Movie Name: Norma Rae
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Release Date(s): March 2, 1979
MPAA Rating: PG
Norma Rae Webster (Sally Field) has lived in a small North Carolina where the only source of income is the local cotton mill. Married to Sonny (Beau Bridges), Norma has seen the condition of the cotton mill take a toll on her friends and family. When a unionizer named Reuben Warshowsky (Ron Leibman) comes to town, Norma Rae decides to help change the cotton mill…and not everyone is happy about it.
Directed by Martin Ritt, Norma Rae is based on Henry P. Leifermann’s 1975 book Crystal Lee, a Woman of Inheritance. The drama was critically acclaimed and a strong pull at the box office. It won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Fields) and Best Original Song (“It Goes Like It Goes”) with nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay. In 2011, the movie was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.
The classic image of Sally Field holding up the Union sign is a lasting image from Norma Rae…and you know it even if you don’t know the film. Watching Norma Rae, the movie takes a mundane approach, but it does hold up…especially in today’s context.
The story is a combination of ideas. It is about a woman finding her voice in a male driven society, and it is about workers’ rights in a world where corporation have all the power instead of the workers…two issue that are once again being driven to the forefront in today’s society. The story is told in a rather laissez-faire way. It doesn’t push the drama, and it doesn’t really amplify it.
Sally Field was the “nice girl” of the time, and this was her big dive into big screen dramas after her breakthrough dramatic role Sybil…leading to a strong run through the early ’80s. The sexual-tension/non-sexual relationship between Ron Leibman and Sally Field creates an interesting triangle with Beau Bridges. Pat Hingle plays Sally’s father who becomes a representation of the consequences of non-unionized labor.
Visually, the movie has a very gritty, naturalistic look. The characters in the movie are sometimes deafened by the pounding sounds of the cotton mill. The movie smartly mixes the sounds in a way you can understand the power and loudness while still being able to understand the characters.
Norma Rae was a period piece that at the time focused on an under-explored area. Unfortunately, this area is once again ripe for exploration, and Norma Rae has become viable again. Norma Rae could be argued to be propaganda for unions, but I do believe that the lessons learned by the movie still apply and need to still be remembered.