On March 2, 1979, Martin Ritt turned 65 and walked down to his local Medicare office in Palisades Park, California, to declare his eligibility. Being a loyal union man, Ritt went on orders of the Director's Guild. He doesn't need Medicare. Ritt is sitting easy, as his new film, Norma Rae, has delighted almost everybody, starting with Vincent Canby's kudos in the New York Times. Even the clownish TV reviewers have gotten behind Ritt's movie about unionizing in the textile-mill South. "Gene Shalit flipped over the picture," Ritt told me, in his suite at New York's Sherry-Netherlands Hotel. "But earlier, when Shalit walked into the screening, the first thing he said was, 'I hope the union loses.'"
Norma Rae-simple, straightforward, humanist seems also to be the movie that has swung important film cultists over to Ritt's side, after his twenty years of making features. Andrew Sarris became an overnight convert in his Village Voice review. He adored Norma Rae and even apologized for a gratuitous snipe at Ritt he had made one week earlier in an obituary for Jean Renoir. The Seattle Film Society, as elite and learned a bunch of film freaks as exists in America, is offering a Ritt retrospective this month. "I haven't been a critics' star before. I haven't been sought out," Ritt said. "I've just gone my merry way."
The reason for neglect of Ritt can't be lack of interesting pictures: Hud (1963), The Spy Who Came In From the Cold (1965), The Molly Maguires (1969), Sounder (1972), and The Front (1976) are five exemplary works. What sems to have kept the cineastes away from his door are three factors, in ascending importance (1) his down-home, casual personal life, never acting the romantic role of movie director; (2) his anti-artsy approach to filmmaking, an insistence of story/content over style;(3) his commitment to didactic narratives and to a left-wing, social-realist aesthetic, tendencies which most film critics, a liberal-apolitical lot, can't abide.
"I never had any desire to be part of the Hollywood social scene," Ritt said. "I've been to two Hollywood parties in my life." A transplanted Brooklyn Jew who tried to enlist to fight fascism in Spain and then turned to acting and directing left-wing theatre groups in New York City, Ritt has little in common with his sunbaked industry neighbors. His favorite director is Satyajit Ray, his favorite film of recent vintage is the call-to-revolution The Battle of Algiers. Around LA, he might be found at the track with Walter Matthau, another New Yorker, or lounging at home in one of his forty-three $42 liesure suits, all he ever wears. ("If a thief opened my my closet, he'd scream. 'For what?'" Ritt joked about his momunentally horrendous wardrobe.) Otherwise, Ritt will be on the road shooting. Pete 'n' Tillie (1972) is the only one of his twenty-one pictures to be made exclusively in a Hollywood studio. "I like rural America," Ritt said. "I like cowboys and working stiffs. I go to the sections of the country where there is change."
In Hollywood, Ritt is known as a rigorous disciplinarian who works his actors hard, demanding two weeks of rehearsal prior to shooting; and he insists that his performers learn the script and stick to it. Or else. As a result, his films look calm and rational and clear, never as if some fevered, eccentric genius put them together. You wouldn't mistake a Martin Ritt picture for a film by Orson Welles or by Nicholas Ray.
"I think form in film is exaggerated," Ritt opined. "I don't want anything to interfere with the story." James Wong Howe's mannered, incandescent photography of the coal mines in The Molly Maguires is the exception that proves the point: Ritt's films are visually prosaic by intention. There are rarely flashbacks and never fancy, show-off editing. "I think guys of my generation relate more to linear films. We start a story and tell it in sequence," Ritt commented on his doggedly old-time studio style.
What makes Ritt a genuine auteur, however, and an auteur to champion, is his unwavering commitment to progressive political themes within the Hollywood form of storytelling. That's exactly what has turned aesthete cultists away. "My points of view have always been independently left," he said. "I'm not afraid to reflect that." Martin Ritt is true grit. This is the man who has made six Hollywood features attacking racism: Edge of the City (1956), Paris Blues (1961), The Great White Hope (1970), Conrack (1974), Sounder, and Norma Rae.
