#491) Norma Rae (1979)

#491) Norma Rae (1979)

OR “Field Day”

Directed by Martin Ritt

Written by Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr. Based on the book “Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance” by Henry P. Leifermann.

Class of 2011

The Plot: Legally not based on a true story, “Norma Rae” is the fictionalized account of a woman who bares some resemblance to real-life union advocate Crystal Lee Sutton. Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field) is tired of the unfair working conditions at her job at a North Carolina cotton mill. When labor union organizer Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town, Norma Rae becomes interested in the idea of unionizing the textile mill workers. It is an uphill battle for Norma Rae, fighting antagonistic management, an unsupportive town, and her husband Sonny (Beau Bridges), who feels she should be at home with the kids more often. Despite these adversities, Norma Rae refuses to quit until she and her co-workers are treated fairly, even if it means iconically holding up a sign that reads “Union”.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls the film “less a polemical pro-union statement than a treatise about maturation, personal willpower, fairness and the empowerment of women.” In a confusing bit of irony, the accompanying essay by author Gabriel Miller focuses on the film’s male director Martin Ritt.

But Does It Really?: “Norma Rae” is primarily remembered today for the aforementioned shot of Sally Field standing on a table holding up a handmade “Union” sign. It’s a powerful moment, and while the rest of the film never matches this scene, it does hold together well. “Norma Rae” is not an untouchable film essential, but Field’s exceptional work, mixed with Ritt’s confident direction, makes for a memorable, empowering film with enough of a cultural legacy to warrant an NFR induction.

Shout Outs: At one point Reuben states, “I thought everybody down south was Ashley Wilkes.” No, real southerners have accents.

Seriously, Oscars?: A hit with critics and audiences alike, “Norma Rae” entered the 1979 Oscar race with four nominations, including Best Picture. While “Kramer vs. Kramer” was the big winner that night, “Norma Rae” took home two wins: Actress for Sally Field, and Original Song for “It Goes Like It Goes”. Don’t get me wrong: I love that song, but is it really better than fellow nominee “The Rainbow Connection“?

Other notes 

  • Martin Ritt became interested in the story of Crystal Lee Sutton after reading a profile about her in a 1973 New York Times article. When author Henry P. Leifermann expanded his article to a book in 1975, Ritt immediately bought the film rights. Getting Sutton to sign a release form proved difficult; Sutton wanted script approval, as well as the removal of all references to her promiscuity. Ritt refused (he felt her promiscuity would highlight the character’s eventual growth), and Sutton’s attorney turned down all offers. While the final film stays true to the real story, this behind-the-scenes impasse led to Crystal Lee becoming Norma Rae.
  • 20th Century Fox had little faith in “Norma Rae”, and gave it a budget of $4 million (by comparison, “Kramer vs. Kramer” had an $8 million budget). Martin Ritt helped keep costs down by using handheld cameras (no time wasted on complex dolly shots). Many of the shorter scenes are filmed in one uninterrupted take, and Ritt estimated that 70% of the final film is comprised of first takes. The efficiency of both cast and crew helped production wrap on “Norma Rae” 17 days ahead of schedule.
  • One of my favorite parts of this blog is discovering great performances by actors before they became self-caricatures. As Norma Rae, Sally Field is giving a dynamite performance free of the flustered quirkiness I associate with her later work. Field is also aided by a screenplay that allows Norma Rae to be a dimensional and flawed human who naturally evolves, rather than a preordained lionized hero.
  • I’m enjoying Ron Leibman in his only notable film role, but he’s leaning pretty hard into the New York Jewish stereotypes. Or maybe it just stands out more in a movie full of “rednecks”.
  • Beau Bridges doesn’t get much to do as Norma’s husband (apparently most of his scenes were either cut or not filmed), but his work here is good enough to stand alongside Lloyd and Jeff as part of the Bridges acting dynasty.
  • Perhaps the film’s most mature aspect is the relationship between Norma Rae and Reuben. There’s definitely an attraction (and a skinny-dipping scene!), but the two never “hook up”. In a post #MeToo world, it’s comforting to see a respectful, platonic male-female relationship in a movie, especially in a ’70s movie.
  • Norma Rae’s first big moment of defiance is transcribing an anti-union (and racist) flyer posted by management on a bulletin board. If only smart phones had been a thing back then: one snap and you’re done.
  • And now the climax of the movie: Norma Rae refusing to leave the mill, standing on a table, holding a piece of cardboard with the word “Union” written on it. Despite it being a cultural touchstone for 40 years, that shot is still powerful and impactful in its original context. Watching Norma Rae tear up as each machine is shut down is one of those perfect movie moments. The best thing about this whole scene is that it all actually happened to Crystal Lee Sutton.
  • It’s a good thing this is all a work of fiction and managers are never this openly hostile towards labor unions in real life, right? ….Right?

Legacy 

  • While the real Crystal Lee Sutton appreciated the pro-union stance of “Norma Rae”, she was displeased with the film’s emphasis on Norma while ignoring the contributions of others. And due to the negotiation breakdown between her and Ritt, Crystal Lee Sutton received zero money from the film. Sutton considered a lawsuit, but she thought better of it, opting to focus on union organizing rather than “personal compensation”.
  • Unsurprisingly, union organizers were quick to hold screenings of “Norma Rae” to promote labor campaigns. These screenings were instrumental in the 1980 public boycott of J.P. Stevens Textile products, a boycott which ended when their workers unionized. An L.A. fundraiser for the boycott in March 1980 led to the first meeting of Sally Field and Crystal Lee Sutton, one full year after the release of “Norma Rae”.
  • Primarily known for her television work at the time, Sally Field became a bonafide movie star thanks to “Norma Rae”. Side note: While Field did win an Oscar for “Norma Rae”, it was her second win for “Places in the Heart” that spawned her infamous “You like me!” speech.
  • While “Norma Rae” still gets referenced from time to time, it’s usually as a short hand for someone’s vocal activism (“She’s a regular Norma Rae”). And the clip of the “Union” sign shows up in a many a Great Movie Moments/Great Movie Heroes clip package.

3 thoughts on “#491) Norma Rae (1979)”

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