Reality TV earns some much-needed respectability with this new documentary series from American Movie Classics. “Backstory,” a behind-the-scenes account of the making of some of Hollywood’s classic films, has the same addictive appeal of VH1’s “Behind the Music” and the delectable details of “E!’s True Hollywood Stories.” The movies featured in this 14-episode season read like a film school syllabus, and each half-hour episode is packed with history, trivia and insight encompassing pre-production and filming to awards ceremonies and beyond.
AMC debuted “Backstory’s” pilot more than a year ago with a feature on “Roman Holiday,” but only committed to the series this year, kicking off with “Backstory: Bonnie and Clyde,” debuting last week. “Backstory: Norma Rae,” the series’ second episode, explores the genesis of a movie that by traditional accounts should have never been made.
The hard-sell social drama, inspired by a New York Times article about a textile worker who tried to unionize a cotton mill in South Carolina run by the powerful J. P. Stevens company, was turned down by studios, directors and actors. Former blacklisted director Martin Ritt, attracted to the film’s social conscience, signed on, but the project was rejected by every A-list actress in Hollywood.
Up to that point Sally Field had been known mainly for fluff roles in “The Flying Nun” and “Gidget,” but she caught the attention of Ritt’s assistant with her Emmy-award winning performance in “Sybil.” Ritt fought the studio to bring Field on board, faced a tight budget and discovered the power of J. P. Stevens when the company shut out filming in just about every mill location in the South.
Through interviews with the film’s stars, producers and the director of photography, viewers learn how the movie took on a life of its own and became a surprise box office hit. “Norma Rae” was even used as a promotional tool by the Textile Union, which eventually organized a boycott of J. P. Stevens.
Field went on to win the Oscar for “Norma Rae,” beating out three of the actresses who originally turned down the role, including Jane Fonda, Marsha Mason and Jill Clayburgh.
The clips director and producer Michele Farinola utilizes for the episode, including Field’s post-Oscar interview, are illuminating, as are crucial scenes from the movie and still photos from the set. Further enhancing the production is Jeffrey Frey’s seamless editing and accompanying music by Tom Jenkins and Chris Many.