Murphy’s Romance (1985)

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Despite the pure 80s-ness of the synths, I cannot help but be charmed by Carol King’s vocals in the opening track to go along with an entire score she composed for this film. It introduces an understated tale of a young divorced mother (Sally Field) and her son (Corey Haim) who are setting up camp and a new life for themselves. It’s a real fixer-upper they’ve acquired, epitomized by Sally Field chucking her boot at a rat as it scurries back into the shadows. 

However, she is defined by a do-it-yourself mentality — the of kind quality we admire in her within the first few scenes. In spite of a lack of capital, they make the shell of a ranch into a real home that’s livable even as they are still trying to come to terms with the alien community they now find themselves in.

In many ways, the rural Arizona town proves to be an analogous slice of Middle America with much of what Martin Ritt captured over the course of his career from the Huds to the Norma Raes of the world. This particular one has a local druggist named Murphy (James Garner), a widower who drives an antique car with a windshield plastered with a couple of his prime causes.

In his first interaction with Mrs. Emma Moriarty, he describes his home impeccably with four words, “Small, warm, and nosy.” It becomes instantly familiar. What we have on our hands resonates with me for the simple fact I recognize this small town. Not because I lived in it — not by a long shot — but I’ve spent time in such places just passing through or visiting family. We see at least one old friend in Charles Lane, the chipper elderly man who has found love again at the ripe young age of 89.

Otherwise, Murphy is quite the local celebrity. It seems like every middle-aged lady is having him over for bridge or dinner — something nice like that — so much so that most of his evenings are booked up. He’s a generally hot commodity and people like him. Emma soon sees his charm too. She struggles to get a loan at the bank to jumpstart her business to train and board horses because she’s a woman. The town still holds to those archaic traditions.

Though he won’t give her money outright, Murphy does bless her in more subtle ways. First, by introducing her into the folds of the tight-knit community and also directing business her way — starting with the fine horse he buys at a local auction. It’s in these scenes Garner and Field build a rapport that feels about as genuine as they come. While not necessarily romantic, they begin to enjoy each other’s company and the chemistry continues to grow. They care about one another.

The most obvious complication in the story occurs when Emma’s former husband Bobby Jack (Brian Kerwin) comes back to town. It’s as much to mooch money off his former spouse as it is to see their son whom he has all but neglected.  

The fact the casting seems poor might contribute to the fact that Field is simply such a mismatch for her husband. They have little in common as far as interest or vision or overall drive. He has zilch — prizing partying and good times over any type of breadwinning integrity. If anything she supports his leech-like ways.

A bit of Bret Maverick starts coming to the surface again, most memorably over a poker game where Garner coolly calls Bobby out to the porch to have a talk with him. He’s also not too interested in the gory human hamburger, monster movies at the local movie theater that coincidentally enthrall Bobby. This is coming from a man who hasn’t watched a movie since The Duke died. When he’s had enough he walks out and sits on a bench to chew the fat.  

As ludicrous as it seems, a bit of a tug of war begins. Even as Murphy feels a tad too old to be courting Emma, Bobby Jack has no right to her based on his lack of character. The older gentleman gets his new acquaintances into the Elk’s Club for Bingo night. There are ensuing feuds between Murphy and his jealous rival on the dance floor defusing themselves through comedy. Bobby’s renewed advances on Emma far from being passionate conclude with sneezing in the hay. Then, things take an even weirder turn when the loafing ex-husband gets his own visitor. 

Ultimately, it is a birthday part providing a stage to look over a life and give thanks for an existence full of relationships. We’re back to the small-town atmosphere again. The near lackadaisical pacing plays a part in it too. 

In an age of R-rated comedies, action films, and whatever else, Murphy’s Romance is in danger of being railroaded by its more ostentatious competition. But the fact there is no gratuitous sex or violence remains its ace in the hole. Instead, it relies wholly on the grace of its two stars who more than oblige.

Truthfully, in my mind, there would be little reason to watch this slight story without Sally Field and James Garner. The fact Brando was initially wanted for the part is nearly laughable. He couldn’t pull it off like his Sayonara (1957) costar and the chemistry with Sally Field would not have gelled in the same exquisite manner. 

Field lent such peppy candor to parts all the way back to her Gidget days, which saw her bloom into a quality talent with perennially accessible charm. It’s important for Garner to be just as approachable — a man who often asserted he never wanted anyone to catch him acting — he’s so natural, making it all look easy. We like him for it.

Their conversations amble along — the way real people interact — people who have made mistakes and deal with them in the normal way. People who manage kinship through an invitation for dinner there or a random act of kindness here. They harbor jealousy, don’t always say what they’re feeling, and their love language is connotated through quality time more than anything else.

