Silkwood (1983)

R | 131 mins | Drama | 14 December 1983

Director:

Mike Nichols

Cinematographer:

Miroslav Ondricek

Editor:

Sam O'Steen

Production Designer:

Patrizia Von Brandenstein

Production Company:

ABC Motion Pictures
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HISTORY

The film concludes with a title that reads: "The precise circumstances of Karen's death are unknown. It is also not known whether she had any documents with her. None were found. An autopsy revealed a high level of the tranquilizer Methaqualone and some alcohol in her bloodstream. Oklahoma police ruled her death a single car accident. A year later the plant shut down."
       The 18 Jun 1975 Var noted that Ms. magazine had entered into a partnership with two independent Hollywood companies to produce a film based on B. J. Phillips’s story, “The Case of Karen Silkwood,” which first appeared in the Apr 1975 issue of the magazine. The article stated that the working title for the film would be A Matter of Implosion. Nothing apparently came of this effort.
       According to the 10 Apr 1977 LAT, executive producer Buzz Hirsch, executive producer Larry Cano, and Carlos Anderson met at the University of California in Los Angeles [UCLA] in 1976 at a summer workshop in film production. Hirsch and Cano were already working on the Karen Silkwood story idea, and Anderson was an entrepreneur who was interested in “getting into the movies,” but with no idea how to do so. Carlos Anderson made contact with Silkwood’s family and obtained their blessing to pursue the project, and together they formed Carand Productions to move ahead. In her 14 Jun 1975 LAT “Movie Call Sheet” column, Mary Murphy reported that Jane Fonda was interested in making a film about Karen Silkwood.
       The 20 Dec 1983 Village Voice outlined the nine-year effort ... More Less

