character, a poor textile worker who helps fight to unionize her mill, despite fierce opposition from the people in charge and apathy from her fellow workers.

In my mind, this is exactly what a Best Actress Oscar winning film should be. It's a powerful story with a woman at its center, and the way the story comes across depends mostly on the way the leading actress plays her role. When you see her at the beginning of the movie, she has to be very non-threatening, to make it easy to understand why the people in charge aren't too concerned when she starts working with the union guy. Sally Field is short, pretty, and unassuming, but she can also be very intense when she wants to be, and she uses those traits at exactly the right moments in this film. Norma Rae starts out accepting that her life is always going to suck, but her journey begins when she realizes that it doesn't have to, and that there's something she can actually do about it. Field lets us see her character's frustration and anger simmer closer and closer to the surface as her temper gets shorter and shorter, until she finally snaps at the climax. This progression is executed perfectly, and I'm convinced that no one could have done it better than Field. She absolutely deserved this Oscar.

Considering that at the time Sally Field was best known for her television roles as quirky, fun characters in "Gidget" and "The Flying Nun," it's a testament to her incredible talent that she could play such a completely different type of role convincingly enough that audiences accepted her. The studio wanted a big name in the title role, but personally I think that would have been a mistake. The movie's message is that you can do anything if you fight hard enough, which Sally Field demonstrates not only in the movie itself, but also by even playing the role in the first place, thus breaking out of her stereotype and immediately changing the direction of her career. This message would have been less strong had an established star played the role. And I don't think any of the established stars who were offered the role could have played it as well as Field anyway.

This was Field's first Oscar nomination. She also won her second, for 1984's Places in the Heart, when she gave perhaps the most infamous Best Actress acceptance speech in Oscar history. Part of it was actually quoting something her character said in this movie, but very few people seemed to catch that. Anyway, I'll talk more about her soon, but in the immediate future I'll be blogging about Sissy Spacek.

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