Murphy’s Romance is charming for precisely this understatement. Tact is something so often lacking in this hypercharged world of ours. The romance mentioned in the title is warranted but some viewers might be taken aback by how it exerts itself. There is an underlying decency and a tenderness to it all.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Norma Rae (1979)

Norma_rae_ver2.jpgIf you had any trouble possibly liking Sally Field before — consequently, one of the sweetest actresses ever to cross the screen — then there’s little gripe to be had with her any longer. Norma Rae really does feel like a gift for her. Both as a story to be a part of and a character to portray since both speak to us intuitively as an audience. 

Marty Ritt offers a story that is as close a representation of his work as you might find — a narrative that’s not flashy but more importantly and yet still meaningful and chock full of human characters and conflicts. However, it’s not just sharing those elements for the sake of it. There is a rational impetus behind it all, setting out to shine a light on social grievances in order to enact some form of change. 

Again, he gets a script from husband and wife powerhouse Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch who fortuitously helped define his career with stories such as The Long Hot Summer (1958),  Hud (1963), Hombre (1967), and this feature.

Its authentic inspiration stems from real life textile champion Crystal Lee Sutton, a worker in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. She spearheaded the unionization of her textile mill in an industry that has long held out against any regulation partially due to bullheaded leadership and ignorant lay workers who didn’t know any other life. There’s the arc in a nutshell. 

 Because Norma Rae (Field) is one of those people and she’s lived within a community of the very same folks all her life. Her father struggles to keep up with the strict regimen, her mother is losing her hearing systematically, and Webster has a couple young kids though she’s never officially married. As they might say, when she was a young woman, she knew a couple of men in the Biblical sense. 

Part of what makes her so likable is the trait of a genuine straight-shooter with the alacrity to do what she sees fit. When Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) sets up shop in town long-term, to try and get support for a union, most of the locals are wary of the outsider. Norma Rae asks him almost innocently, “Are you a Jew?” He responds in the affirmative and she responds that she’s never met one before. 

Though Reuben is a congenial fellow, he’s the definition of a fish-out-of-water, bred on New York society with a quality education, Dylan Thomas, and an attorney girlfriend waiting for him who his mother loves.

Ron Leibman does a fine job in the role because he doesn’t just play it charismatic and likable through every beat. He manages to skirt this fine line where there are genuine flashes of malice where we question Reuben as a person. Is he simply taking advantage of people or forcing others into a vision of what he thinks will be good for them? He even acts like a grade-A jerk and a bit of an instigator when he’s feeling up to it. 

Thus, Norma Rae grounds him as someone who does have a full stake in this fight, in this community, and this story. This is her job, her family, her reputation all put out in the open — all on the line and she’s willing to go for it. That takes true gumption and a fighting spirit few individuals can muster. Boy has she got it. She’s also capable of the southern cajoling that made men like LBJ such effective movers and shakers. 

However, the film constantly plays with this tension within her. Because she’s not a rich person by any means. When she’s given a promotion to a spot checker, her hourly rate goes up incrementally and she subsequently loses the respect of all her colleagues as someone who has gone to the enemy. The relationships mean more to her than the pay just as a better future has greater precedence over sacrificing her time and pouring heart and soul into Reuben’s cause.

Norma Rae also has a pulse of the ultimate good which is admirable. She goes to the local church — an all-white establishment — posing two questions to the reverend she has known all her life. First, asking if he would call her a Christian? He smiles and nods, with a lapse or two, yes.

But then, more pointedly, she asks if he would call himself a Christian? He’s still so caught up in the idiotic dogma that blacks and whites cannot mix. And yet for Norma Rae, the bottom line is there ought to be justice — and the church, if it’s really going to practice what it preaches, must be involved in this same dialogue.

It’s not always the words spoken but the images seen that leave a lasting impact. A funeral sequence in the rain. No words just a hearse being lowered into the ground inch by inch. The point is made better than any eulogy by man There’s Norma Rae transcribing an anti-union message on toilet paper to pass on to Reuben or the heart-to-heart she has with her kids to head-off any of the scurrilous slander they might pick up. There’s her furious struggle as two policemen try and drag her to a police car. 

Likewise, Field standing up with a cardboard cutout simply scribbled with the block letters “UNION.” She slowly circles around, resolutely, again and again. People notice her, stop for a moment of consideration and then all turn off their machines in a simultaneous act of solidarity and defiance. 

This particular sequence goes on for several minutes and the sequence is allowed to unwind wordlessly as we slowly hear the din grow progressively dimmer. It could have easily been cut down to its bare essentials and yet in this way the full brunt of the impact has been made apparent as we are forced to contemplate the full gravity. It’s an everyday action that takes on monumental dramatic importance. 

The same could be said when the ballots are read in consideration of the new union. It’s back and forth. The tension again is palpable but it’s the jubilation on the faces that captures me. In every one of these instances, Ritt gives the immaculate illusion he lets it happen. No tricks. No extra flourishes. Just all right there for us to be a part of. He’s at his best with human stories of fully realized people working through things of seemingly genuine importance. That is Norma Rae to a tee. 

4/5 Stars