The film concludes with a title that reads: "The precise circumstances of Karen's death are unknown. It is also not known whether she had any documents with her. None were found. An autopsy revealed a high level of the tranquilizer Methaqualone and some alcohol in her bloodstream. Oklahoma police ruled her death a single car accident. A year later the plant shut down."
       The 18 Jun 1975 Var noted that Ms. magazine had entered into a partnership with two independent Hollywood companies to produce a film based on B. J. Phillips’s story, “The Case of Karen Silkwood,” which first appeared in the Apr 1975 issue of the magazine. The article stated that the working title for the film would be A Matter of Implosion. Nothing apparently came of this effort.
       According to the 10 Apr 1977 LAT, executive producer Buzz Hirsch, executive producer Larry Cano, and Carlos Anderson met at the University of California in Los Angeles [UCLA] in 1976 at a summer workshop in film production. Hirsch and Cano were already working on the Karen Silkwood story idea, and Anderson was an entrepreneur who was interested in “getting into the movies,” but with no idea how to do so. Carlos Anderson made contact with Silkwood’s family and obtained their blessing to pursue the project, and together they formed Carand Productions to move ahead. In her 14 Jun 1975 LAT “Movie Call Sheet” column, Mary Murphy reported that Jane Fonda was interested in making a film about Karen Silkwood.
       The 20 Dec 1983 Village Voice outlined the nine-year effort to bring the story of Karen Silkwood to the screen. Although Buzz Hirsch and Larry Cano had acquired the film rights to Silkwood's story and interested Jane Fonda in the project, with Warner Bros. set to produce, production plans unraveled when the Silkwood estate filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee, Inc., Silkwood's former employer, and both Warner Bros. and Fonda backed out of the project.
       Andrew Laskos reported in the 10 Apr 1977 LAT “Calendar” section that on 28 Feb 1977, Kerr-McGee subpoenaed Hirsch to appear for a deposition in an Oklahoma City, OK, federal district court, and to bring all his “films, tapes, scripts letters, notes and other research materials” pertaining to the planned feature film about Karen Silkwood. The 15 Apr 1977 LAT reported that Oklahoma City, OK, Federal Judge Luther Eubanks ruled against Hirsch in his effort to shield his research on Karen Silkwood from being subpoenaed by Kerr-McGee. On 1 Jun 1977, DV reported that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, CO, had agreed to hear an appeal against the lower court’s contempt ruling against Hirsch. The 2 Jun 1977 DV reported that the Writers Guild of America West had voted to lend legal and financial help to Hirsch, agreeing to provide an undisclosed sum of money and to file “an amicus brief . . . arguing that Hirsch has a First Amendment right to shield his film materials from subpoena.” A story by Jim Harwood in the 27 Sep 1977 LAT stated that the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision against Hirsch, and ordered the matter back before Oklahoma City Federal Judge Luther Eubanks for additional proceedings. Writing for the 10th Circuit, Judge William E. Doyle noted that Buzz Hirsch’s “mission in this case was to carry out investigative reporting for use in the preparation of a documentary film...He is shown to have spent considerable time and effort in obtaining facts and information on the subject matter in this lawsuit, but it cannot be disputed his intention, at least, was to make use of this in preparation of the film...It strikes us as somewhat anomalous that (Kerr-McGee) would argue that he is not a genuine reporter entitled to the privilege, implying a lack of ability, while at the same time they are making a major legal effort to get hold of his material. They must believe that it has promise for them in this lawsuit; otherwise, they would not be engaging in an effort of some magnitude in order to obtain Hirsch’s work product.”
       In his 9 Dec 1983 “Film Clips” column in the LAT, Michael London noted that in 1976, the Karen Silkwood estate initially sought $160,000 in the civil negligence suit against Kerr-McGee. During the trial, the attorney for the Silkwood estate raised the punitive damages sought to $11.5 million, and in 1979, a jury awarded the estate $10.5 million. The award was overturned in 1981 by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, citing that personal damages for plutonium contamination should have been handled through Oklahoma’s workers compensation system. The 10th Circuit did uphold a $5,000 award for property damage to compensate for the destruction of personal property in Karen Silkwood’s plutonium-contaminated apartment. The U. S. Supreme Court agreed to review the case in Jan 1983, and oral arguments were heard by the High Court in Oct 1983, with a ruling expected to be handed down early in 1984.
       In the 10 Oct 1980 DV, Morrie Gelman reported that ABC Motion Pictures, Inc. had twenty-five feature film projects in development, with fourteen “advanced enough to be assigned producer-writer teams.” Among the projects listed was Karen Silkwood, being developed by Hirsch and Cano with writers Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen. The 24 Aug 1981 Santa Monica Evening Outlook reported that Meryl Streep had signed to star in The Karen Silkwood Story, with Frank Yablans producing and Mike Nichols directing. Yablans was quoted as saying that Mike Nichols brought the script to him and recruited Meryl Streep. The project was totally financed and set to film in Jun 1982. Ultimately, Yablans was not credited as producer on the film. A trade advertisement in the 24 Mar 1982 Var referred to the film under the title Chain Reaction.
       Writing in the 12 Jan 1984 LAT, Deborah Caulfield noted that the Supreme Court decision was finally handed down on 11 Jan 1984, overturning the appellate court ruling that the Silkwood estate could not collect $10 million in punitive damages from Kerr-McGee. At the time of the ruling, the film Silkwood had been playing in limited release and taken in $10.8 million at the box office from 287 theaters.
       A community screening was held on Thursday, 8 Dec 1983, in Oklahoma City. Although five pairs of tickets were set aside for Kerr-McGee executives, only Kerr-McGee corporate communications manager Ann Adams attended for the corporation. Adams was quoted as calling the film a “highly fictionalized Hollywood dramatization” that depicted Kerr-McGee in a “false and defamatory manner.”
       The 19 Dec 1983 LAT noted that there would be a 13 Jan 1984 screening of the film at the Variety Arts Theater in Los Angeles, CA, to benefit the Legal Aid Foundation.
       In a 12 Feb 1984 NYT piece, reporter David Burnham published a piece about why he refused to grant permission for his name to be used in the film. Burnham was the reporter who was scheduled to meet with Karen Silkwood on the night of her fatal car crash in 1976. An article in the 20 Feb 1984 People magazine outlined the reactions of several of the real people depicted in the film. The 3 Jul 1995 People magazine reported that Drew Stephens, Karen Silkwood’s real-life boyfriend who was portrayed in the film by Kurt Russell, had been killed in an airplane crash while performing aerobatic loops on 14 Jun 1995.
       According to production notes in AMPAS library files, locations included Dallas, TX; New York City; North Central Texas; Albuquerque, NM; and Washington, D.C.
       Silkwood received Academy Award nominations in the following categories: Best Actress (Meryl Streep), Best Supporting Actress (Cher), Best Director (Mike Nichols), Best Film Editing (Sam O’Steen), and Best Screenplay based on material from another medium (Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen).
       End credits state: "Studio sequences filmed at the Studios at Las Colinas; Dallas Communications Complex; Irving, Texas." More Less