Edge of the City was among the first integrationist films, with Sidney Poitier as a union man who brings fellow worker John Cassavetes home to dinner. Their white-black friendship becomes threatened by the bigotry of foreman Jack Warden; thus Ritt connected racism with class and labor issues, incredibly daring for his debut film as a director. "Metro was in a proxy fight at the time," Ritt recalled. "They were involved in their internecine power struggles, and the film was finished before anyone knew what was going on. Edge of the City was a success d'esteem; but it didn't make any money because they couldn't get bookings on account of the racial issues."
Sounder, made for less than $1 million, was his most financially successful movie, and Ritt's well-loved black family foretold the future American adoration of the folks in Roots. However, Ritt was criticized in militant circles for not deferring to a black director. Ritt's answer was unequivocal. "I say that's the worst kind of racism. When they say the film is phony because I'm white, I say fuck 'em."
If black nationalists jumped on Ritt, white liberals took his side too easily, using Sounder and later Conrack, with a kindly white teacher (Jon Voight) among black children off the South Caroline coast, as examples of the kinds of films which were good for African-Americans to see, instead of the violent ones. In one of his finest moments, Ritt penned a 1972 letter to the New York Times disassociating himself from his liberal bedfellows and siding with Shaft (1971) and Superfly (1972). "Black audiences are delighted," he wrote. "They are for the first time seeing black heroes or even antiheroes on the screen and, incidentally, hearing in many of these films anti-white sentiments, which black audiences are only too happy to applaud. It gives vent to some of the accumulated and very understandable anger that has been stored up all these years."
Norma Rae continues Ritt's racial concerns by demonstrating how management tries to bust up union organizing by dividing black and white workers. Here at work is Ritt's didactic impulse, his desire to use the cinema to fill in gaps about American history and politics left out of the textbooks. The Molly Maguires, the personal favorite of his movies, was a lesson in American labor history about the violent struggles for union recognition in nineteenth century America. The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, perhaps Ritt's most underrated movie, "outgrimmed" John Le Carre's novel in its blistering attack on Cold War mentality. Ritts' The Front was the first Hollywood film to deal with the shameful in-house story of studio blacklisting. Ritt ought to know-he was blacklisted himself for six years.
He had graduated through the Group Theatre, including understudying John Garfield in Golden Boy, to a fabulous career in early television as an actor, writer, and director. Note the first name: Marty, by Paddy Chayevsky, was written, Ritt said, with himself in mind for the lead. Instead, quoth the victim, "The shit hit the fan."
Besides belonging to left-leaning theatre troupes, he'd directed trade union shows, signed petitions to recognize Red China. Suddenly, his contract with CBS was not renewed. He returned to teaching acting at the Actor's Studio (among his students were Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward). His wife, Adelle, went to work selling advertisements in the Yellow Pages. "An amazing woman," Ritt said within earshot of his spouse, who had accompanied him to New York for the plugging of Norma Rae. "Without her then? God knows."
One day Ritt was offered an out.
In an office at CBS, he was told, "Marty, television is growing up. We need a guy like you." All he would need do is take out a full-page ad in the Times or Variety saying, "I was a dupe. I was taken in. And at various meetings I went to, so-and-so was there." They didn't care whom he named. It could be dead people. "They were only interested in thought control, in breaking my spirits. I may not be the most judicious political thinker in my lifetime, but I understood that. I said, more or less, 'Fuck you! I've gotten along without you, I'll manage.' And I did manage."
Ritt's answer became translated into Woody Allen's "Fuck you" to the HUAC hearing, the rousing ending to The Front. This conclusion led to the same criticism that is being leveled at Norma Rae by some skeptics: it's a contrived "up" ending. The filmmaker had no trouble here. "I'm looking for something affirmative in every situation," he said, the perfect social realist. "For the union not to win the election in Norma Rae would be too depressing." Ritt is more disturbed that, with The Front, he had to couch the unpleasant realities of blacklisting within a comic, satiric form. "I would like to tell about that period straightforward, like Norma Rae. It was a bad time. I hope to bump into another story, so I can make another, more factual picture about that period."
Can movies really affect political thinking? Martin Ritt remains a leftist Hollywood optimist: "You know, George S. Kauffman said, 'You'll never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.' I really don't believe that. They aren't dumb. They are misinformed. They don't understand. Often they've been accused of being naïve and idealistic, but I really believe that if people are genuinely informed they'll behave well. Given the proper choices, they'll make the right decisions."
The Real Paper, March 17, 1979 (slightly revised)