SILKWOOD, smoothly directed by Mike Nichols, was a substantial success in 1983, making back more than three times its cost and drawing critical acclaim which included five Academy Award nominations. Written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, with a few name tweaks and adjustments, it’s the true story of a labor union activist who made a lonely stand against some truly scary public safety abuse by her employers. The somber story fits in with a clutch of respected pictures honoring beleaguered women fighting powerful odds to bring about some measure of justice, noble company that includes Norma Rae (1982), Marie (1985), Erin Brockovich (2000), North Country (2005), The Whistleblower (2010) and Official Secrets (2019).
In the 1970s, Karen Silkwood (1946-1974) worked at the Kerr-McGee Fuel Fabrication Site in Crescent, Oklahoma, where she first witnessed, then fell victim herself, to poisoning from radiation exposure. Her experience prompted her to investigate the very uncooperative company’s lax safety measures; she then found deliberately hidden flaws in their producing (faulty) fuel rods for nuke plants. Her untimely demise came as she was in the process of revealing some really bad news for her employer. Convenient?
Meryl Streep, 33, fresh off Sophie’s Choice, inhabits Silkwood, Kurt Russell is laid back as her live-in boyfriend, Drew Stephens, and Cher drabs herself down as their lesbian room-mate, ‘Dolly Pelliker’ (modeled from the real-life Sherri ‘Dusty’ Ellis). Aside from their excellent work, the movie is stuffed with character actors who would become familiar in subsequent years: Fred Ward, Craig T.Nelson (creepy), Ron Silver, Diana Scarwid (funny as Dolly’s move-in fling), Bruce McGill, David Strathairn, Josef Sommer, Sudie Bond, M.Emmet Walsh, Charles Hallahan, Tess Harper, Ray Baker and Will Patton. *
Oscar nominations went up for Best Actress(Streep), Director, Supporting Actress (Cher), Screenplay and Film Editing. Produced for $10,000,000, it earned $35,600,000, bringing it to 19th place among a bumper crop fine films released in 1983. 131 minutes.
* Cher is quite good as ‘Dolly’, the role drawing her respect as a serious actress. The real-life Dusty Ellis had enough flamboyance and incidents in her post-Karen life to warrant her own movie. She died in 2012, age 59.