SOURCE CITATIONS
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
1 Jun 1977
---
Daily Variety
2 Jun 1977
---
Daily Variety
10 Oct 1980
---
Daily Variety
13 Oct 1981
---
Hollywood Reporter
17 Nov 1983
p. 3, 16.
Los Angeles Times
14 Jun 1975
---
Los Angeles Times
10 Apr 1977
---
Los Angeles Times
15 Apr 1977.
---
Los Angeles Times
27 Sep 1977
---
Los Angeles Times
9 Dec 1983
---
Los Angeles Times
14 Dec 1983
p. 1.
Los Angeles Times
19 Dec 1983
---
Los Angeles Times
12 Jan 1984
---
New York Times
14 Dec 1983
p. 27.
New York Times
12 Feb 1984
---
People
20 Feb 1984
---
People
3 Jul 1995
---
Santa Monica Evening Outlook
24 Aug 1981
---
Variety
18 Jun 1975
---
Variety
24 Mar 1982
---
Variety
23 Nov 1983
p. 14.
Village Voice
20 Dec 1983
---
CAST
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXTS
ABC Motion Pictures presents
A Mike Nichols Film
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
1st asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
Assoc prod
Exec prod
Exec prod
WRITERS
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
1st asst cam
2d asst cam
2d unit cam
Best boy
Key grip
Best boy grip
Still photog
Spec photog
Video asst
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Asst art dir
Asst to prod des
Draftsman
FILM EDITORS
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Asst film ed
Apprentice ed
Apprentice ed
SET DECORATORS
Set dec
Set dec
Prop master
Asst prop master
Const coord
Leadman
Gneral construction foreman
Construction foreman
Construction
Prod painter
Sign painter
COSTUMES
Cost des
Asst to cost des
Costumer
MUSIC
Mus comp and cond
Mus coord
SOUND
Sd ed
Asst sd ed
Asst sd ed
Prod sd mixer
Boom man
Cable man
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
Re-rec mixer
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
MAKEUP
Hair and makeup by
Hairstylist
Hairstylist
Makeup
PRODUCTION MISC
Casting
Exec in charge of prod
Scr supv
Transportation coord
Loc mgr
Tech consultant
Prod asst
Prod asst
Prod asst
Asst to Mr. Nichols
Asst to Mr. Nichols
Prod office coord
Prod office coord
Prod exec
Asst auditor
Prod assoc
Dispatcher
Caterer
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
DETAILS
Alternate Titles:
The Karen Silkwood Story
Karen Silkwood
Karen Silkwood 1946-1974
Chain Reaction
Release Date:
14 December 1983
Premiere Information:
Oklahoma City screening: 8 December 1983
Los Angeles and New York openings: 14 December 1983
Wide release: 27 January 1984
Production Date:
7 September--26 November 1982
Copyright Claimant:
American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Copyright Date:
27 January 1984
Copyright Number:
PA198874
Physical Properties:
Sound
Color
Lenses
Panaflex® Camera and Lenses by Panavision®
Prints
Prints by Deluxe
Duration(in mins):
131
Length(in feet):
11,801
MPAA Rating:
R
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
16780
Passed by NBR:
No
SYNOPSIS

Karen Silkwood and coworkers Drew Stephens and Dolly Pelliker arrive for work at the Kerr McGee Cimarron nuclear facility near Cimarron City, Oklahoma. Karen works in Dry Processing, processing plutonium and uranium oxide into nuclear fuel pellets. The plant manager conducts new trainees through the plant, and when asked about the effects of radiation exposure, answers that radiation is like sunburn, the kind of thing that cannot hurt you unless you are careless with it. When the lunch bell rings, Karen removes her protective gloves and attempts to rush out of her work area, but is called back by her fellow workers for not monitoring herself. She passes her bare hands across a radiation detector before leaving. In the lunchroom, Karen hears about a truck that became contaminated with radiation as the result of a container leak. She learns that her boyfriend, Drew, will have to work an hour late, and she cannot find Mace Hurley to ask permission to have Saturday and Sunday off to see her children. She notices Winston, a new worker in X-Ray Metalography. Drew asks if she likes him, but Karen responds, “As a matter of fact, he’s the type I hate.” When she catches up with Hurley, Karen is told that the plant operates twenty-four hours a day, and it is not possible to give her time off. As Karen tries to get one of her reluctant coworkers to take her weekend shifts, an alarm sounds. They believe it to be a test, but remark that, although test alarms are sounded regularly, they never actually evacuate the building, probably because it would ... +


Karen Silkwood and coworkers Drew Stephens and Dolly Pelliker arrive for work at the Kerr McGee Cimarron nuclear facility near Cimarron City, Oklahoma. Karen works in Dry Processing, processing plutonium and uranium oxide into nuclear fuel pellets. The plant manager conducts new trainees through the plant, and when asked about the effects of radiation exposure, answers that radiation is like sunburn, the kind of thing that cannot hurt you unless you are careless with it. When the lunch bell rings, Karen removes her protective gloves and attempts to rush out of her work area, but is called back by her fellow workers for not monitoring herself. She passes her bare hands across a radiation detector before leaving. In the lunchroom, Karen hears about a truck that became contaminated with radiation as the result of a container leak. She learns that her boyfriend, Drew, will have to work an hour late, and she cannot find Mace Hurley to ask permission to have Saturday and Sunday off to see her children. She notices Winston, a new worker in X-Ray Metalography. Drew asks if she likes him, but Karen responds, “As a matter of fact, he’s the type I hate.” When she catches up with Hurley, Karen is told that the plant operates twenty-four hours a day, and it is not possible to give her time off. As Karen tries to get one of her reluctant coworkers to take her weekend shifts, an alarm sounds. They believe it to be a test, but remark that, although test alarms are sounded regularly, they never actually evacuate the building, probably because it would shut down production. Gilda Schultz finally agrees to take Karen’s weekend shifts. That night, as Karen goes to her car, she hears a noise and goes to investigate. She sees a truck being cut apart, but when she asks what is going on, she is told to leave. Saturday morning, Karen, Drew and Dolly drive to Texas to take her kids to the beach. However, her ex-husband, Pete Dawson, has the weekend off himself, and tells Karen she should have talked to him as he has made his own weekend plans. He does allow Karen to take the children to a restaurant for a brief visit. On the way back to Oklahoma, Dolly asks how long Karen was married to Pete. Karen confesses that although they went to Louisiana, where they believed they could be married underage, they could not, and never actually were legally married. They were formally divorced, however, because their union was recognized as a common law marriage. Karen laments that she had the children in the car, and could have driven them to Oklahoma, but did not. Arriving at work on Monday, Karen is approached by a friend named Joe, who mentions he helped bury a contaminated truck Friday night. As she gets ready in the changing room, Karen learns that Gilda did not work her shifts, but Gilda informs her that the plant was shut down because of a contamination in their section right after Karen left. Gilda also mentions that the company believes Karen was responsible for the contamination in order to get the weekend off. She enters her work area wearing a full hazmat suit, and finds her coworkers similarly clad as the walls of the room are being scrubbed down by a cleanup crew. She complains about being unfairly blamed for the contamination, but Quincy Bissell, the union shop steward tells her the company has to blame somebody or risk accountability. Back in the plant, Thelma Rice, an older worker and friend of Karen’s, is “cooked” in a radiation accident. Thelma is taken to the decontamination room where she is showered down. Afraid that Thelma will get cancer as a result of her exposure, Karen urges the woman to listen to the doctor, who informs her that she only had surface exposure, and is in no danger after being scrubbed clean. Later, at home, Karen learns from Drew that Thelma only received twenty-four dpm’s [disintegrations per minute] of radiation, which he dismisses as "not super bad." He asks if Karen is just waking up to the potential danger of working with nuclear materials after almost two years. The next day, as she talks with her coworkers, Karen realizes that the doctor never gave Thelma a nasal smear, so he does not really know if she suffered any internal contamination. She urges Thelma to get the procedure. Later, Mace Hurley interrupts a birthday celebration for Gilda Schultz, and tells the Dry Processing employees to get back on the job. If they do not meet their contract goals, they will all be out of work. Karen attempts to pick up some birthday cake that has fallen onto the floor, but Hurley tells her to clean it up after her shift. As Karen leaves the Dry Processing room after vacuuming up the cake, she sets off the contamination alarm. She is scrubbed down, and told by the plant doctor to bring in urine samples every week. Later, Karen looks through a book supplied by the union, but which she is only now reading. She tells Dolly that all the information about “acceptable levels” of radiation is false, and that exposure to plutonium gives you cancer. Still later, Drew brings home news that Karen has been transferred out of Dry Processing into the Metalography department. She is upset, because the transfer means she will have to work three months before she can again qualify for overtime work. On her new assignment, Winston explains her duties, which include making photographic records of fuel rod samples. Karen catches Winston doctoring the photographic negatives to cover up imperfections in the fuel rods. At a union meeting, shop steward Quincy informs the workers that Kerr McGee has obtained enough signatures to hold a decertification vote. When he seeks volunteers to help him reach out to union members, Karen volunteers. Drew does not believe Karen has the political skills to be an effective negotiator, but she believes she can sit across the table from Mace Hurley as an equal. In time, Dolly begins dating a beautician named Angela. Drew becomes upset when Angela moves in to the house Dolly and Karen share, and Karen spends all her time on the phone with union matters. Karen suggests to Quincy that they involve the national union in their cause, and they land a meeting in Washington, D.C. with the national union and the Atomic Energy Commission [AEC]. The president of the national union informs Quincy and Karen that they can only win the decertification election based on health and safety issues, and promises to send doctors to talk with the Cimarron workers. The union president leaves to catch a plane, but Karen follows and tells him about the doctoring of the cross-section photographs of fuel rods intended for the Hanford, Washington, Breeder Reactor. The president asks for proof of her claims. Back in Oklahoma, Drew is upset when Quincy shows slides of the Washington, D.C. trip, and in the photos Karen appears to be flirting with attorney Paul Stone. On their way home, Drew asks if the company was aware of Karen’s trip to Washington, and that she is spying for the union. He informs Karen that he quit working for Kerr McGee, and moves out of the house. In the Metalography department, Karen goes through Winston’s desk drawer looking for doctored photographic negatives. Winston catches her, but she convinces him she was only using the drawer to store allergy medications not allowed in the plant. After doctors talk to the Kerr McGee workers, Winston confronts union lawyer Paul Stone, questioning why the union has only come in now that there is a pending decertification vote. He believes the company is looking out for its employees, and that if issues are raised, Kerr McGee will shut down the plant, putting the locals out of work while Stone will return to his job in Washington, D.C. Paul Stone does return to Washington, and he falls out of communication with Karen. She calls to tell him the union won the election, 80 to 61, but only reaches his answering machine. In time, Angela returns to her husband, leaving Dolly feeling rejected, just as Karen feels rejected by Paul Stone. At the plant, Gilda Schultz mentions that her husband has been working late flushing out pipes because the plant has come up more than a kilo short on plutonium. When Karen takes notes, her coworkers leave the room, concerned that her union activities will threaten their jobs. Karen finally speaks with Paul about several incidents at the plant, but he is more concerned with evidence of the doctored photographic negatives. Karen is shunned by management as well as her fellow employees. When she goes to Dry Processing in an attempt to speak with Gilda, she is rebuffed, and as she leaves the area and flashes her hand in front of the radiation monitor, she again sets off the alarm. Although the plant doctor informs her that the exposure level was acceptable, he orders her to start bringing in her urine samples on a daily basis. In declining health, Karen hits a deer as she drives home, and asks a passerby to call Drew. Soon, when she comes into work, she sets off a radiation alarm as she enters the plant. A team is sent to her house with a Geiger counter, finds the building contaminated, and takes everything out of the house. Mace Hurley suggests that Karen contaminated her own house, believing she would do anything to hurt the company. In turn, Karen believes her urine samples have been tampered with. She is told her latest nasal smear has a reading of 45,000 dpm. Hurley offers to get Karen a place to stay and help her with money, but first she must make a statement in her own words about what happened. She refuses, and drives away. Drew returns to the stripped house to reminisce about his days there with Karen, and takes the spare key left above the doorframe as a souvenir. Winston drives up and asks what Drew is doing there. Unable to contain his rage, Drew hits Winston, knocking him to the ground. He returns to his new home and finds Karen there. She tells him the company has contaminated her and is trying to kill her. Drew makes plans to take Karen to Los Alamos, New Mexico, where doctors are well versed in the effects of radiation. There, doctors inform Drew and Dolly that, although they have been exposed through contact with Karen, their radiation is within safe levels. Karen, however, is told that they have discovered americium, an element released when plutonium disintegrates. Based on the level of americium, they have determined that she has a level of six nanocuries in her body. The maximum body burden for occupational exposure is forty nano curies; however, the tests she has undergone may be off by as much as 300 percent. Afterward, Karen telephones Paul Stone, asking him to come to Oklahoma City with a New York Times reporter. Back home, Drew suggests they move to New Mexico and have babies, but Karen fears they would have developmental defects. The next morning Karen sets out for a union meeting and asks Drew to pick up Paul Stone and the New York Times reporter at the airport. At night, after she leaves a cafe, a car follows Karen as she drives home. The glare of headlights in her rearview mirror blinds her. Later, her car is found crashed by the side of the road. Her tombstone reads: Karen Gay Silkwood; Feb. 19, 1946; Nov. 13, 1974; Rest In Peace.” +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.